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History Of The Rocking Horse

by Jeffrey Rolo

Rocking horses are more than a great toy for a child; they are a distinguished piece of history! In fact private collectors and museums currently own and/or display some dating back to the 17th century, including one once owned by King Charles the First of England when he was a child.

Although rocking horses became prominent during the Georgian and Victorian periods of England (where it subsequently became popular in America), it is believed that crude toy horses placed upon wheels were made for children as far back as ancient Greece and Egypt.

During the medieval ages hobby horses (also known as broomstick horses) became popular children's toys, consisting of nothing more than a fake horse head placed at the end of a long stick. The child would place the stick between his/her legs and "ride" the horse. In fact, such hobby horses can still be found today!

Hobby horses soon gave way to barrel horses in the sixteenth century. Barrel horses consisted of a circular log supported by four legs and adorned with a fake horse head at one end of the log. While certainly crude in nature when compared to a rocking horse, the barrel mimicked the back of a horse much better than the hobby horse.

The first known incarnations of a true rocking horse with a semi-circular base were created in the seventeenth century. While they introduced rocking to the world of toy horses, it wasn't until the eighteenth century that the horses became grand affairs created by the hands of master craftsmen. It was during the eighteenth century that rocking horses started taking significant root in America, and in fact in 1880 an American company based in Cincinnati, Ohio (P.J. Marqua) was the next to release a significant advance in rocking horses: their patented swinger base.

The swinger rocker held an advantage over the traditional bow rocker because it needed far less space to use. Bow rockers steadily move forward as the child rocks, whereas the swinger rocker stands in place. Not only did it require less space, it was safer to use.

Children of nobility and the very rich found themselves enjoying elaborate handcrafted masterpieces, featuring leather saddles, glass eyes and manes and tails composed of real horsehair. In fact they were so grand that children would learn the basics of riding on these rocking horses, including the sidesaddle style. Naturally such horses were unobtainable to the common populace, who were forced to continue purchasing or building barrel horses for their children.

It wasn't until the industrial revolution that the popularity of these horses exploded. Although part of this can be attributed to cheaper production costs, it was primarily due to the increasingly richer (and growing) middle class. This growth was stopped short during World War I (due to the lack of men available to build them) and the Great Depression (due to the poor economic conditions). The rocking horse never did return to its hey-days of old, and in fact were almost completely destroyed instead around the 1960's. But there is an increasing quantity of craftsmen returning to the rocking horse art, restoring the old pieces and creating new works of art that will be valued for decades to come.



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