Frenchmen of the 17th century played a game called carrousel, in which riders on horseback speared rings with their lances. Early-American children rode wooden horses called whirligigs, suspended from a revolving wheel. Then in 1866, a Pennsylvania cabinetmaker placed these horses on a rotating platform, turned by mules that plodded around a center pole.
The carousel, or merry-go-round, was born. Right now, in communities across the United States, magical whirling carousels of decorated wooden animals, blinking lights, and tinkly calliope music are being oiled and polished for another long summer of family fun.
And perhaps the most idyllic examples of carousels are in Broome County, New York, which includes the city of Binghamton. It was there that a fellow named Allan Herschell began to manufacture steam-powered galleries, as he called his elaborate carousels. Soon, he was shipping one per day to carnivals and beach resorts as far away as the South Pacific island of Tahiti, where the steam was produced by burning coconuts.
Of Herschell's thousands of hand-carved carousels, only 19 are known to survive, and six are in the Binghamton area. Every horse on a Herschell carousel is what's called a jumper, meaning it rises and falls on a pole as the merry-go-round revolves. The romance side of each horse – that is, the side that's lavishly decorated with extra glass jewels and carved ribbons – faces outward to the crowd, where parents watch their children riding the wooden steeds. Some carousels also include other lavishly carved animals like ostriches and zebras and giraffes.
These days in Broome County, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the youngsters who first took a ride are lining up for a turn in the very same saddles.