Carousels can be traced back to games of horsemanship that reached their height as spectacles of pageantry in seventeenth-century France. These events devolved into an amusement for the masses that was revolutionized by the English invention of a portable center-mounted steam engine that could support the weight of three or four rows of horses on a rotating platform. When a German businessman began to manufacture such steam-powered English “roundabouts” on a large scale in 1883, the era of the carousel truly commenced.
In the United States, carousels developed in the waning decades of the nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth, just as the country experienced one of the greatest waves of immigration, mostly from Eastern Europe. At the same time, the American appetite for amusement continued to grow, along with time for leisure activities and the disposable income to afford them. Gustav Dentzel, a German immigrant, pioneered the modern carousel industry in America when he formed the G.A. Dentzel Company in Philadelphia in 1867. By 1876 another woodworker, Charles Looff, had created the first carousel at New York’s Coney Island.
This elegant horse was carved by Charles Carmel, who came to America in 1883 and settled in Brooklyn, near Coney Island. Carmel may have learned carving in Russia, and he apprenticed with Looff in America. When Looff removed to Rhode Island in 1905, Carmel opened his own woodcarving shop, contributing to the formation of the distinctive Coney Island style. His horses are renowned for their dramatic poses, jeweled decoration, and sweet faces. This example is a stander, a stationary horse with at least three hooves on the ground. In 1911 Carmel planned to open his own carousel in Coney Island’s Dreamland Park. When the park burned down, Carmel’s carousel and entire financial investment were destroyed with it, and he closed his shop by 1925. Carousel carving continued through the 1920s, but developing methods of mass production and the Great Depression effectively ended the era of the hand-carved carousel.
Stacy C. Hollander, "Carousel Horse with Lowered Head," in American Anthem: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum (New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with American Folk Art Museum, 2001), 369.