Hobby, Rocking, and Stick Horses

Figure 1.--This American boy in what looks like an early 1880s image poses with his rocking horse. Note the riding stick. He wears a front buttoning dress even though he has a short, boyish haircut. The kilt suit is rather plain, with a relatively small collar--but a very large bow.

One of the most popular feature of any nursery was the hobby horse. They came in many different times. Not every boy had one, they were expensive. Every Victoria and Edwardian boy, however, and some girls wanted one in their nursery. Many of the lucky boys who got a hobby horse developed a very close personal, imaginary relationships with their hobby horses. Often a boy's hobby horse was the center piece of his nursery. They were popular with boys up to 9 or 10 years of age. The hobby horse may be one of the most traditional 19th Century toy. The modern viewer might consider it so traditional and so wholesome that it is hard to invision it as a controversial toy. Yet, the hobbey horse, like the bicycle, was sharply criticised my eminent scholars of the day.


We haveno chronological information at this time. We note photographic portraits beginning about the1860s, but this is probabla reflection of the much greater number of portaits that appear beginning in the 1860s. We note much larger numbers of portraits of children, mostly boys, on hobby horses during the 1870s-90s. The hobby horse predates photograohy as we have noted paintings depicting them. Just when they first appeared we do not yet know. Of course there wer many kinds of hobby horses and related toys like stick horses and pull toys. Each of these different varriants have a chronology of their own. This chronology may vary somewhat from country to country.


Many of the terms used for hobbyhorses, like rocking horses and stick horses are obvious. The term "hobbyhorse" is more complicated. It would seem to be a horse used as a hobby or activity persued for pleasure. Actually it appeas to come from the Middle English usage of "hobby" which meant a small horse. This was a usage common in the 14th century. Also "Hob" became a name for a horse, like "Dobbin". The use as "hobby" as a leisure persuit is much more recent. We are not positive when hobbyhorse was first used in the sence of a horse figure as a children's plaything, but may have been as early as the 16th century. The modern term "hobbyhorse" is a generic term encompassing rocking horses, stick horses, and related horse figures for children. We do not yet know many of the related foreign language terms. The Dutch word is " hobbelpaard ". The French word is " cheval à bascule ". The French also use " namour ". The German word for a hobby/rocking horse is " Schaukelpferd ". The word for stick horse is " Steckenpferd ". The Indonesian/Malay word is " kuda ??? ". The Portuguese word is " cavalo de balouço ". The Spanish word is " cheval à bascule ". The Swedish word is " gunghäst ".


The hobbey horse may be one of the most traditional 19th Century toy. The modern viewer might consider it so traditional and so wholesome that it is hard to invision it as a controversial toy. Yet, the hobbey horse, like the bicycle, was sharply criticised my eminent scholars of the day. Some of the sharpest ctiticisms focused on:
Luxury: William P. Dewees wrote a book which was extremely popular in the early 19th Century and provided guidance to the 19th Century homemaker. He counseled mothers that the hobbey horse "should be considered a luxury, or it will be abused by becoming to familiar, it should therefore, only be introduced ocassionally, and that as a reward after good conduct."
Cost: Hobbey horses could be quite expensive, an luxyry beyond the means of even some middle class families.
Imoral: Yes, as stange as it may seen, some prevaors of public morals considered the hobbey horse, much like the bicycle, immoral. The question was often raised as to whether girls or women should be given bikes and I suspect the same reasoning affected the purchases of hobbey horses for girls. More than one late-19th Century suggested that the seat of the bicycle might beget or foster impure thoughts. [See for example Harvey GreenThe Light of the Home (New York: Pantheon Books, 1893), p. 159.]

The Photographic Record

Boys often wanted to have their photographs taken with their hobby horses. Unfortunately the taking of a photograph was usually considered a formal event. Thus the pictures do not usually show what the children would have normally worn in the nursery and what they would have worn when riding their trusty steeds. Many of the photographs were taken in the photgraphic studio. I do not think hobby horses were transported to the studio, at least not commonly. More likely the studios had a hobbyhorse that could be used. This was one of the many props that studios often had. Only a few of the available images were actually taking in the nursery. Thus these images just use the hobby horse as a prop for the boys being photographed in their party suits. I am not sure when hobby horses originated, probably in antiquity. They were clearly popular in Victorian England and America and also probably Europe. The earliest European references that I am aware of date to the early 19th Century, but they may have existed even earlier.

Figure 2.--These two British brothers with their nursery rocking horse in a photograph taken about 1890. Unfortunately this posed photograph is not a good indicator of what the boys might be wearing when riding the horse in their nursery.

Types of Hobby Horses

There were quite a wide variety of hobby horses. Some were static. Others were on rockers of various designs. The rocking horses may have been the best known and certainly the most prised. Stick horses may have been the most common, because they were the least expensise. They were very inexpensive. Even a boy from very humble circumstances might have a stick horse. HBC has collected some information on the different types of stick horses. Perhaps the most common and popular type of hobby horses are the ones on curved wooden rockers--similar to rocking chairs. This is the type of hobby horse that is most associated with the Victorian nursery. Boys in the confines of their nurseries engaged in countless adventures, rocking away on their hobby horses. It is not clear to me how boys were dressed while rocking away on their hobby horses. Many boys but rarely girls had stick horses. The stick horse was a simple, traditional toy that never ceased to delight small children as they cantered across imaginary ranges and case to rescue a cavalry patrol surrounded by savage Indians. These wonderful traditiional toys provided hours of carefree entertainment for children of an earlier era. Stick horses had the big advantage that they were mobile and could be taken from the nursery on outings to shops or to the park. A stick horse once might have a carved wooden or other head. Usually there were painted features. Some had leather briddles and reins, perhaps with a fabric mane. Some hobby horses had wheels and were riden much as modern chidren ride tricicles. The hobby horse descrined here by Ernest Shepard was an early wheeled hobby horse. I believe these wheeled hobby horses first appeared in the 1870s. Most of these wheeled hobby horses appear to have been made in the 1870s and 1880s well before the turn of the century and the era of popular outdoor photography. Thus many of the images of the wheeled hobby horses were formal studio photographs. Some hobbey horse were made without rockers, wheeks or springs. Rather they were stabtionary. Some were beautifully carved, like the horses on carosels. Others were made of fabric, rather like a stuffed animal and might have some realistic feattures. They were more stable than a rocking horse and were thus more suitable for younger boys that might find a rocking horse to much of a challenge. Another type of hobby horse is mounted on a spring to give a little bounce when riding on it. This does not appear to have been one of the more common types of hobey horse. I have no details on actual manufacturing statistics. Based on available images, however, this seems to have been a relatively rare type. Perhaps it was a little more dangerous for a younger todler.

Age of the Boys

We would currently view a hobby horse as a toy for a very young child. The Victorian and Edwardian age was, however, a much simpler time. Children had fewer diversions. Many spent considerable time in the confines of the nursery. Thus a boy's hobby horse took on a much larger imprtance in his life the such a toy would in the life of a modern child. Therefore a boy might continue to enjoy his hobby horse until 9-10 years of age--perhaps longer. One British film The Rocking Horse Winner deals as I recall with a boy of about 12 years of age still riding his rocking horse.

Gender Connotations

HBC has noted that 19th century portraits with hobby horses generally have boys on them. The number of umages with girls on hobbyhorses is much more limited. This is often complicated, however, than many portraits were taken while boys still had long hair or wore dresses and other skirted outfits. As best we can tell, however, hibby horses for boys was a string convention. This is thus a useful indicator in interpreting gender in these images. A HBC reader agrees, writing, "One does not see many little girls on hobby horses. I have seen some on hobby horse but in a side saddle position. You do, however, find older girls on real horses." This is an interesting trend. Hobby horses for younger boys, but girls pursuing horse back riding much more than boys.

Country Trends

We believe that hobby horses were popular for children throughout Europe and in the United States and Europe. This would include British Empire countries like Australia and New Zealand. We know this is the case for America and England because we have a wealth of photographic portraits to substantiate it. Our collection of American and British images reflect's HBC's greater acces to American and British images, not because hobby horses were not common in other countries. While we have fewer German portraits, for example, we have enough to suggest that hobby horses were also popular in Germany. We believe that they were common items in nurseries in many other countries, but we do not have actual portraits to substantiate this. We thus do not at this tim know of any specific country trends.

Social Class

Of course there were social class factors involved here. Hobby horses ere not inexpensive. Many families could not afford an expensive hobby horse. Of cour rlated items like stick horses or pull toys were less expensive and probably more common.

Personal Accounts

Ernest Shepard (the original artist in A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh) in his beautifully written memoirs of his boyhood recalls the redoubtable "Septimus"--his trusty stead. Shepared dedicated an entire chapter to Septimus:

Figure 3.--This image is a drawing by Ernest Shepard showing him riding "Septimus" as a boy of 7 in 1886.

Septimus was my pride and joy. He had arrived, carefully packed, on the 10th of December [1886], my 7th birthday, and been christened Septimus by my father. The horse was a gift from my Godmother-Aunt. [The astute reader will note that 1885-86 was the years in which Little Lord Fauntleroy was published. And yes Ernest, but not his older brother, was dully oufitted in one.] Cyril [Ernest's older brother] and I always thought there must have been some direct divine influence working on my behalf to guide Aunt Alice on this occasion, leading her away from the more useful gifts; and that the Angel Gabriel; disguised as the shopwalker in Mr. James Shoolbred's store , had led her to Septimus where he stood, with eyes dilated and distended nostrils, pawing the air with his two forelegs as though yearning to discard his three wooden wheels. It was some days before I mastered him, but after that I would carry him down the front steps and pedal along the Terrace, `clank, clank,' to the end and back again, my little legs spinning round till Septimus and I stopped for lack of breath, or the face of Lizzie, the cook, appeared at the area steps to say that dinner was ready. Teathered to a lamp-post, Septimus would then await his master's pleasure.

Difficult Images

Most of the portaits of children on or with hobby horses are clearly boys. There are some protraits with girls as well, but relatively few. Even when the portraits are not identified, it is usually realtively easy to identigy the gender of the child. We have some portraits, however, that we are unsure about. We would be interested in reader comments if they have any insights concerning these images.


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Created: January 5, 1999
Last updated: 4:48 AM 10/26/2008