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 diversified with the creation of merry-go-rounds: the first rides that gave visitors a physical sense of speed.

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

1.  Salons Carousels

With their impressive 40m long façade, Salons-Carousels were extravagant travelling attractions created starting in the 1880’s. Behind the highly decorated façade visitors would discover a vast and luxurious indoor salon -up to 800sqm- made up of 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 throughout Europe, as 18 wagons were necessary to transport these attractions from town to town.

The Musée des Arts Forains is a tribute to Salons-Carousels, as they were like cathedrals entirely dedicated to amusement.

2. Carousel and gallopers

The carousel, the symbol of funfairs, has a special place in the collective consciousness of many. Its origin can be traced back to the “Jeu de bague”, 18th century merry-go-rounds inspired by medieval jousting. Carousels appeared as a fairground attraction in the second half of the 19th century, powered by men or donkeys before the invent of steam and electric engines.

The ability to ride the horses on the merry-go-rounds made the crowds feel noble, as that privilege was generally reserved for soldiers and aristocrats. Carousels were also a way to experience adventure, especially for children. Being on their own they had to give their ticket and also experience the fear and thrill of being pulled away from their parents, only to be reunited as the carousel turned around just a bit farther.

The carousel on display at the Musée des Arts Forains is French with wooden horses designed for adults dating from 1900. It is a traditional merry-go-round with suspended flooring and galloping horses. 12 horses are aligned in rows of three create the impression of a moving cavalry.  The galloping horses featuring a wooden tail were made by the Limonaire firm from Paris. They are joined by 8 majestic and richly ornamented German standing horses from Freidrich Heyn workshop. On the ceiling, painted canvases made by Marius Coppier represent 12 ideal women 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 great example of the collaboration between many different European artists and styles.

3. Carousel figures

Carousels invited the public to take part in themed scenes based on many different cultures, places and time periods.

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 are evidence of the popular fascination with the animal world: from the depiction of familiar farm animals, to wild lions, fantastic and mythological creatures such as unicorns.

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

The carousel manufacturers were inspired by  the living species presented in zoos and menageries or the rare images 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 hats.

Carousel figures and decorations occasionally depicted imaginary beasts inspired by mythology: chimeras, sphinxes, dragons and crimson devils, griffins, unicorn and winged horses with velvet saddles, languid mermaids, and centaurs with the faces of leading figures and politicians of the time. These fantastic creatures were a way to introduce myths and legend within the ideal 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 law didn’t apply to the creators of cartoons and comics, so showmen and fairground artists immediately used those new, highly popular characters for carousel figures and decorations.

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

c. Transportation and travel

On a merry-go-round anything is 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. Keeping modernity in mind, showmen often used new technological inventions to make their rides more appealing and popularize these innovations. For instance, the year following the invention of pedal-powered bicycle (1861) saw the creation of more bicycles on rides than in the streets. ( read more : “showmen as science popularizers”)

These figures of transportation on carousels were sometimes almost exact replicas in the attempt to preserve realism and technical accuracy.

d. Gondolas

There are two categories within this type of figure: chariots and actual gondolas. Chariots were made in the style of 18th century royal parade chariots with the wheels replaced by animal legs. The second type, called Venetian gondolas by the manufacturers can be fully open, partially open or covered.

Gondolas enabled the public to go on the carousel as a group, and they were more comfortable than sitting on the horses. Gondolas and chariots have been carved with many different styles : from the baroque to the Art Nouveau.

4. Fairground organs

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

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

Organs have been evolving constantly throughout the years. The first fairground organs were independent, similar to street organs. Later, showmen integrated this musical technology within the crown centre of their merry-go-round to animate each ride with music and to conceal the engine’s noise. Year after year, new technological advances enabled fairground organs to integrate increasing numbers of keys and instruments. A breakthrough moment in the 20th century was the creation of dance organs, which served in public venues and dance halls and could reproduce the sound effects of an orchestra.

The first barrel organ system used the mechanism of wooden barrels (or cylinders) with metal pins, similar to those used in music boxes and clock chimes. This technology had a few drawbacks. For exmaple, 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 for use in the mechanical organ in order to replace the cylinders, enabling creators to encode music without duration limitations and to create musical compilations.

5. Swing boats

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

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

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

These swings are the perfect example of a fairground ride’s evolution: the painted ceiling is original and dates back to 1920, the painted banner behind the boats is from 1945, and 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 to releasing stress, trying your luck or prompting fortune. These games were all different exercises of skill that can be divided into 4 categories :

A. Mechanical targets

Mechanical targets depicted different animated scenes. The background provided a context (an indoor scene, a cabaret, a workshop, etc.) 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 mechanical components were generally hand-crafted, and the painting was entrusted to specialized artists who made each target unique.

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 hit successfully. Enclosed behind the doors, a complex mechanism animated the scene though the use of automatons: a wedding, a dance scene or a domestic quarrel. Some of these highly delicate boxes even featured dollhouse-like electric lighting and included sound effects via an organ or a phonograph.

C. Mechanical shooting boxes

This more popular category of shooting games uses a mechanism similar to mechanical toys. The doors of the box-shaped target uncover a scene animated by painted figurines. The action depicted by these targets were generally comic and occasionally risqué with popular themes such as the happy couple or the wedding night.

D. Clay pipe targets

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

2. The shies and throwing games

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

These caricatured figures forced the crowd to use their imagination, imagining these bothersome figures were real. 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 of chance

If fortune-tellers predicted wealth, lotteries and games of chance made it attainable. The overall quality of the manufacturing of these games, including their decorations, along with the showmen’s gift of gab distracted the public from the low value of the prizes: fake-porcelain pieces, plaster figurines, dolls, and soft toys.

The lottery has had many forms through the years. Although the wheel of chance remains the main symbol of these stalls, there was a great variety of mechanical games appointing winners and losers in an equally random manner. This is the case for all the derby games and 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 taste of the sweets and their appetizing smells greatly contributed to the funfair’s atmosphere.

Traditional treats such as pralines, marshmallows, cotton candy, toffee apples or crepes were made on the fairground. Usually the stalls also sold 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, similar to patisserie and tea rooms normally reserved to the bourgeoisie. Everything from the display stands, copper framed windows, jars and porcelain buttons was designed to give people an extravagant experience.

5. Fortune telling

The fairground world is closely related to the Gispy community in which most of the women practice the art of divination. The fairground fortune tellers used and popularized a wide range of divination technics from crystal balls tocards, reading palms and tea-leaves. Depending on their reputation and clientele, they officiated in wagons or luxurious travelling consulting rooms.

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


1. Puppetry

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

The famous British troupe Pajot Walton 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 canvases and the set were completed with theatre like curtains.

All the very delicate decorations were painted to the same scale as the puppets.

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 current news events. Shows were composed of large painted canvases for backgrounds, puppets and automatons in the forefront and enhanced with sound effects, music and magic lantern projections. Several stage hands were required to perform the plays due to their complex machinery worthy of the largest theatres.

Mechanical theatres presented ground-breaking shows to crowds that were always chasing new forms of entertainment.

Published on 09.01.17