A Roundabout History of the Victorian Carousel

Antique CarouselMy fascination with carousels began when I was a little girl. Growing up in Florida, there was a carousel at the mall where my parents would take me to ride a very special horse. A white carousel horse named Abigail. I have faint, precious memories of riding Abigail, round and around, to a magical combination of music and lights while my daddy’s hand rested at my back holding me safely in place upon a colorfully painted saddle.

I suppose this lingering memory is to thank for subconsciously inspiring my latest novella, The Best Man in Brookside. In this Victorian era tale, my characters Donovan and Sophia are thrown together on an English village’s fair committee and tasked to revive an old, very special, carousel into a steam-driven marvel.

This concept of a steam-powered carousel was incredibly fun for me to research because I am both a history geek and a whimsical Steampunk at heart. Since there were so many interesting facts that failed to make the cut of my tiny novella, I’d like to share some of my harvested knowledge with you now in A Roundabout History of the Victorian Carousel!

Antique Carousel

The First Carousels: Early carousels were rather small and unimpressive contraptions—simple platforms built with mounted wooden horses turned about by a man or a real horse pulling a rope. Despite their simple construction, the popularity of carousels increased with the passing years and by the mid-19th century, the carousel was a staple at fairs delighting children across England.

The Industrial Revolution: With the Industrial Revolution came a boom of new technologies, innovations, and creative thinking. One such innovator was a man by the name of Thomas Bradshaw who invented the first steam-powered, mechanical carousel—or roundabout, as it was called by the Victorians. Bradshaw’s carousel appeared at the Aylsham Fair in 1861 where it was described by a Halifax Courier journalist as:

“a roundabout of huge proportions, driven by a steam engine which whirled around with such impetuosity, that the wonder is the daring riders are not shot off like cannon- ball, and driven half into the middle of next month.”

Antique Carousel

Further Innovation: Not long afterwards English engineer Frederick Savage—inspired by Bradshaw’s invention—decided to leave his vocation of agricultural machinery production and begin crafting his own fairground machines. In 1866, Savage developed his variant of a steam-powered carousel and enhanced the concept further by inventing a system of overhead gears and cranks which allowed the suspended horses to move up and down while the carousel turned, simulating a ride on horseback. This advancement made Savage a chief innovator in his field, drawing crowds to the European fairs he toured with his fanciful machine.

New Places, New Names: As carousels continued to gain popularity and spread to other countries, they acquired quite a few new names such as karussell in Germany, carrousel and manages de chevaux in France, and gallopers and roundabouts in England. When steam-driven carousels finally reached the United States in about 1880, they obtained even more fun monikers like: whirligigs, flying horses, spinning or flying jennies, dip-twisters, and most familiar to our modern ears, merry-go-rounds. Today most preservationists favor the name carousel over other terms for its historic context, which is why I chose to use carousel in my novella as opposed to the more English roundabout.

Of the many names for carousels, which one is your favorite? Do you have any special memories associated with carousels? I’d love to hear from you in the comment section.

And for those now wistfully yearning for the childhood magic of a carousel ride, be sure to order my novella, THE BEST MAN IN BROOKSIDE, which released this week in The California Gold Rush Romance Collection! Pop over to my Books page for more information or head straight to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or CBD!

Brookside Carousel Meme

3 thoughts on “A Roundabout History of the Victorian Carousel

  1. I enjoyed this blog and all of the fun pictures, as well as the California Gold Rush FaceBook party last night. I prefer to call them carousels, but the name whirligig is fun to say!

    • Hello, Becky! Such a pleasure to “see” a familiar face from last night’s launch party. :-) I’m so glad you enjoyed this post. Whirligig may be one of the most fun words in the English language. It just puts a smile on one’s face! 😀

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