The merry-go-rounds, booths and showfronts: an overview of fairground heritage


Through the years, the original commercial function of fairs was replaced by the single purpose of amusement. Fairground attractions emerged and diversified with the apparition of merry-go-rounds: the first entertainments conveying a physical sense of speed and vertigo.

Funfairs at the beginning of the 19th century popularized these amusement by enabling almost all social classes to ride increasingly large and unique carousels.

1.  Salons Carousels

With their impressive 40m long façade, Salons-Carousels were extravagant travelling attractions created from the 1880’s. Behind the highly decorated façade visitors would discover a vast and luxurious indoor salon -up to 800sqm- comprising a brasserie, a stage, a wooden dance floor and a central merry-go-round.

The creation of Salons-Carousels was only made possible by the development of the railway network on a European scale as 18 wagons were then necessary for the transportation of these attraction from town to town.

The Musée des Arts Forains is a tribute to Salons-Carousels, being vast secular cathedrals dedicated to amusement.

2. Carousel and gallopers

The carousel, being the symbol of funfairs, is highly rooted within the collective unconsciousness. Its origin can be traced back to the “Jeu de bague”, 18th century merry-go-rounds inspired by medieval jousting. Carousels as a fairground attraction appeared in the second half of the 19th century, powered by men or donkeys before the arrival of steam and electric engines.

Gallopers ennobled the crowds by enabling anyone to ride a horse when this privilege was generally reserved to soldiers and aristocrats. Carousels were also a way to experience adventure, especially for children. Being on their own they had to give their ticket, experience the fear and thrill of being pulled away from their parents during each turn to finally be reunited.

The Carousel on display at the Musée des Arts Forains is French with wooden horses designed for adults dating from 1900. It fits within the tradition of merry-go-round with suspended flooring and galloping horses. 12 horses aligned in rows of three create the impression of a moving cavalry.  The galloping horses featuring a wooden tale were made by the Limonaire firm from Paris. They are circled by 8 majestic and richly ornamented German standing horses from Freidrich Heyn workshop. On the ceiling, painted canvases made by Marius Coppier represents 12 female ideals from the Belle Epoque.

The bas-relief of the rounding boards and crown centre are the work of the Belgian sculptor Jules Moulinas. Although identified as French, this carousel is a real example of European cooperation ahead of time.

3. Carousel figures

Carousels offered themed scenarios in which the public was invited to take part.

These scenarios created by showmen to attract and entertain the crowd led to the creation of multiple carousel figures: Chariots and gondolas, wooden horses, domestic, exotic and imaginary animals, cartoon characters, bicycles, balloons, planes, trains, cars, motorcycles or even boats.

a. Animals

Animals were a major source of inspiration for fairground artists, exemplified by the large diversity of species found on carousels. These figures evidence the perception and popular imagination regarding the animal world: from the depiction of familiar farm animals, to wild lions, fantastic and mythological creatures such as unicorn.

In the 19th century, with the expansion of colonial empires and the organization of World Fairs and colonial exhibitions, the general public discovered and became partial to a new form of exoticism. Showmen thus took advantage of this fashion to introduce exotic fauna on their merry-go-rounds next to the traditional local animals.

The carousel manufacturers took inspirations from the living species presented in zoos and menageries or used the iconographic documents available at their time. The representation of local animals is a French fairground carvers’ specialty. The first French carousels presented realistic depictions of a single variety: cows, pigs, roosters… These familiar animals were later mixed with other figures. For a festive look, these realistic sculptures were often adorned with ribbons or sometimes hat.

Carousel figures and decorations occasionally depicted an all imaginary bestiary inspired by mythology: chimeras, sphinxes, dragons and crimson devils, griffins, unicorn and winged horses with velvet saddles, languid mermaids, centaurs with the faces of leading figures of the time. These fantastic creatures were a way to introduce myths and legend within the ideal well-organized world represented by the carousel.

b. Cartoon characters

The evolution of the popular imagination was disrupted in the 1920’s by the creation of cartoons. In those days, copyright wasn’t applying to the creators of cartoons and comics. Showmen and fairground artists immediately transposed those new characters that were highly popular into carousel figures and decorations.

Each successful film, cartoon or comic lead to the apparition of its fairground depiction and children’s carousels quickly featured new figures such as Mickey, Donald, Pluto or Popeye the sailor. Similarly the advertising cartoon for the smiling cow designed by Benjamin Rabier also inspired many carousel figures.

c. Transportation and travel

On a merry-go-round everything is made possible: one can ride a horse, a bicycle, a motorcycle or a train, take a plunge on a boat or a gondola, fly on a plane or a hot air balloon or even reach for the stars on a space rocket.

The apparition of new means of transportation has always fascinated the crowd, from trains to spaceships. Bearing modernity in mind, showmen largely used this technical progresses to make their rides more appealing and popularize these innovations. For instance, the year following the invention of pedal-powered bicycle (1861) saw the apparition of more bicycles on rides than in the streets. ( read more : “showmen as science popularizers”)

This transportation carousel figures were sometimes almost replicas in the interest of realism and technical accuracy.

d. Gondolas

Two categories can be distinguished: chariots and actual gondolas. Chariots recalled the 18th century royal parade chariots whose wheels were transposed into animal legs. The second type, called Venetian gondolas by the manufacturers can be opened, partially opened or covered.

Gondolas enabled the public to go on the carousel as a group with the best possible comfort. All possible carving styles have been applied to gondolas and chariots : from the baroque to the Art Nouveau.

4. Fairground organs

Fairground organs are the evolution of the 19th century barrel organs used by street singers and performers.

Limonaire, one of the major manufacturer, exported its organs all across Europe from the 1840’s. The firm became so well-known that the word “Limonaire” is now used in French as an antonomasia to name this precise type a mechanical music instrument.

Organs have constantly evolved through the years. The first fairground organ were independent, similar to street organs, then showmen integrated this musical technology within the crown centre of their merry-go-round to enliven each ride with music – and conceal the engine’s noise. Year after year, the technical progresses enabled fairground organs to expand, integrating increasing numbers of keys and instruments. A peak was reached in the 20th century with the creation of dance organs, serving in public venues and dance halls to reproduce the sound effect of a real orchestra.

In terms of mechanism, the first barrel organ system encoded music into wooden barrels (or cylinders) with metal pins, like music boxes and clocks’ carillons.  This technology had a few drawbacks, the duration of the sound was limited to the diameter of the cylinder and it was necessary to change the barrel in order to change the music. The punched card, originally patented for the Jacquard loom, was quickly adapted to mechanical organ in order to replace the cylinders, enabling to encode music without duration limitations and to create musical compilation.

5. Swing boats

Swing boats are among the first fairground rides. Their very simple system originally powered by hand enabled their large proliferation. Their construction was simple yet sturdy: the boats were attached to a wooden frame and could be easily stopped by a manual break lifting a platform under each boat.

In France, during the second Empire, swing boats were used along with carousels in parks as a form of street furniture.

The swing boat ride on display within the Musée des Arts Forains is a German model from 1920 for both children and adults by the Bothmann manufacture. Its main ornament is composed of 6 large painted canvas banners depicting Venice, its gondolas, canals, palaces and symbolic scenes themed around water. This decoration is directly inspired by the swing motion evoking a boat ride.

These swings are the perfect example of a fairground ride hectic life: the painted ceiling is original and dates back to 1920, the painted banner behind the boats are from 1945 while the frame and barriers were repainted in the 1960’s.


1. Targets and shooting galleries

Fairground games offered a wide range of experiences: from testing one’s ability, releasing stress, trying your luck or prompting fortune. The targets are among exercises of skill that can be divided into 4 categories:

A. Mechanical targets

Mechanical targets depicted animated tableaux. The background provided a context (an indoor scene, a cabaret, a workshop..) and articulated metal characters connected to clock-like mechanisms supplied the animation. A successful shot could trigger up to twelve coordinated movements. More simple targets only feature one rotation or swing motion. The target’s mechanic was generally hand-crafted yet the painting was entrusted to specialized artists to create unique models.

B. Tirs-salons

The « tir-salon » is a specific type of very sophisticated shooting gallery. Tirs-Salons were composed of several box-shaped targets mounted side by side that opened if the bull’s eye was successfully hit. Enclosed behind the doors, a complex mechanism animated a real tableaux with automatons: a wedding, a dance scene or a domestic quarrel. Some of these highly delicate boxes even features dollhouse-like electric lighting and included sound effects with an organ or a phonograph.

C. Mechanical shooting boxes

This more popular category is somehow similar to mechanical toys. The door of the boxe-shaped target uncovers a scene animated by painted figurines. The action depicted by these targets were generally comic and sometimes risqué with popular themes such as the happy couple or the wedding night.

D. Clay pipes targets

These targets were generally held in shooting galleries and depicted characters, animals or clowns. Long-stemmed clay pipes were attached all around the target and exploded when shot.

2. The shies and throwing games

More than a simple skill exercise, shies were a real form of release. These games were especially interactive as the crowd was invited to throw balls at famous popular archetypes and antagonists: the mother-in-law, the police officer, the Prussians or politicians.

These caricatured figures were calling upon imagination about fears, fantasies with irony. Shies were generally made out of softwood or lime tree and decorated with realistic depictions. Similarly to targets, shies can be considered as a form of Art Brut.

3. Lotteries and games

If fortune-tellers predicted wealth, lotteries and games of chance made it reachable. The overall quality regarding the manufacture of these games, including their ornaments as well of the showmen’ gift of gab appeared as a way to distract the public’s attention from the actual low value of the prizes: pseudo-porcelains, plaster figurines, dolls, soft toys..

The lottery have had many forms through the years. If the wheel of chance remains the main symbol of these stalls, there was a great variety of mechanic games appointing winners and losers in an equally random manner. This is the case for all the derby games, slot machines..

4. Fairground confectionaries

French fairground confectionaries with their dutch oliebol, Belgian waffles and gingerbread pigs were already part of the Middle Ages commercial fairs. The delicate aspect of the sweets and their appetizing smells widely contributed to the funfair’s atmosphere.

Traditionally these treats including pralines, marshmallows, candyfloss, toffee apples or crepes were all made on the fairground. The stalls were generally completed with regional specialities such as nougats from Montelimar, “Bêtises” from Cambrai or “Berlingots” (boiled sweet) from Carpantras.

With their majestic façades and interiors decorated with mirrors, fairground confectionaries were extremely luxurious, recalling patisserie and tea rooms normally reserved to the bourgeoisie. Everything from the display stands, coppery windows, jars and porcelain buttons was designed to instill trust regarding the establishment hygiene.

5. Fortune telling

The fairground world is very close to the Gispy community in which the art of divination is a female prerogative. The fairground fortune tellers used and popularized a wide range of divination technics from crystal balls tocards, reading palms and tea-leaves. According to their reputation and clientele, they officiated in wagons or luxurious travelling consulting rooms.

Showmen also designed fortune teller machines with prediction cards that reproduced the divination ritual with an automaton.


1. Puppetry

Puppetry is among the oldest and most traditional fairground show. The first plays presented religious scenes and chivalrous stories such as the Song of Roland. The repertoire widely diversified in the 19th century including classical plays, comedies and melodramas.

The famous British troupe Pajot Walton’s produced plays with a wide range of styles before focusing on variety shows.

Fairground puppetry featured both glove puppets, string puppets and complex marionettes performing in front of painted canvas and completed with theatre like curtains.

All the very delicate decorations were painted to the puppet scale.

2. The fairground mechanical theater

Fairground mechanical theatres were huge travelling structures that entertained the crowds before the cinema by depicting both fictional stories and currents news. These shows were composed of large painted canvases in the background, puppets and automatons in the forefront and enhanced with sound effects, music and magic lantern projections. Several scene shifters were required to perform the plays with a machinery worthy of the largest theatres.

Mechanical theatres presented ground breaking shows to a public that was always chasing new forms of entertainment.

Publié le : 09.01.17