Carousel animals are a unique part of American history. They are a highly refined type of commercial art, produced in the United States from the 1880’s to the 1920’s. Hand carved with chisels, usually by immigrants, the carousel art symbolizes the freedom and joy that those immigrants felt upon being welcomed into America.
Made of laminated pieces of wood, the animals’ bodies are a hollow box construction to insure they were as light as possible. The platform and animals hang from the center pole, and need to be light to be able to spin. The imaginative carvings were hand painted with either lead-based oil paints or Japan paints and were often lavishly decorated with metal leaf, intricate scrollwork, and faceted glass jewels. The facades themselves were mirrored and painted, and hung with glass beads early on, and later with electric lights. Often there was a ring machine, which occasionally dispensed the free-ride brass rings among the plain metal ones. Many machines had a band organ, a pneumatic music machine that gaily played waltzes and marching music utilizing wooden pipes, cymbals, and snare drums. The band organ sometimes had small wooden figures, also pneumatically powered, whose hinged arms would conduct the music with a wand. All this was to entice riders to spend their nickels for a magical ride on the merry-go-round.
Carousels were often historically located in a park, with picnic grounds, and perhaps a bandstand. These parks were commonly located at the end of the trolley line, on the outskirts of town. Whole families would journey to the park and enjoy the innocent pleasures of sharing food with their families, perhaps dancing, and riding the carousel. Imagine the Victorian pleasures of lifting your lady-love onto a horse, and holding your arm around her waist to steady her as the carousel spins - never mind the forbidden pleasure of seeing her ankles! The larger machines were located in round buildings, often with a series of high windows to help flood the decorated surfaces with light. Many had rocking chairs set inside the building to invite tired parents to rest while their children flew by, squealing with delight. Smaller, simpler traveling machines moved from town to town, county fair to county fair, to be assembled and then taken down many times each season.
The decoration of American carousels reflects the immigrants’ vision of their new-found country. Their carving depicts an enormous variety of themes: from patriotic, Victorian, Native American, Egyptian, Medieval, military, to the humorous and even whimsical. The carvers illustrated current news of their time, and even characters in popular books, such as Mr. Toad from The Wind in the Willows. Not all antique carousel animals are horses: one can ride a buffalo, kangaroo, pig, dog, cat, giraffe, lion or a tiger, as well as a full variety of birds such as storks, roosters, and ostriches scattered among the horses. The carving on American carousel pieces is much more unique than on European pieces; the carvers were given a lot of freedom to out-do the rival American manufacturers’ styles. The result was an incredible variety and diversity of the immigrants’ vision of American culture.
More than 2,000 carousels were in operation during the golden age of the carousel; sadly, many were destroyed by fire, flood or sheer negligence. There are less than 200 in operation today. Many animals from disbanded carousels are sold individually; they are considered very desirable Americana collectables.
The conservation and restoration of a historic object is not to be taken lightly; incorrect methods or materials can decrease the value of a piece dramatically. A carousel figure with original factory paint on it is treated very differently that one that has been previously stripped. Each manufacturing company had slightly different styles of carving; knowledge of each particular style is paramount to achieving an accurate restoration. Materials used in a restoration can vary from historically used hide glues to modern racing boat epoxies. Hawk’s Eye Studio restores and paints these carousel animals with precision and historic accuracy, while taking into account the client’s personal wishes. We welcome your questions; the more you know, the better we can communicate!