The craftsman who first placed a wooden horse on rockers—a likely outgrowth of the cradle—is unknown, but by the end of the 18th century, rocking horses had evolved into ornately crafted, fiery chargers at full gallop, heads outstretched, horsehair manes and tails flowing, glass eyes gleaming. Queen Victoria’s nine children insisted on bringing a dapple-gray on family vacations. Napoléon’s young son, Joseph-Charles-François, treasured his painted pony. Sweden’s King Karl XV and King Prajadhipok of Thailand rode rocking horses in their youth (as did the current heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, on a model carefully selected for him by Queen Elizabeth II).
For a long time, rocking horses were the purview of the rich. Then, with the increasing prosperity brought on by the Industrial Revolution, they became nursery fixtures of children born to an emerging middle class. There have been many permutations. In Germany, wooden and papier-mâché horse frames were often covered with calfskin. In bicycle-crazed France, velocipede rockers—wooden horses mounted on tricycles—were all the rage. Inventive Victorian manufacturers made horses with multiple seats to accommodate up to three children at a time, a model the Stevenson brothers have revived. In the United States, toymakers fashioned complicated if failure-prone springloaded horses that approximated a trotting motion.
Americans also produced some of the more flamboyant designs, adopting the style of carousel horses popular at fairgrounds and carnivals. An American also scored a safety breakthrough: in 1878, to guard against horse and rider going head over heels, not to mention scratching floors, bumping into furniture or squashing small fingers and toes, Philip Marqua of Cincinnati patented a safety stand to which the horse’s legs are attached. (Purists, of course, disdain the stands.)
As immigrants poured into this country throughout the 19th century, craftsmen arriving from every corner of Europe applied their talents to America’s rocking horses. Dozens of workshops, many of which employed Old World artisans, sprang up between the 1850s and the turn of the century. (The young Dwight Eisenhower earned pocket money sanding rocking horses at a now-defunct shop in Abilene, Kansas.) Few of these studios endured, in part because skilled wood-carvers flocked to the more lucrative market in carousel horses. One rocking horse manufacturer from that era, the Whitney Reed Corporation of Leominster, Massachusetts, survived for nearly 100 years, only to succumb in the 1950s to postwar parents’ preference for such trendy playthings as hula hoops and Betsy Wetsy dolls.
Still, a handful of American artists are today reviving handmade rocking horses. Sculptor Crayne Hennessy, 55, based in Seattle, Washington, began designing and carving his distinctive versions in 1994. In the late 1980s, he had been living in London (his wife, Cecily, is British), supporting himself by crafting elaborate dollhouses. When he delivered some examples to a Gloucester toy store that displayed several handmade rocking horses, “I took one look at them and fell in love,” he recalls. “Right there I vowed, ‘I’m going to do this.’”