NEW YORK — Before Americans were enchanted by roller coasters, they were hooked on merry-go-rounds (or carousels, as collectors and Europeans like to call them). At one time, the United States had nearly 5,000 of them. Today there are fewer than 150 in operation.
But thanks to a new exhibition at the UBS Art Gallery in New York, it's possible to get a look at the ornate animals and objects that adorned those rides during their heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Back then, the horses were made of wood and thoughtfully carved by immigrants who added details like cherubs to the sides of their creations. Whether they were designing an animal fit for a movie Western or one that looked as if it belonged on a cake, the goal was always the same: to entice a child to take a ride.
At UBS, examples of early craftsmanship are helping create the festive atmosphere that Colin Thomson, the gallery's director, was aiming for at this time of year. "The holiday season in our culture is very much about children," he says. The exhibition looks at what might have appealed to a child in 1900.
Contemporary kids and adults will appreciate the intricate carving, bejeweled designs, and unexpected animals (including a rabbit, ostrich, and tiger) on display at the gallery, which runs along both sides of the lobby of the Sixth Avenue UBS building. The pieces are from the collection of the late Charlotte Dinger, whose nostalgia for the ride she loved as a child in New Jersey led her to become a well-known preservationist and expert.
"More and more, people are realizing [carousels] are a fine example of American folk art," says Bette Largent, president of the National Carousel Association. "Charlotte was ahead of the game."
Nine different manufacturers are represented in the UBS show, offering a taste of what carousel art looked like when it flourished prior to the Great Depression. The works are grouped into different styles and themes. Animals were often made to look patriotic and adorned with flags or they featured frontier motifs.
Thrifty craftsmen frequently decorated only one side of the horse - the side that faced out. The other was left plain. What stance the animal was given depended on whether it was stationary (a "stander" or a "prancer"), or moved up and down along a pole (a "jumper"), with each of its feet off the ground. Horses might have glass eyes, horseshoes, and real horsehair tails.
Nancy McGary, who is curating the UBS exhibition on behalf of the Morris Museum in Morristown, N.J., explains that shows like this offer a chance to display the animals at different angles, so people can see, for example, that a secondary animal (like a parrot) was carved into a saddle, or along an animal's neck.
Merry-go-rounds date back to Byzantine times, according to Ms. Dinger's 1984 book, "Art of the Carousel." But the concept for modern carousels apparently came from late-17th-century France, where young noblemen practiced for jousting contests by sitting on legless horses attached to a device pushed around a pole while they tried to spear a brass ring.
Eventually that contraption evolved into a form of amusement for the masses and spread throughout Europe and to the United States.
"The carousel is symbol of leisure time," notes Ms. Largent. "Until the Industrial Age, we didn't have leisure time." A German immigrant named Gustav Dentzel is credited with pioneering the carousel business in the US, having opened his company in 1867.
The UBS exhibit includes several pieces of work from the Dentzel Company, including a tiger with a griffin on its side, circa 1910.
Early carousels were part of amusement parks or traveling shows, and were the root of other rides, explains Largent. The seats of the sleighs found on some carousels (for those who wanted to ride in a more ladylike fashion) were the blueprint for roller coaster seats. And the Ferris wheel? Just a carousel on its side, of course.
Since the goal of the carousel was to get children on board, if a certain animal wasn't attracting children, a company would abandon it, explains curator McGary.
"The people who manufactured the carousels discovered that they made more money owning and operating than they did from actually manufacturing," she says. "And if they found out that, for example, a kid never got on a particular animal ... they just stopped making them, because they didn't want empty animals."
As exotic as lions, tigers, and sea monsters were, they tended to intimidate children. So companies focused mainly on horses.
Handmade carousels lasted through the 1920s, according to Dinger, when the combination of mass production and the Great Depression led to their decline. Today, carousel horses are typically made out of fiberglass.
Preservationists say exhibitions like the one at UBS help acquaint people with the carousel-making tradition at a time when new merry-go-rounds are being installed and help is needed saving old ones.
"More and more," says Largent, "people realize we can have this art form, and still ride it."
• "Carousel Art from the Charlotte Dinger Collection" is at the UBS Art Gallery through Jan. 3. Hours are Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Closed on weekends.