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Heritage: National Carousel Day

What’s in a Name?

Is it a carousel or merry-go-round? Any rotating platform can be called a carousel; however, the term generally describes a large structure with a collection of animals and figures used for seats. “Merry-go-round” typically refers to a small platform that children can operate by themselves.

What Goes Around

Story by Mary Gottschalk

National Carousel Day (aka National Merry-Go-Round Day) on July 25 should really be an Iowa holiday.

Carousels date back to at least 17th-century Europe. Mechanically powered carousels came into their own in the United States, often as a feature of trolley parks designed to encourage ridership on new streetcar lines. Iowans were responsible for three of the major advances in carousel technology.

The first was spearheaded by William Schneider, a Davenport businessman and promoter who obtained a patent in 1871 for what is considered the modern carousel. In 1923 Willis Peck of Des Moines patented “a rotary playground apparatus,” and in 1927 John Ahrens of Grinnell patented the Miracle Whirl, a merry-go-round that could be operated by one person.

Of the estimated 4,000 carousels in the United States in the early 1900s, fewer than 200 remain. Iowa is home to four. Those in Story City (North Park, built 1913 by the Herschell-Spillman Co.) and Mt. Pleasant (Midwest Old Threshers, built 1894) are originals with hand-carved animals. Those in Arnolds Park (date unknown) and Des Moines (Heritage Carousel, built 1998, above) are replicas.

Photo Courtesy Eric J. Hermann Design & Photography
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