Published: May 10, 2011
Flying Horses: The Golden Age of American Carousel Art written by Peter J. Malia and photographed by Bryan Page, The Connecticut Press, Monroe, Conn., www.connecticutpress.com ; 2011; hardcover, 199 pages, $75.
In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the New England Carousel Museum in Bristol, Conn., which took place last fall, historian Peter Malia has shone a spotlight on a joyful symbol of Americana at its finest: carousel animals produced during the so-called Golden Age of carousel art, 1870‱930. This exhaustively detailed and lavishly photographed book details a wondrous menagerie of carousel animals along with their craftsmen who changed the face of America in the era when a ride on a seaside carousel or at the local amusement park was a cherished childhood memory.
During their brief heyday, there were about 3,000 hand carved carousels operating around the country. Fewer than 200 remain today.
The book is carefully researched and covers the history of carousel art in America from its early days embodied in the Old World craftsmanship of such carousel makers as Herschell-Spillman, Looff, the Philadelphia Tobaggon Company, M.C. Iillions & Sons, G.A. Dentzel, and the Charles W.F. Parker Co. Most of the animals pictured are in the museum’s permanent collection and a handful of others are in private collections.
Not merely an encyclopedic study of carousel art, the book puts carousel art in the context of a changing America and go-get-’em American entrepreneurship. In the late Nineteentharly Twentieth Century, the advent of widespread electricity in urban cities as well as trolleys helped spur “carousel fever.”
The “Great Wild Ride” boom of the 1920 hastened the demise of the carousel as American audiences sought faster thrills, with an ever-increasing number of roller coasters built to satisfy the masses. Carousel animals were appreciated in their time by generations of wide-eyed children, eager to take their first ride on the dizzying blur of bright colored animals and lights and loud music that made up the carousel experience. Today, carousel art can be appreciated on its own merits, by antiques and folk art aficionados.
Many of the examples in the museum’s collection have been lovingly restored and are visually stunning as photographed here. For purists, there a few unrestored examples in the book to behold that are elegant in their wooden simplicity. A primitive flying horse, circa 1880s, in the country fair style from an unknown carver, with no discernible paint remaining, has been dubbed “Patches” for the many tin repair patches that dot its body. A track machine horse, country fair style, circa 1885, Armitage Herschell Co., retains only a few spots of red and black color, allowing one to fully appreciate the workmanship of the mortiselike joinery of the legs to the body (a manufacturing trademark for the upstate New York firm).
A highlight in the book has to be the “ferocious” open-mouth lion from G.A. Dentzel, circa 1905, attributed to carver Salvatore Cernigliaro, that was never painted and still bears touches of stain and varnish. Lions were staples of carousels, but Cernigliaro’s details and strong muscular definition set his lions apart. A graceful cherub in relief on the side of the lion was among the carver’s signature carved trappings that became known as “Cherni figures.”
Other highlights in the book include a gaily colored second row stander horse, carved by Charles Carmel, 1910, that was last used at Pleasure Island, Wakefield, Mass., typical of the firm’s horse with its expressive features and realistic look, along with an outside row stander, Philadelphia Tobaggan Co, 1917, last used in Wildwood, N.J. Attributed to carver David Lightfoot, the horse embodies Lightfoot’s soft angles and distinctive mane but is also noteworthy for a secondary figure, a carved bulldog, baring his teeth, as it peeks out from under the back of the saddle.
This book is a visual treat, easy to digest, and a fascinating look into American carousels.
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