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Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

Thesis Topics: Ready-Made



MANY ADULTS probably retain fond childhood memories of riding on fairground or amusement-park merry-go-rounds. Years ago, two horse-crazy

adolescents--my best friend and I--passed a small carnival while bicycling back home from a riding lesson. We stopped for a ride on the carousel, jokingly but sternly criticizing each other's position (heels down!). We had no idea then of the long history of this seemingly trivial form of amusement, or of its relationship to long-ago ceremonialperformances involving real horses. Investigation of the merry-go-round's colorful historycan be pursued in many diverse areas, such as art, history, technology, music, and sports: truly interdisciplinary research.

No one knows with certainty the origin of the term 'carousel.' Frederick Fried's standard history states firmly that that the word 'derives from the ancient Italian and Spanish words garosello or carosella meaning "little war."'[1] Ancient tournaments, with companies of knights racing furiously about on horseback, could truly have resembled little wars. The Oxford English Dictionary demurs, suggesting also etymological descent from carro, or chariot;[2] and chariot races were indeed often part of the spectacle. Fried credits the French with refining these exhibitions, changing their 'character into a lavish display of raiment and horsemanship.'[3]

The French called these displays 'carrousels.' The seventeenth century saw the fullest development of the elaborate rituals. A notable performance had occurred during the reign of Henry of Navarre, but probably the most famous carrousel was the extravaganza of June 1662, performed at the command of Louis XIV. His reign was notable for the splendor of various court entertainments; displays of horsemanship by finely-attired riders, with musical accompaniment provided by the most famous composers of the day, were among his favorite divertissements. The Grand Carrousel of 1662, performed in front of the Tuileries in the space known to this day as Le Carrousel, was supposedly offered in honor of Louis's queen and infant son, but was commonly known to have been designed to impress the king's new mistress, Louise de la Vallière.[4]At about this time mechanical carousels became common. Men or draft animals supplied the power for these machines. The costumes and feats of horsemanship exhibited in the ceremonial rides were presumably the inspiration for the mechanical horses. These early forerunners of the merry-go-rounds we know today were designed not only for entertainment; young noblemen used them to practice tournament sports, such as spearing a suspended ring with a lance.[5]

Following the invention of the steam engine, it was possible to construct more elaborate mechanical carousels.[6] By the late nineteenth century, merry-go-rounds were prominently featured at fairs, carnivals, and amusement parks. Carousel riders were certainly enchanted by the fanciful horses and other beasts, but the craftsmen who carved and painted the animals surely had no idea that many years later their work would be considered an important form of folk art.[7]

The classical French carrousel also lives on today in modern equestrian sports. The quadrilles performed by the Cadre Noir of the French National Cavalry School at Saumur were direct descendents of the formalized horsemanship displays at the Tuileries. Although the school's grounds are now used for armor training, Saumur is still the headquarters of France's national (civilian) equestrian organization.[8]

A number of research possibilities are suggested here. Read biographies of Louis XIV and Lully and the memoirs of people who actually saw the carrousel performances,[9] examine the scores and listen to recordings of seventeenth-century music, and design a recreation of the Grand Carrousel of 1662. Look into the lives of the European immigrants who contributed so much to the art of carving merry-go-round horses,[10] investigate the appeal of carousels and amusement parks in American popular culture, or explore the ever-changing trends in art- and antique-collecting that have led to the current interest in restoring many wonderful old carousels.[11] Or just take a ride on a painted horse the next time you are anywhere near a fairground. It will be fun, even if you get a brass ring instead of an A.


[1] Frederick Fried, A Pictorial History of the Carousel (N.Y.: A. S. Barnes; London: Yoseloff, 1964), 18.

[2] The Oxford English Dictionary, 2d ed., s.v. 'carousel.'

[3] Fried, Carousel, 18.

[4] Fried, Carousel, 18; Olivier Bernier, Louis XIV: A Royal Life (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1987), 58, 101-102. For more detail, especially on the rivalries of court composers, and leads on sources, see Robert M. Isherwood, Music in the Service of the King: France in the Seventeenth Century (Ithaca [N.Y.:] Cornell University Press, 1973), 201-202, 248, 260-263, 296, 386 n. 39).

[5] Fried, Carousel, 19-20.

[6] Fried, Carousel, 31.

[7] Andrew Guilford, 'The American Carousel as an Immigrant Icon,' Journal of American Culture 7:4 (1984), 3-17.

[8] Robert Milliat, Le dernier carrousel, défense de Saumur 1940 (Grenoble, Paris, B. Arthaud [1945]), describes how the Saumur cadets fought off a German panzer division at the very beginning of the Second World War. The engagement has been called a 'battle out of its time . . . conducted almost in the manner of a medieval tournament'; see Roy Macnab, 'For Honour Alone,' History Today 39 (January 1989), 6.

[9] Louis François du Bouchet, marquis de Sourches [supposed author], Mémoires du marquis de Sourches sur le règne deLouis XIV, 13 vols. in 7 (Paris, Hachette et cie., 1882-1893), is mentioned in the notes and bibliographies of several books on the period. An index is provided in Leon Lecestre, Table alphabétque des mémoires du Marquis de Sourches (Chartres: E. Garnier, 1912); a useful abridgement is Norbert Dufourcq, La musique à la cour de Louis XIV et de Louis XV, d'après les 'Mémoires' de Sourches et Luynes, 1681-1758 (Paris, A. et J. Picard, 1970).

[10] Guilford, 'American Carousel.'

[11] There are numerous articles on this topic in both popular and academic journals. Consult the Wilson Combined Indexes file on the Dartmouth College Information System (DCIS) and specialized sources in Baker, Sherman, and other campus libraries.

Last Updated: 5/3/12