They used to carry us on their backs. Imagining ourselves as knights or cowgirls, we would straddle their broad carved saddles and pretend to pursue each other, as the band organ pumped out the waltzes of our grandparents' youth and the carousel went faster and faster.
Now they are Art. They command six-figure prices at Sotheby's, and many of them live in museums. Ride them? Horrors! Hands off. No touching.
It usually takes a few generations before an object makes the transition from pop artifact to precious artwork, but the carousel animal has made the trip in less than 20 years. The esteem in which they are now held can be seen not only by the prices collectors are paying, but by the boom in carousel books and paraphernalia, and by museum shows such as "The Art and Fantasy of the Carousel" at the Historical Society of Talbot County in Easton.
The show is a small, selective, handsomely mounted exhibition featuring 13 horses and eight "menagerie" (non-horse) animals from private Maryland and Pennsylvania collections.
"The Art and Fantasy of the Carousel" was curated by Donald and Evalyn (Emmy) Donohue, owners of Americana Antiques in Oxford, one of the largest carousel dealers in the nation. Many of the figures have been owned at one time or another by the Donohues, who grew up in suburban Washington and have fond memories of the carousels at Glen Echo and Marshall Hall amusement parks.
The figures date from the heyday of the carousel, between 1880 and the 1920s, when an influx of skilled European carvers, coupled with technical advances, made the carousel both a thriving industry and an art form. The era was brought to a close by the Depression, however, and the carousel animals that baby-boomers remember as ubiquitous in their childhoods were the last of a dying breed.
"My husband, when he was in college, used to buy batches of them at $100 and $200, and doubled his money real quick," Emmy Donohue explains. "He didn't know anything about them. He didn't need to."
But like quilts and decoys, carousel animals were to find a huge market as folk art in the late '70s. When experts such as Charlotte Dinger and William Manns began writing books and mounting shows, once-forgotten carvers became famous again. Nostalgic young adults wanted a piece of childhood magic, and were willing to pay the rapidly escalating price to get it. The painted ponies are now items of interior decor; the Donohues even sold one destined to be installed in a yacht.
Mrs. Donohue admits that dealers have taken a lot of heat for breaking up old carousels and selling the individual figures for huge sums. But, she explains, the endangered status of the antique wooden carousel -- there are said to be fewer than 150 of them in operation today -- is not simply a matter of dealer greed. A variety of factors is responsible, including the high cost of maintainance (which averages $2,000 an animal), high insurance premiums and the changing face of the amusement industry, which favors theme parks over small, family-owned amusement parks.
"The machines were going to be broken up anyway," Mrs. Donohue argues. "Putting the animals with collectors and museums insures that future generations will have a chance to enjoy them. If they're left in warehouses they can be lost to rot, to fire or to water damage."
When the curators put together the Easton show, they had to be choosy; although the historical society's museum is not large, they wanted to present carousel art in all its diversity, with a well-balanced mixture of horses and menagerie animals, the lordly "standers" from the outside row of the carousel and the "jumpers" and "prancers" inside, and representatives of the three major schools of carousel carving.
German-born Gustav Dentzel, known as the "father of the American carousel," was also father of the Philadelphia school.
"The Philadelphia carving style reflects the elegance and restraint of Main Line Philadelphia society," Mrs. Donohue explains.
"Realism was a big thing with the Philadelphia carvers," she continues, gesturing toward her favorite horse, a sensitive creature in medieval jester trappings. "To me, this horse looks so real he's going to shake his head any minute."
The jester horse was made by Daniel Muller, master carver for the G. A. Dentzel Co. Another Muller is on hand as well, a cavalry horse with scrupulously authentic trappings, including military horseshoes.
"A military Muller is the quintessential carousel horse," Mrs. Donohue says. "Muller was a sculptor as well as a carousel carver, and among the realistic Philadelphia style, the Mullers are considered the most realistic. Like the best of the best. He was held in very high esteem by his fellow carvers. They said he
seemed to breathe life into the animals with his chisel."
One notable Dentzel sports patriotic side-carvings, including a head of George Washington. Its mate, with a carved Martha, is in a private Chicago collection.