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Toys Now & Then

Grade Level: 5–6

Students will be introduced to a popular toy from the nineteenth century—the hobbyhorse—through a painting by Robert Peckham and a contemporary popular children’s verse. They will then complete research on other toys from this time period, selecting one to compare to its closest modern-day equivalent. Then, they will draw a portrait of themselves with a favorite toy or object.


Robert Peckham
American, 1785–1877
The Hobby Horse, c. 1840
oil on canvas, 103.5 x 101.6 cm (40 3/4 x 40 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch



Curriculum Connections

  • History/Social Studies
  • Language Arts


  • Computers with internet access for student research
  • Writing and drawing materials

Warm-Up Question

In this painting, children imitate a mode of transportation used by adults in the nineteenth century. Nowadays, we no longer rely on horses to get around; what toys do children play with today that imitate the transportation they will use when older?


Gee up, gee up, gee whoah,
On a stick we ride just so,
With a head and a tail,
ho, ho, ho, ho,
It’s our legs which make him go.

Two wheels at the back or one
It matters not which, 'tis fun,
With a crack of the whip
away we go
Gee up, gee up, gee whoa,
gee whoa.

A ride on a rocking-horse now
Forward and backward we go
With a hand on the mane, a grip
On the rein,
A frightening speed,
to and fro again.

Gee up, gee up, gee whoaooh
Gee up, gee up, gee whoah.

Nineteenth-century children’s verse “Gee up, gee up, gee whoah,” quoted in Patricia Mullins, The Rocking Horse: A History of Moving Toy Horses (Great Britain: New Cavendish Books, 1992), 11.

As prosperity in the United States increased during the nineteenth century, a growing middle class had more expendable cash and relatively more free time to enjoy it. Because their children no longer needed to labor on farms or in factories, they too had time for play. Extra money and the desire to record new standards of living meant that portrait painting was the rage. It was common for nineteenth-century portrait painters to include objects that were part of the everyday lives of their sitters.

The identities of the two children in The Hobby Horse are unknown, but it is almost certain that the figure on the left, whose bonnet hangs on the rocker, is a girl, and the figure on the rocking horse is a boy, whose brimmed hat sits below him. Rocking horses first appeared in Europe in the mid-seventeenth century. In the United States, most horse toys were simple wood, painted or unpainted. This rocker seems to be a particularly elaborate model and was, perhaps, imported. In addition to having a showy horsehair mane and tail, it is covered with animal hide, sports a decorated bridle, and its base is elaborately stenciled and painted to imitate the grain of expensive hardwood. Although at this time some goods were mass-produced, this toy was handmade. Hobbyhorses were popular because children could imitate the equestrian skills they were expected to have as adults.

The artist painted furnishings and clothing with meticulous attention to detail and gave us clues about what life was like for this family. The newspaper on the table has been identified as the Daily Evening Transcript, a paper distributed in Massachusetts prior to 1853. Beside it on the table is an oil lamp. It sits on a crocheted doily that was not only decorative but preserved the table from oil spills. The boy and girl are dressed similarly, which was a nineteenth-century convention. The furnishings in the room, the children's clothes, and the elegant rocking horse all point to the fact that this was a well-to-do family.

Guided Practice

  • This portrait depicts one of the children's favorite playthings, a hobbyhorse. Play horses were so popular in the nineteenth century that children's poems were written about them. This poem by an unknown author tells of a rocking horse and two other horse toys, one with a head on the end of the stick and one with wheels. What does the poem say about how children played with these horse toys? Why do you think horse toys were so popular in the nineteenth century? (Horses were "adult" modes of transportation and, like today, children wanted to pretend to be grown-up; the toy could move around as quickly as a child could; these toys were more safe than riding a real horse at a very young age.)
  • There were no huge toy stores in the nineteenth century, so where did these children get their hobbyhorse? How was it made? Many of today's toys are made of plastic, which had not been invented in 1840. What natural resources were used to make the rocking horse? (Wood, animal skin, and horsehair.)
  • Why would a family want a portrait painted of their children? What would families today probably use to make a portrait? (Cameras, introduced in the United States in 1839, but not widely available until later.)
  • What technology shown in the painting is different from ours today? (Oil lamp rather than electric light.) How is the children's clothing different?
  • What have you learned about nineteenth century life through this painting and poem?


Students will research other toys from the nineteenth century. Some places to get started:

Slideshow: Toys from the Index of American Design

Each student will select one toy and compare it to its closest modern-day equivalent. They should compare and contrast the two toys’:

  • materials
  • fabrication process
  • likeness to an adult activity
  • technological components


Students will create a portrait of themselves today with a favorite toy or thing. They will then write a poem similar to the one written about the hobbyhorse, describing the look of the object, how they play with it, and the sounds associated with it.

National Core Arts Standards

VA:Cn10.1.5 Apply formal and conceptual vocabularies of art and design to view surroundings in new ways through art-making.

VA:Cn11.1.6 Analyze how art reflects changing times, traditions, resources, and cultural uses.

VA:Cr.2.3.5 Identify, describe, and visually document places and/or objects of personal significance.

VA:Re7.1.6 Identify and interpret works of art or design that reveal how people live around the world and what they value. 

VA:Re7.2.5 Identify and analyze cultural associations suggested by visual imagery.

VA:Re8.1.5 Interpret art by analyzing characteristics of form and structure, contextual information, subject matter, visual elements, and use of media to identify ideas and mood conveyed.

Create portraits and construct panoramic landscapes using naive paintings from the NGA with Faces & Places

Borrow the teaching packet Art&

Borrow the DVD American Art, 1785-1926: Seven Artist Profiles

Download or borrow the teaching packet The Inquiring Eye: American Painting

Add primary sources from the Library of Congress’s “American Memory” project