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Painted Ponies: American Carousel Art

May 2024
1min read

by William Manns, Peggy Shank, and Marianne Stevens; Zon International Publishing Co.; 256 pages; $39.95.

The carousel is the heart of any amusement park. The roller coaster, with its supple geometry, may be more regal, and virtually every other ride is scarier, but it is the flash and holler of the merry-go-round that breathes life into a park.

The title of the book refers to carousel “art,” and so it is: the carved animals—horses, of course, but also lions, elephants, dogs, and even the occasional ostrich—have come to be perceived as American folk sculpture of the first order, and one recently went at auction for fifty-six thousand dollars. This sumptuous book both displays the animals with the gravity fine art demands and shows them in their gritty, punishing working life in parks and fairgrounds at the century’s turn.

During the six or seven decades that carousel figures were carved in this country, they evolved into three general styles: County Fair Style, simple and utilitarian and suited to a life on the road; Philadelphia Style, which was literal down to the bulging veins in the horses’ necks; and Coney Island Style, whose figures were flamboyant and stylized—as befits that most flamboyant place, which, with twenty-three of them spinning away in a three-block area, was the carousel capital of the nation.

Painted Ponies offers many examples of each style, along with biographies of the men who carved them. With color on every page, the book is so unstintingly produced that it manages to impart a real feeling of the lushness of the machines themselves. But of course the most satisfactory way to view a carousel is to climb on one, and if you’ll send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to William Manns, c/o Zon International Publishing, P.O. Box 47, Millwood, NY 10546, the author will send you free a directory of the old carousels still working in your part of the country. After all, as Manns says, “Where else can you spend fifty cents and be allowed to jump up and down on an antique worth between $20,000 and $30,000?”

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