Day at the Museum

Herschell-Spillman Carousel-1915

Herschell-Spillman Carousel-1915

For Valentine’s Day Carol and I decided to brave the 0 Degree weather and make a trip to the New York State Museum in Albany for a gem and mineral show. This took no small measure of courage on my part, because I’m a Mississippi boy still trying to wrap my head around the idea of No Degrees Whatsoever as a temperature reading. Never mind that it got to -17 F that night–I could sleep through that and pretend it didn’t happen. When you’re out in it? Not so much.

Regardless, we made it. The gem show, frankly, was nothing we hadn’t seen before. Nice, some cool pieces, but crowded and fairly typical of such things. We were still glad we came, but didn’t feel the need to add any new pieces. What drew my attention after awhile was the display of a Herchell-Spillman Carousel from 1915, shown in upper left.

I’ve talked about my serial obsessions before, how they come, dominate my (hah) free time for a while, then fade to the point I can move on to something else, but they never quite go away? Yeah. Wood carving was one of those, so naturally I had an interest in the late 19th, early 20th century carvers and companies that produced carousels and especially the carved horses and other creatures that stocked them. If you’re curious at all you can start Googling just about any starting point (Herschell-Spillman, Carousel Horses, etc) and probably find out a lot more than you’d ever want to know. I’m just going to talk about a few things that grabbed my notice.

First of all, the Herschell-Spillman company did not carve the animals on this carousel. They were all made earlier, and attributed to a company located in Brooklyn. When I say “earlier,” it was probably around the 1890’s, according to the museum’s information. Herschell-Spillman made the carousel frame and mechanism in 1915, and surviving animals from earlier rides were retro-fitted on to it. The horses were originally “standers,” meaning they didn’t go up and down (“jumper”), and part of the retro-fit was to convert some of them.



Now, take a look at this detail shot. Very nice, but you’ll note that the horse is fairly simple and stylized, strongly built but without a great deal of detail. This is sometimes called the “Country Fair Style.” The idea was that the horses would be sturdy, relatively small, and easy to pack up and transport from one fair to another. (There were other styles as well, but that’s beyond the scope of this blog. I’ll just mention the Philadelphia Style and the Coney Island Style as two others with their own characteristics.) Even though Herschell-Spillman didn’t carve these horses, they did work a lot in that style. Horses that were designed as outside row horses for stationary carousels that would not be moved (in theory, though in practice they sometimes were) were far more elaborate and, well, I want to show you a Dentzel company carousel from about the same period.

Original Photograph-Kevin Burkett

Original Photograph-Kevin Burkett

This Dentzel company carousel is located in Logansport, Indiana. There is another one in Highland Park in Meridan, MS, near where I grew up and I got to ride it as a kid. I’d show you that one, only I haven’t been able to locate a good picture. This one will certainly do. As I said, this was not a later style or something that represented an evolution in the development of carousel animals. This carousel was built 15 years before the Herschell-Spillman example above, and was pretty typical of the Dentzel company’s work.

Detail From Spencer Park Dentzel Carousel - Kevin Burkett

Detail From Spencer Park Dentzel Carousel – Kevin Burkett

The most elaborately carved horses/animals would naturally be on the outside row, as that was the first thing visitors would see and were often “standers,” as this magnificent example shows. If you look closely at its right hind leg, you can see the glue line where it was attached to the body. The body (carcass) would be built as a hollow box with enough thickness on the outside to carve the details, and the legs and head would be roughed out separately, then attached and the finish carving done. Some of the most famous carvers, like Gustav Dentzel and Daniel Muller (famous for carving standers with military trappings) and Salvatore Cerniglario were either German or Italian immigrants.

Muller Horse from Forest Park Carousel, Queens NY

By 1930 the so-called “Golden Age” of the carousel was waning. Out of the thousands made, only a couple hundred still survive, some in museums like the Herchell-Spillman, others like the Dentzel above and the one in Meridian, still in public parks, still on duty for rides as they have been for 100 years.

There. Assuming you got this far, probably still more than you wanted to know. As I said, the old interests never go away. Not completely.

4 thoughts on “Day at the Museum

  1. Growing up so out of the mainstream of the USA, when I was a young child the greatest thrills came with the traveling carnivals, as they were called, that arrived when your town had a fair of some kind, or a town’s centennial celebration (there were a lot of those going on when I was a kid, as ND was such a recently homesteaded state).

    The fairs featured livestock, poultry, arts and crafts, cookery and baking and sewing, with judging that meant awards (ribbons) and cash prizes that went with the grades of ribbons awarded.

    The carnivals though — o my, with midways and sticky greasy treats on offer, and the rides, the rides, the rides! that we kids loved. Horse mad as I was the merry-go-round, as we called carousel, that I was nuts for. The horses were amazing, and came in various styles, such as a thoroughbred racing horse, shetland ponies, a Black Beauty in English riding saddle, palomino with Spanish tack, spotted horses dressed as “Indian” horrses, and so on. My favorite was the horse kitted out as an “Arab” with appropriate tack and so forth. I could have ridden forever, but of course, only was allowed a single ride. Though if it were mom instead of dad overseeing we kids at the time, she might spring for another 15 cents for a second ride. But that spoils a child, dangerously, you know.

    There was a children’s book that I re-read frequently as a kid that was about the making of carousel horses in New York state. New York hardly regiestered as a concept to me then, much less the late 19th century New York. I puzzled over that book so often.

    So, now, here you are, looking at that carousel horses. Woo!

    Love, C.

    Then the carnivals stopped coming, i.e. went out of business.

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