was a Jewish woodcarver who learned his craft as a carver of carousel, carnival, and circus art (for which he is best known); trade signs; decoration of façades for public and private buildings at an early age, while working as an apprentice in Vilna, Lithuania. After a few years he journeyed to England, where he continued his apprenticeship under the tutelage of C.W. Spooner. Spooner's most important client was a man named Frederick Savage, the preeminent carousel maker in England. Savage's carousels, or "gallopers," as they were known, were world famous, and Spooner's shop employed a great many craftsmen to keep up with the demand for a variety of hand-carved fairground art.
About 1880, Illions continued his westward journey aboard a ship bound for America. Savage had promised delivery of a carousel and several circus wagons to an amusement entrepreneur in time for the opening of an exhibit and a carnival. Spooner's production was behind schedule, so the young carver, still an apprentice and therefore expendable, was given strict orders to finish the carving onboard by the time the ship reached New York. For the next two and half months, Illions worked in the hold of the sailing ship as it made its way across the Atlantic, finishing the job before docking in New York harbor.
In the United States, Illions eventually found work with William Mangels. Mangels' Carousal Works, located in Coney Island, New York, produced a wide variety of carnival rides and carved amusement-park facades. Illions was a highly skilled and prolific carver, and Mangels used this talent to his full advantage, giving Illions his most complex carving work.
Eventually Illions grew weary of watching Mangels reap the profits from his work, so in 1909 he opened his own shop. Illions' reputation as an excellent carver had already been established at the Mangels shop, so orders for his own carousels were soon keeping Illions' shop very busy.
Over the next twenty years, Illions created some of the wildest and most animated carousel horses ever produced. Flying manes covered in gold leaf, exotic armored steeds, and fiery expressions became Illions' trademarks. The untamed look of his horses fit in so well with the image advertised by the amusement parks of Coney Island that no less than eleven Illions carousels were operating in the Coney Island area at one time. As the shop grew, Illions' sons entered the family business, and the name of the company changed to M.C. Illions & Sons. Despite the company's growth, Illions still reserved the carving of all the heads of the outside row of horses for himself.
Illions' drive to create and his desire to succeed were extraordinary. His carving skills were legendary in Coney Island. His prolific output was part of the reason that he stayed so involved with the carving process. Although Illions would be commissioned for other carving projects, his reputation was built around carousels.
In the 1920s the demand for carousels faded. 11-lions, took the decreasing demand for his work personally. Along with other carousel carvers, he did what he could to stay busy by repairing existing carousels, but the era of the great carving shops had ended.
See also Carousel Art; Circus Art; Jewish Folk Art; William Mangels.