Up and Down

Reginald Marsh, "Wooden Horses" [detail], 1936, tempera on board; 24 x 40 inches, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, The Dorothy Clark Archibald and Thomas L. Archibald Fund, The Krieble Family Fund for American Art, The American Paintings Purchase Fund, and The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, 2013.1.1. "Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland, 1861-2008"

With two exhibits and an entire museum, I’ve been thinking a lot about carousels.  Yes, the Wadsworth Atheneum has its Coney Island exhibit mounted, the same one I worked on 15 months ago.  And the Yale School of Art has the “Side ShowScreen Shot 2015-04-06 at 3.43.02 PM” exhibit, as a literal side show about the freaky side of the carnival.  In the Reginald Marsh painting from the Wadsworth, the women seem be deadly serious about racing to the finish line, beating out the man in the red bowler.  No simple up and down ride for them.

I learned at the New England Carousel Museum in Bristol, CT that carousels didn’t even go up and down until 1907.  In fact, carousels started as a training tool for knights.  Um, yes, medieval knights.  They would practice spearing rings with lances.

Maybe you’ve ridden a carousel where you tried to snare a ring.  In the Golden Age of carousels, that is the 19th century, that’s where we got the idea of “grabbing the brass ring.”  A winner on the carousel, and in life, grabs the brass ring.  But liability put a stop to that.  Now we have to be content riding up and down.  No killer scenes like Marsh gives us.

Who knew there are different styles of carousel horses?  The first permanent park carousel was in Philadelphia, and the Phily style is oh so graceful.  Moreso than the solid and chunky Country Fair style.  And then there’s the Coney Island style, showy and pretty.

2015-04-04 16.00.18The menagerie animals are great fun.  Hard to believe they fell out of favor for the more popular horse carousel.  Who wouldn’t want to ride a rooster, a giraffe (who’s eyes follow you no matter where you move), a tiger, a hare, or a camel?  If not a horse, then why not a zebra or a seahorse?


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The horses are completely wonderful, too.  I’ve never seen a three-dimensional carved flower on a carousel horse before.  Tres elegant!


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Or what about a bulldog or a leprachaun, hidden under the saddle?




2015-04-04 15.49.51The museum shows how the animals are constructed form wood and in pieces, even if they appear whole.  Also the animals get smaller closer in to the center pole, an attempt aso the most elaborate carving is saved for the outside ring.  Notice that when you next ride a carousel.  Or maybe, you want to go to Bristol and ride one there!

This slide show will further introduce you to its glories…

One thought on “Up and Down

  1. Well, you can tell my age for I always enjoyed Reginald Marsh’s work when I saw it in the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh when I was a child. Once again you taught me something I didnt know, Rena. This time about carousels. Thanks again. JB

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