By Lily Kaar
This week’s object is actually a pair of objects: a matching set of rocking horses from the late 1800s that probably belonged to the brothers Winne and Henry Hoornbeck. Both are yellow-painted wood, with grey horsehair manes and tails, and with saddles, bridles, and ears of real leather. The crescent-shaped rockers—one tan, one blue—have scenic pictures painted on the center panel. The horse with the tan base has more intact paint, keeping a smoother finish, but the other horse has kept more of its leather pieces; not only does it still have both ears and both stirrups, it also has an intact set of reins.
While various types of toy horses have been around for about 3,000 years, the first references to ridable ‘stick horses’ or hobby horses can be found in Greco-Roman times, one apocryphal story claiming Socrates rode one while joining his children in play. Rocking horses were only developed in the 17th century, and remained exclusive to the wealthy until the rise of the middle class. Most early horses were carved by hand, painted carefully, finished with real horsehair manes and tails, and even came with removable saddles and bridles.
Early rocking horses came on the iconic crescent-shaped rockers and were made of solid wood. Since technology at the time did not allow for the same fine level of sanding we can achieve today, most horses—including these— were covered in several layers of gesso, a thick white paste often used to prime painting canvases. Gesso was far easier to smooth and sand than the actual wood and created a much more polished surface to paint on, despite the application process being very time-consuming. Horses were finished in a variety of patterns and colors; during the Victorian period the most popular design in Britain was a dapple grey, the favorite of Queen Victoria. In America, several manufacturers decided to decorate their horses in the flamboyant style of carousel animals, trying to profit off of the popularity of fairgrounds and carnivals.
Because rocking horses were originally solid wood, they were top-heavy and prone to falling over. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that two separate solutions for this safety issue arose. Some carvers began to make their horses hollow in the belly, easing the weight imbalance and stabilizing the toy. An American carver from Cincinnati, Philip Marqua, patented an “Improvement in Hobby or Rocking-Horses” in 1878, placing the horse body on a ‘safety stand’ “leaving the horse free to swing with an easy rocking motion without any fears of upsetting, injury to floors or carpets, and without noise or racket.” Many high-end manufacturers today sell exclusively safety stand rocking horses, leaving the extra-large dramatically curved bow rockers in the past.
Today, most rocking horses are mass-produced, often stuffed or otherwise simplified in detail. For those who want a traditional rocking horse—painted realistically, hand-carved and all—skilled enthusiasts have kept the art alive through the 20th century. Just be prepared for the price tag; these beautiful beasts can easily fetch anywhere from $2,000 to $25,000.
Ahbel-Rappe, Sara, and Rachana Kamtekar, eds. A Companion to Socrates. Chichester: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2009. Print.
D’Aulaire, Emily, and Per Ola. “Happy Trails.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian mag. Dec. 2002. Web. 29 July 2015.
“History of Rocking Horses.” Stevenson Brothers. Stevenson Brothers Rocking Horses, 2015. Web. 29 July 2015.
“Improvement in hobby-horses.” US Patent 208,531. Google Patents: 1 Oct. 1878. Web. 30 July 2015.