Alison Sofield, Volunteer Collections
Just in time for the school holidays there is a display in the main gallery of the Museum of toys that were in vogue before i-phones, i-pads and Mr. Google came along. Among these classic items is a beautiful wooden rocking horse, donated by E.D. Kaye, known to the family who owned it in 1937 as “Dolly Mare”.
The history of rocking horses can be traced back to the Middle Ages, to the popular toy of the day which was the hobby horse. A horse’s head made from felted wool or similar materials was attached to a long stick. Children could pretend to ride these make believe horses.
By the 16th century these hobby horses were replaced by the “barrel” horse, comprised of a small barrel with four wooden legs and a wooden head. This horse appealed to children as it was more realistic and mimicked the feeling of being on a real horse.
Around the 17th century, the rocking horse as we know it today came into being and the rocking principle became an integral part of rocking horses. The one big disadvantage of these advances in design meant the toy, made of wood, became very heavy and in danger of tipping over when the rider became over enthusiastic. A safety standard was introduced in Victorian times making the horses hollow and more stable. Often a secret compartment was incorporated into the interior of the horse where valuables could be stored, such as photographs, mint coins, baby hair and other trinkets for successive generations to discover.
Queen Victoria’s own children had rocking horses and the favoured horse colouring was dapple grey. The royal seal of approval made the rocking horse very popular through Victoria’s long reign. A note here – when the then President of America, Barack Obama, visited England a few years ago he bought with him a special present for young Prince George; you guessed it, a rocking horse.
Interest in rocking horses lapsed through the 20th century, due largely to two World Wars, the great depression of the thirties and the advent of more sophisticated and cheaper toys.
However, all was not lost. In the 1980s the Stevenson brothers, Marc and Tony who came from a family of shipwrights began making rocking horses again in England and soon built a reputation for themselves. The brothers, as the business grew, branched out into restoration of wooden horses and many rocking horses once consigned to the rubbish dump have been beautifully restored. Further developments, such as the zebra rocking horse, soon became collectors’ items. It’s hard to imagine a zebra rocking horse though. To own one be prepared to pay $8000 NZ plus postage! Stevensons will make to order as well and the dappled grey of Victorian times is still very popular.
Those of us of more mature years can hopefully remember the wooden rocking horses that were made here in New Zealand, they were more like an early trike with a cutout horse shape on metal rockers.