The plaintive melodies and the sounds of fife and drum are transformed into a joyous cascade by the pipes of the mechanical organ. No instrument could be less solemn. It's not so much the sounds of Rossini's "Thieving Magpie Overture" or a swinging "Valencia" we hear as those of children's laughter when the world was young and the brass ring there for the grabbing.
Newsweek review, 1975.
Success is the eternal prize and to go for the brass rings means a chance to achieve wealth or success; a prize or reward. The expression comes from the practice of giving a free ride to anyone who was able to grab a ring from a chute while riding a merry-go-round.

This colloquialism dates from the late 1800s and has its origins in European history of the late 17th century, nobility and in particular the practice for warfare. Excessive injuries during tournaments of the medieval era made way for safer sporting games that displayed competitors’ skills and horsemanship. One replacement they discovered was the foundation of the carousel. They borrowed the word from the Italian garosello and the Spanish word carossela, both translate into the phrase “little war":

One of the equestrian games played at the carousel was inspired by a training exercise for tournaments: the game of "catching the ring." Elaborately costumed noble participants instructed by their coaches, the great horse masters of Europe, introduced a whole new era of the sport of catching rings. Louis XIV at the court of France, was reputed to be one of the best at this new, considerably less dangerous sport. Antoine Pluvenil and Grisonne, two men often credited as the front-runners of classical riding and dressage, both instructed Kings and noblemen in the finer points of riding and "riding at rings". Pluvinel in his 1623 book Maneige Royal, devoted 1/3 of the manual to instructing King Charles on his ring riding skills

There were several other games played at the carousel. They were the quintain games which involved lancing a pivoting figure or dummy with a lance from horseback, and another version first referred to as a roundabout which involved lancing small rings from seats suspended from a revolving apparatus with seats, which were later changed to small wooden horses. We know these apparatus today as the carousel bedecked with magnificently painted horses. Marie Antoinette was particularly fond of this aristocratic game and even had a building erected at Versailles Park to house her carousel.

The object of the game was for the competitor to try to lance a small brass ring on the external piece of the roundabout.
It is not enough to reach for the brass ring.
You must also enjoy the merry-go-round.
Julie Andrews, English actress
During the reign of Henry IV (1399 - 1413), the carousel was used as the entertainment that consisted of pageants, drills, and contests with participating troops of costumed horsemen. In 1662 Louis XIV built a spectacular carousel between the Tuileries Garden and the Louvre in Paris calling it The Place du Carrousel.

Naturally children wanted to get in on all of the sporting fun and soon a Parisian toy maker created a make believe carousel complete with hobbyhorses on a platform that turned at a leisurely pace so that everyone, children as well as adults, could enjoy this event. The children of Paris adored it and by the middle of the 1800’s the ride had spread from France across Europe and over to America.

Along the way the name carousel was called by a great variety of names. From caroussels and maneges de chevaux de bois in France to the United Kingdom where they were called roundabouts, gallopers, and tilts. In the Netherlands they were called stoomcaroussels and torneos in Italy while in Germany they called them karussels. By the time they reached the United States they were being called everything from flying horses to carousels, whirligigs and steam riding galleries, carry-us-alls and flying and Spinning Jennies, not to mention hobby horses, and, of course, merry-go-rounds.

From about 1880 to the beginnings of the 1930’s American children delighted in the wooden carousel. Some of the kiddy carousels became mobile and traveled about on small truck and horse drawn wagons continuing to acquire traditions that harkened back to their beginnings. Many were made with a lead horse as the largest, most brilliantly bejeweled horse. Typically, this horse is a warhorse or a military horse and several carousels had rings now made of brass that riders could endeavor to spear with little wooden wands, just like the early game that spawned the carousel.

Eventually carousel makers created a gravity-fed chute that dispensed a large number of iron rings and only a few ones made out of brass. By holding on with one hand, reaching out and grabbing the ring with perfect timing anyone who could “grab the brass ring’ got a free ride. In between rides the operator would collect the rings and randomly reload the chute for another chance at the brass ring. Consequently the trophy was won, not merely for being long-armed or nimble fingered, but becuase there was a substantial element of chance too.

The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down

The merry-go-round broke down,
As we went 'round and 'round
Each time 'twould miss, We'd steal a kiss
And the merry-g-round went...
Guy Lombardo Orchestra ,1930s

Partially because of the possibilities of people getting hurt as they grabbed for the rings while riding on a moving horses as well as riders keeping the rings as souvenirs, finding a carousel that still dispenses rings is quite rare. One of only a handful of carousels left in the United States today that dispense rings on the ride is the 1911 Looff Carousel located on Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in Santa Cruz, California. Some of you might be interested in some general carousel trivia and facts from their web site:

  • Carousels run clockwise in the United Kingdom, the opposite of all American ones and most worldwide; a British outer horse’s left side faces out, and therefore is the more elaborate, or “romance,” view.
  • As many as 3,000 carousels were produced in the U.S. during the “golden age” of American wooden carousels (early 1800s to early 1930s); today there are less than 175 operating.
  • Over 85,000 rings are replaced each year, mostly taken home as souvenirs; for every 6.5 people who ride the carousel, one takes a ring. But filching rings is nothing new -- a photo taken in 1911 when the ride first opened clearly shows a sign stating, “Please Do Not Take Rings.”
  • The ring machine holds approximately 5,000 of the 1.5” diameter rings at one time.
  • Originally, rings were fed manually into the metal arm by a park worker (who also added one brass ring per ride, redeemable for a free ride). The process was mechanized around 1950.
  • The rings used now are all steel; brass ones are only added for special occasions.
  • In the 1970s the rings were discontinued briefly --ridership plummeted about 75 %.
  • There are less than 20 working carousel ring machines left in the U.S.
The expression to go for the brass ring is the embodiment of one great metaphor. It’s an expression that instantaneously conjures up an array of associations that go along with the range of meanings. Not only does it convey an opportunity that allows one to reach for such a prize, but also brings to mind the image of a goal or prize--either one that is to be reached for or one that has been managed through difficulty and triumphantly achieved. It's without a doubt simple to see how the carousel game became a metaphor: “the metaphorical brass ring is a goal achievable by anyone in "the game" with the right combination of reach and luck; achieving it means you've won the prize of all prizes. “


History of the carousels:

iFairground > History > Carousel Research :

The Jousting Tournaments of Colonial Times..."To Catch the Brass ... :

1911 Looff Carousel: Fun Facts:

The Maven’s Word of the Day: