Inside the Collection

All I want for Christmas is a rocking horse

Victorian bow rocking horse, late 19th century
Victorian bow rocking horse, late 19th century, Powerhouse Museum collection, purchased 1985, 85/2060.

One of the classic images of the Victorian Christmas was the rocking horse which still features on cards today. At the turn of the twentieth century horses were still a vital part of life. In the country they provided muscle for many farm operations, and in the town they powered transport. It was no wonder that children enjoyed and wanted toy horses and none was more attractive and desirable than the ride-on rocking horse. In wealthy British households, where children spent hours separated from their parents in the nursery, the rocking horse was a favourite. More than any other toy of the period, it came to symbolise the stability and endurance of Victorian family life.

Rocking horses had first appeared in England in the 17th century but its golden age was between 1850 and 1920. In the late nineteenth century the rocking horses were of the bow type with the horse’s hooves mounted at full gallop on deeply-curved bows. They were seen as an educational toy as they offered a relatively safe way of learning the basics of riding at an early age, all in the safety and comfort of the nursery, regardless of the weather. Larger rocking horses could be accommodated in spacious nurseries and with this increase in size came the potential for a more vigorous ride. The main problem with bow rocking horses was that they tended to be quite dangerous if the horse tipped sideways. Their heavy weight could also crush small fingers and toes, and they tended to wreak havoc on walls and floors.

In 1880 a new way of supporting a rocking horse was patented by Phillip J. Marqua of Cincinnati, USA, where the horse’s legs were attached to parallel bars slung by brackets from a sturdy frame. The safety model offered a more restricted ride since the horse no longer travelled across the floor and the horse’s legs were not spread out in a galloping position. It became the preferred alternative and it was not long before manufacturers all over the world were offering it as a safe alternative to the bow rockers.

Swing or safety rocking horses were imported into Australia until the onset of the First World War. After the War, Australian manufacturers dominated the market with mass production techniques moving the rocking horse from an expensive handmade item to one which could be purchased by the middle classes. The rocking horse continued to be a favourite toy, handed down through families, throughout the 20th century.

Swing wooden rocking horse
Swing rocking horse, made by Chris Woolcock, Mc Graths Hill, New South Wales, Australia, 2007, Powerhouse Museum collection, purchased 2007, 2011/31/1.

The Museum has quite a good collection of rocking horses including home made versions of the curiously-named shoofly ones. But the Museum did not have a swing rocking horse so it was my happy task to have one commissioned by traditional rocking horse maker, Chris Woolcock.

Chris Woolcock in his workshop.
Chris Woolcock in his workshop.

Construction of Chris’ horses comprises four main parts head, body, legs and stand. The head is laminated for greater strength with the core piece placed with the grain perpendicular to the neck and the ears parallel to the neck line. Larger horses have a more complicated construction method with a cheek insert. The parts are glued together using clamps to hold the pieces as the glue sets. Each horse is then free-hand carved using a rotary rasp, so that no too are identical. Chris makes his horses from American Cottonwood, grown locally, which is affordable, easy to work, light to carry and stains well. He mixes his own stains to obtain the right colour which adds to the custom-made look of his horses. Each horse has a hollow chest to reduce weight and prevent cracking. Some clients put a brass time capsule in this space to celebrate the year the horse was made or the event when it was given.

The Museum’s rocking horse is dappled grey in colour, with a long “salt and pepper” coloured mane and tail made from actual horse hair. The horse is fitted with a tan-coloured leather snaffle bridle and saddle, with polished brass stirrups and a Royal Stewart tartan saddle cloth. The head has amber glass eyes, horse-hair eyelashes and a red rosette.

Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator

4 responses to “All I want for Christmas is a rocking horse

  • Just a correction re your information on rocking horse history. The swing stand rocking horse invention was patented by Phillip Marqua of Cincinnati, USA in 1878. The patent was taken out by Haddon in England in 1880. More information can be found in The Rocking Horse a History of Moving Toy Horses, by Patricia Mullins, London 1992

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