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College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences

Department of Anthropology

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Museum of Anthropology

American Material Culture

Flying Horses: A Carousel Story

Though the methods of manufacturing and uses have changed, carousels still capture the imagination of their riders and admirers with their beauty as they did during their golden age

carousel horse

Thane A. Snider restored Allan Herschell Company 1920s carousel horse for Gwen Niemann in 1993.

Photo taken by author in 2017.

Carousels originated from a Middle Eastern game played on horseback in the 13th century. During the Crusades, the Spaniards saw the game and called it "carosello" or "little war". Over the years the game evolved to be practiced while sitting on wooden horses that were rotated by hand. Thus, the modern-day carousel was born.

In 1872 Allan Herschell and James Armitage founded the Armitage Herschell Company, an iron foundry that produced corn huskers, street drains, and steam boilers, which commonly powered carousels. Herschell convinced Armitage to produce steam powered carousels using Armitage Herschell steam boilers. By the turn of the 19th century, the Armitage Herschell Company produced an entire carousel a day and shipped them as far as India. They began to solely produce carousels after their success. Despite producing only carousels, when Herschell left the company and started a new one, the new name did not reflect the goods it produced. People used so many names, such as "flying horses", to describe carousels, that Herschell continued to just use his name. The name "flying horses" is appropriate in many ways.

carousel horse old

After years of neglect, the horse had small amounts of wood rot and had lost all its original paint and legs.

Photo taken by Gwen Niemann in 1993.

"It was an extension of my love of horses put into art form. [It was] the first ride I remember going on by myself, and really the first horse I rode. Does it get any better to live your dream when you can't have one? The horse I chose in the ride could be anything I dreamt it was and take me anywhere I wanted to go." Gwen Niemann 2017

This love of carousels led to Gwen Niemann to purchase the carousel pictured when she saw it in a newspaper article. Based on the style of the head and body, a National Carousel Association certified carousel restorer dated the horse to have been produced by the Allan Herschell Company in the early 1920s. The horse had all its original basswood, except for three of its legs. Its lack of intense detailing on its "romance side", the side seen from outside the carousel, suggests it resided on the inner row. Gwen Niemann selected the colors after looking through a catalog of carousels from the same time. She declined to have the stirrups replaced to deter people from climbing on.

In the 1930s, the Allan Herschell Company began replacing the hand-carved wooden legs with aluminum to keep them from breaking off. This began the evolution from hand-carved horses to entirely aluminum horses by the end of the 1930s. Current carousel horses are made using molds, but the hand-carved horses of the past still have an immense value as collector pieces and as working rides. According to the National Carousel Association, there are seven wooden Allan Herschell carousels still in existence. According to the Allan Herschell 1930 catalog during the Golden Age of Carousels, 5 million people rode on carousels on a single 4th of July in 1930. Today carousels continue to capture the imaginations of children and adults.