These rocking horses, likely handmade and not produced at a very large scale for the time, have many intricate details. As mentioned, the horses and bases themselves were carved out of wood. However, the horses’ bodies are hollow which was a technique learned in the Victorian era to make the toys less top-heavy, and therefore safer. The exterior of the bodies are painted yellow, though it is probable that it is not exposed wood which was painted but rather a few layers of gesso. This material, which is usually used in fine art paintings, was found to be both easier to sand a created a shinier surface to paint and decorate. Painted details cover the hind quarters of the horses in the form of saddle blankets and landscapes at the base of the rockers. The saddles, stirrups, and reins are all made of real leather, another costly adornment for a child’s toy.
This set of rocking horses, which were used by brothers Winne and Henry Hornnbeck in their childhood years, were donated to the Historic Huguenot collections by the estate of Ida M Hornbeck in 1976. She had died the previous year in 1975 and had left many of her family’s items and historical artifacts to this collection as well as other local historical collections. When tracing her relation to Winne and Henry Hornbeck I discovered that she was their older sister. Neither her brothers nor her sister Lela ever had children therefore I believe that these rocking horses were purchased directly for the family and never left the hands of the siblings. I infer that these items are purchased new as their father Louis Dubois Hornbeck was one of the largest merchants in the area, having owned a large general store in Napanoch. However, it is also possible the family employed craftsmen to create these pieces.
Although these objects were not primarily used in the town of New Paltz, their ties to historical New Paltz and its socioeconomic structure can be easily connected. I see these pieces as a mark of status and luxury; they are not the everyday doll or trinket. Instead, these objects were most likely bought new, possibly from the large general store which their father ran. However, we cannot know for certain how and when these rocking horses were made as there is no apparent makers mark on them. Therefore, it is also possible that these were handmade by someone in or close to the family. These pieces function as both furniture and toys, and as they were both clearly well worn I believe these were pieces that would’ve been put out in the main room as their own pieces of furniture. Toy horses and specifically rocking horses became popular as toys and furniture among the upper middle class after Queen Victoria established that they were her favorite. They were made in many different styles and colors and some had clear inspirations from imagery and forms found in carnivals and fairgrounds, which was a popular source of entertainment of the time. However, during the 1900s the production of rocking horses, especially the intricate handmade ones which had thrived during the Victorian era, were declining due to the Great Depression and the World Wars. The survival of these pieces is extraordinary and gives great insight into the lifestyle of the Hornbeck family who owned them as well as the social culture of the time.
When looking into both their family story as well as their extended genealogy, I found a few evidences of the family’s enriched status. First, as previously mentioned, Louis Hornbeck ran the largest general store in Napanoch, with a very comfortable house–which he owned–connected. His wife Catherine Freer Dubois did not work and I also found evidence of there being a young servant living with the family for a time. This was not uncommon for the area including New Paltz for families with luxurious lifestyle. Additionally, it appears that both Ida and Lela Hornbeck never married and never had to hold a job but were rather able to live off of the estate of their family for the rest of their lives. Brothers Winne and Henry Hornbeck did both end up marrying but neither had children in their lifetime. When looking further into the ancestry records of both the siblings mother Catherine Dubois Freer and their father Louis DuBois Hornbeck I was able to find that their mother was a descendant of Hugo and Isaac Freer, the original patent holders for the town of New Paltz. The Freers had been given 1200 acres to settle on in New Paltz and continued that line of wealth well into their descendants. While this is an interesting fact about their family it is also important to note that both mother and father had previously come from the Dubois family. It was very common in New Paltz among the wealthy families to intermarry children and cousins of the wealthiest families to keep the money close. This is one of the reasons that although the Hornbecks did not live in New Paltz, their prominence in the area was well established. These rocking horses are a symbol of the level of class and financial status of which this specific Hornbeck family was a part.
Heidgerd, Ruth P. The Freer Family: the Descendants of Hugo Freer, Patentee of New Paltz (Frear, Fraer, Frayer, Fryer, Etc.). The Huguenot Historical Society, 1991.
“History of Rocking Horses.” History of Rocking Horses | Victorian Rocking Horse | Stevenson Brothers Rocking Horses, http://www.stevensonbros.com/history-of-rocking-horses.
Hornbeck, Shirley Elro. Hornbeck Hunting (the Book) & Descendants of Warnaar Hornbeck, Born c1645. S. Hornbeck, 1994.
Terwilliger, Katharine T. Napanoch: Land Overflowed by Water. Ellenville Public Library and Museum, 1982.
Terwilliger, Katharine T. Wawarsing, Where the Streams Wind: Historical Glimpses of the Town. Rondout Valley Pub. Co., 1977.
Ulster County Directory, for 1880-’81: Containing a Historical Sketch of the County. D.S. Lawrence & Co.