Carousel Carousing

Did you ever have an interest that becomes such a part of you that you stop even thinking about it?  That’s how it is with me and carousel horses.   Actually, with carousel figures in general.



I suspect my interest started with the merry-go-round on the Mall in Washington, D.C.  When I was small, my dad would take us to various of the Smithsonian museums.  Usually we went to Natural History, although we also frequently went to what was, I think, then called “History and Technology.”

If we were lucky, the carousel would be running.  Dad would usually let us look at it, though going for a ride…  That was a rare treat indeed.  The Smithsonian also had carousel figures on display inside the History and Technology building.  Even as a child, I could tell that these were fancier, more elaborate pieces than the ones on the working machine outside.   Even more interesting, not all of these were horses.  There were rabbits, cats, a giraffe…

It’s hard for me to separate out those long ago memories from a lifetime’s fascination.  When I went to college at Fordham in New York, one of my favorite outings was to the carousel in Central Park.  Later, I’d learn that this carousel had been made by Stein and Goldstein, a manufacturer known for unusually large, expressive horses, often adorned with roses in high relief.  At the time, all I knew was that here was a carousel outside of an amusement park or some other pricey venue.  I was perennially broke in those days, but I could usually manage at least one ride.

If there was time for the long subway ride, Coney Island was in reach.  In the mid-late eighties when I lived in New York, Coney Island was a sad shadow of its former glory days.  Still, there remained a carousel or two in working order.  One even had a device from which you could grab a ring as your horse carried you by.  I never got the coveted brass ring that entitled you to a free ride, but I always enjoyed reaching out and snagging a ring as I swept passed.

To this day, if I’m somewhere with a carousel, I’ll seek it out.  Many venues will not let adults ride but, if the rules permit, I’m there in line, surrounded by children who hardly come up to my waist, holding tightly onto to my ticket, waiting for the bell that signals the rush for the most coveted mounts.

Even to this day, my greatest love is reserved for the wild-eyed, fierce steeds.  No pretty palfreys decked in flowers and ribbons for me!  The first stage of any ride begins with standing outside the rail and watching steeds spin by, carefully deciding which will be my first choice, which the runner up, which the distant third.  If there’s a zebra, sometimes that wins, but usually I go for a horse with a flying mane and fantastical trappings.  My favorite on the Central Park carousel  had, if I remember correctly, a leopard skin for a saddle.

Until last weekend, I’d grown so accustomed to the carousel-themed items in my home that I’d not realized how many there are.  Then, in a book store, I came across a book I had somehow missed: Carousel Animals: Artistry in Motion by Tobin Fraley.   I met Tobin Fraley once, when I was a grad student.  A line of porcelain carousel figurines had come out based, I believe, on a book he had written.   He was in a store signing the bases of the figures people purchased.  The figures started at a couple hundred dollars apiece – well out of my range.  Nonetheless, I went to look and dream.

Mr. Fraley kindly spoke to me.  I felt like a fraud, since there was no way I could afford a figurine.  Even the book would have been a stretch (and they were out of copies by then).  Nonetheless, he couldn’t have been nicer.  He took out one of his cards and signed it for me.  Later, when I could, I ordered the book and carefully taped the card on the inside.  I still have it.

Now, as I looked through this later book, I found my enthusiasm for my long-time love kindling afresh – and laughing a bit, because it’s not as if it ever went away.

In my living room resides Goliath, a full-sized fiberglass “carousel” horse, never intended for use as a ride, but as a decoration in a department store or some such.  I bought him on Canal Street in New York.  He was the color of auto primer, a rough, dull grey.  I eventually sanded and painted him using house paint because I valued durability.  If I was going to reside with a knickknack the size of pony, I wanted to be able to sit on it.

Eventually, Goliath was joined by Jerome Girard, a metal carousel giraffe, probably off a working carousel, since his original paint job had wear patterns on the saddle and flanks.  Since he’s metal, he lives out in our yard, placed so I can see him from my desk in our office.  We re-painted him several years ago (with the help of our perennial partner in crime, Michael Wester), but I notice the paint has faded a bit, the once brilliant yellow softening to a paler shade.

Jerome Girard is also large enough for me to sit on.  In fact, he’s who I was sitting on in my earliest website photo!   I missed a chance to buy a tiger that was probably from the same source.  Maybe someday… A few years ago, someone told me that one of those chain kiddie restaurants was getting rid of a carousel.  I was sorely tempted…

These monumental figures are far from the only carousel memorabilia in our house.  There’s a marvelous poster my mom gave me in the living room.  An embroidered piece on the bedroom wall.  Several porcelain figures Jim has given me over the years in the living room and bedroom.  A plastic one-third-sized piece that I painted and Jim made a base for.   Pewter figures.  Crystal figures.  Magnets.  Cookie cutters.  Earrings.   And, of course, a small library of books…

I don’t own an antique figure and, given how dry New Mexico’s climate is, how unkind to wood, that’s probably a good idea.   Still, one can dream.   In fact, the dream of the horse and rider, the fantasy of adventure where you can ride a hippocampus or a zebra or a deer…  To me, that’s what a carousel is all about.

Dream on!

Oh…  If you have any odd things you collect, I’d enjoy hearing about them.





5 Responses to “Carousel Carousing”

  1. Louis Robinson Says:

    How odd! Nobody collects odd things, it seems. Or maybe they just don’t seem odd?

    On carousels, though, have you had a chance to read Sharon Lee’s Carousel Tide? The title character has horses that aren’t all horses. Or even carvings, in a few cases 🙂 Which makes for some interesting consequences.

    • janelindskold Says:

      No, I haven’t, but I’ll look for it. As mentioned above, many carousel figures aren’t all horses, but the additional element sounds fascinating.


  2. Paul Says:

    Not exactly a carousel, but a merry-go-round plays a significant role in Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”
    Some of the things I collect are rooted in my boyhood — comic books I remember reading (but I can afford very few of those), movies I thought never to see again (yea! for videotapes and DVDs). But mainly I collect books (my wife says I hoard them!). You never know when you might want to re-read — or re-re-read — one.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Merry-go-round is simply the American term for carousel (which comes out of the French and has become the preferred term by collectors — probably because it sounds more dignified.

      The British, I believe, called the same device a “galloper.”

      Words are such fun!

  3. kpatton999 Says:

    That’s a great story. We are building an all handcarved Hawaiian themed carousel in hawaii. Check us out.

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