Traditional carousel horses are carving a place in modern hearts
By L.A. Sokolowski
With carved wooden horses that bound around and around their circular course, dancing to organ music that seems to float across fairgrounds and into your ears, carousels have a way of making the heart of any horse lover, young or old, leap with joy and an ageless desire for a ticket to ride.
According to the National Carousel Association, there are approximately 400 carousels operating throughout the United States; 214 survive in classic (1800s–1940s) wood or wood-and-metal condition, 20 remain in their original location; and just 11 still challenge riders to “grab the brass ring.”
But don’t let these statistics give you the impression that painted ponies have been put out to pasture.
Today’s restored, refurbished and new carousels are serving as representatives for conservation and are using old-fashioned charm to unite communities, while their painted ponies—with coats as colorful as their real-life Paint Horse counterparts—remain among the most popular “flying horses” to ride.
“My first memory of riding a carousel was at the Interstate Fair in Boise, Idaho, in the 1950s,” Bette Largent, of Carrousel Consultants restoration and an NCA past president said. “It was forbidden by my father to visit the carnival, but loved by my mother, so she would send him to the barn to discuss real horses with his friends, and we would go for rides on the carousel and Ferris wheel.
“By 1980, I had my first ride on the Spokane [Washington] Looff Carousel, and it was even better than I imagined! The horses and fairground organ were amazing. In 1986, we moved to Spokane, and every chance we had, we would ride the carousel and grab for the brass ring. It had six pinto ponies among its vividly painted herd.”
Considered America’s first great carousel carver, Charles I.D. Looff carved the carousel and its 54 magnificent creatures in 1909 as a wedding gift to his daughter, Emma.
Charles trained as a woodcarver in the former Danish province of Schleswig-Holstein before coming to America and settling in Brooklyn, New York, where he worked in a furniture factory by day, gave dance lessons by night and—in his free time—carved horses out of the factory’s discarded wood scraps. Charles erected his first carousel in 1876 at Coney Island in Brooklyn and by 1890, after his success with carousels at Coney Island and Atlantic City, he opened a shop where he and his son, Charles Looff Jr., carved horses inspired by those in paintings of President George Washington.
The Looff horses had a gentle naturalism: flared nostrils, teeth exposed in a “smile” or muzzles raised skyward in what would become known as Charles’ “stargazer” pose. He moved the family to California in 1910 and installed several large carousels on the West Coast before his death in 1918. His folksy style influenced subsequent carvers, including former employees Charles Carmel and Timothy Murphy, and established Brooklyn as the epicenter of American carousel horse carving.
M.C. Illions, another venerated Coney Island carver, was a flamboyant craftsman and racehorse owner whom Charles admired as the “kingpin of carvers.” M.C. made his colorful creations so anatomically correct, they seemed to peer out at waiting riders, often with one blue eye and one brown, corresponding to each horse’s unique two-toned coat.
This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Fall 2018 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.