In 1800, an advertisement for a peculiar device appeared in a Salem, Massachusetts newspaper. The ad stated that the device was also in use in New York, Baltimore, Boston, and Philadelphia. It promised to bring “innocent pleasure” and “great satisfaction” and that doctors recommended it as an aid to the circulation of the blood.
The device, derived from those popular in Europe, was an early form of carousel, a “circus ride” with wooden horses. By the mid-19th century, these devices (often consisting of niches and horses that were crude by later standards) appeared in seaside resorts and urban parks.
An 18-year-old German immigrant who arrived in Philadelphia in 1864 changed all that. Gustav Dentzel first opened a cabinet shop and then, influenced by his father Michael Dentzel (who built carousels in Germany), formed the G. A. Dentzel Company in 1867. The young Dentzel pioneered the industry in America, employing the most talented carvers who made elegant horses and a whimsical array of other animals, often with lavish carved decoration. His business prospered for decades.
In 1903, the Philadelphia businessman Henry Auchy hired some of Dentzel’s best carvers and formed the Philadelphia Toboggan Company. This firm also had a long and successful history, and helped popularize the Philadelphia style of richly decorated, elegant and refined carousel carving that could be seen in many late 19th-century city parks.
You probably rode one of these carousels as a kid, although very few working examples exist today. Both of these points were driven home to me on a recent shopping trip to the Carousel Mall in Syracuse. The carousel there is one I’ve often admired, and sometimes ridden, especially after having kids. It was built in 1909 by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company as their 18th carousel. They had been in business 6 years, so that means they created about three carousels per year. At 54 feet in diameter, and with 42 horses and several bench rides, along with ornate rounding boards, it’s no wonder that it took master carver Leo Zollar some time to produce this carousel.
As I read about its history, which included amusement parks in Louisville, Kentucky, Worcester, Massachusetts, Erie, Pennsylvania, and Syracuse, I found out something startling. This was the very same carousel that ran at Roseland Park in Canandaigua, New York from 1941 until the park closed in 1985.
It was then I realized that I had ridden this carousel forty years ago. Back in the 1960s, when I was a kid, we used to make the one-hour drive from our cottage in the Finger Lakes to Roseland Park for the day. It was a great park, and one of my favorite rides was the carousel. This carousel.
Considering what I now do for a living, it seems fitting that this great masterpiece of folk art touched my life at such a young age. That I can relive this experience today with my own children is somewhat of a miracle. It is another reminder of the potency of artistry that stems from ordinary people and directly addresses their needs and desires.