Figure 1.--This girl, probably in the 1880s, had a hobby horse. She looks to be 12-13 years old. Note how she is riding side saddle.
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, hobby horses for boys was a strong 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.
HBC has noted that 19th century portraits with hobby horses generally have boys on them. We have noted well over 200 images, primarily of American boys, many of which are posted on HBC. The vast bulk of these portraits are of boys. We know of no actual study here, but our observations are confirmed by several HBC readers. HBC readers have reported similar findings for English and German portraits. There were a few portraits of girls. The number of images with girls on hobbyhorses, however, is much more limited. This is often complicated, however, because many portraits were taken while boys still had long hair or wore dresses and other skirted outfits. e have identified many of these children as boys, but others we are not positive. Even considering these portraits, as best we can tell, hobby horses for boys was a strong convention. Another complicating factor is that many of these portrits are studio portraits and not taken at home. Thus we are not sure that the ratio of studio portraits would follow the same ratio at home. And of course, many nurseries had only one hobby horse that all the children rode. Still the decided trend to have boys rather than girls photographed with hobby horses is curious.
As a result of the association of boys and hobby horses, they are 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." We believe, for example, that a child in a dress siting astride a hobbyhorse or stuffed animal may liked be a boy. A good example here is a family portrit of the French De Lesseps family. We have, however, insufficent information at this time to say with authority that this is a strong indicator.
This is an interesting topic which HBC has just begun to address. Horesbeck riding was in the 19th century, before the invention of the internal combustion inginr and automobile, very common. There were significant class factors involved here. In the city it was primarily wealthy people who could afford horses, especially for riding. This was somewhat less of a factor in rural areas. Both men and women rode horses. It was an especially popular source of exercise and recreation for the privlidged classes. Both men and women rode. Many would take lessons as children. Girls would be taught to ride side saddle and boys astride. Almost all girls and women from affluent families in the 19th century rode side saddle. As they did not wear pants, side saddle was the only way that they could modestly ride.Riding side saddle was, however, a much more difficult way to ride. Girls from the gentry would be expected to ride side saddle. I'm not sure that the same was true for more humble families in the countryside. I am not sure about the extent the popularity of horseback riding differed for boys and girls in the 19th century. Considrble differences developed in the 20th century when horseback riding became more popular for girls than boys. This may seem surprising as boys were so interested in cowboys. We believe, however, that horseback riding was more popular with girls because so many boys developed an interst in team sports. Until the 1970s-80s, relatively fe girls played sports. but there developed definite differebce in the 20th centuy.
Our question is what went on in the nursery. As both boys and girls wore dresses, I'm unsure how this question was dealt with. I suspect that it was much more common for boys to have hobby horses than girls. Very young children were too young to ride. Also not all families had horses, especially city families. Were boys allowed to stradel hobbyhorses in their skirts. Were young girls allowed to sit astride hobby horses. While hobbyhorses seem more common for boys, large families were common in the 19th century. Thus irls may havde played on their brothers' hobby horses.
We are not sure to interpret some of the photographic portraits of children on hobby horses. There are childre, including boys, who are partioned on the hobbyhorse in a side-saddle position. Almosy always the boys so positioned are wearing skirted garments, usually dresses or kilts. What we are not sure about is whether this position meant that some boys not yet breaached were made to ride side saddle or if the osition was set up just for the portrait. Some mothers may have wanted the child's garment to be displayed to best advantage. Other mothers made have though such a posing more decorious. We think that ost girls were so posed. There are many portraits of boys, however, ride astride even before breaching.
A HBC reader writes, "I can help research this if you like, but here are some suggestions, how I'd go about it. I'd look for REAL horse images and descriptions, not
hobbyhorse ones: 1) Look up riding manuals of the period, hopefully French. See what they
recommend that girls should ride when they first learn. 2) I seem to recall that Radclyffe Hall's semi-autobiographical book The Well of Loneliness (1928) relates how in the 1890s (her childhood) it was assumed that girls would/should ride sidesaddle. Hall's female
protagonist's riding the other way, as a child, is considered scandalously unorthodox by her neighbours, and possibly dangerous. I can check this." [Nesvet] [HBC note: The side saddle phonemon is interesting and actual details would be a helpful addition to HBC. I think that it is fairly well established that girls and women rode side saddle in the the 19th century. Actual details and references, however, would be helpful. Also for our purposes in using props to determine gender in old portraits it would be especially interesting to know what occurred in the nursery.]
Nesvet, Rebecca. E-mail message, June 22, 2003.
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