Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Georgian Chamber Horse

by Cheryl Leigh

For the Georgian gentleman, riding was a favorite activity to keep fit. But what if the weather turned inclement, as British weather was inclined to do? Those fortunate to own a chamber horse had the perfect solution for indoor exercise.

Chamber Horse 1790-1820 from the V&A

The chamber horse was probably the first prototype for today's home exercise machines. This device, which resembled a concertina, consisted of a raised leather seat that contained tiers of springs separated by boards. The user would sit on the chair, grip the arms and bounce up and down in simulation of horse riding.

George Cheyne (1671-1743), the pioneering Scottish physician, believed exercise helped cure various ailments. He recommended the machine to his patient, the writer Samuel Richardson, who suffered from 'spleen' (hypochondria), an eighteenth-century form of depression. Cheyne happily reported that Richardson could still read, direct servants or dictate letters while exercising on the chamber horse - much like many twenty-first century writers use treadmill desks.

George Cheyne 1671-1743

The first advertisement for a chamber horse appeared in the London Daily Post and General Advertiser in March 1739 with Henry Marsh of Clare Market claiming to be the inventor. The machines' popularity continued as shown by Thomas Sheraton's illustration in 1802 in his Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer's Drawing Book, and in the 1823 edition of the London Chair-maker's Book of Prices, which detailed how to make a chamber horse.

Most chamber horses were kept in bedrooms, but John Wesley liked to keep his in his dining room. Even Lady Denham, a character in Jane Austen's unfinished novel Sanditon, mentions a chamber horse: "There is the sea, and the downs, and my milch asses: and I have told Mrs. Whitby that if anybody enquires for a chamber horse, they may be supplied at a fair rate (poor Mr. Hollis's chamber horse, as good as new); and what can people want more?" (Memoir of Jane Austen by James Edward Austen-Leigh, 1871.)

During the eighteenth century, exercise played an increasingly significant role in the maintenance of health. The chamber horse and rocking horse were designed for adults and children with this in mind. George Cheyne blamed the rich food and high life of many of his well-to-do patients as the cause of the "English Malady", a type of nervous disorder. Cheyne himself suffered depression due to his weight of 32 stone (203 kg). He went on a strict diet with the result he promoted physical activity and a vegetarian diet as a treatment for melancholy. He believed the body and spirit were linked and diet and exercise, such as using a chamber horse, was the best treatment for a range of illnesses.

This video from Edward and Eva Pinto's Bygone Collection, shows how to ride a chamber horse. The actual section starts at 01:16, but there are several fascinating items throughout the clip.

Gloag, John. A Short Dictionary of Furniture. London: George
Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1952

Edwards, Clive D. Eighteenth-Century Furniture. Manchester:
Manchester University Press, 1996

BBC Radio 4. George Cheyne and His Work.


Anna Campbell said...

Wow, Cheryl, that was absolutely fascinating. I had no idea such a thing existed although if you think about, it kinda makes sense! Oh, can't you just see a scene in a historical featuring a chamber horse? I know I can! Thanks for posting this. Amused me no end!

Cheryl Leigh said...

Hi Anna, I had no idea either until I saw one in a tiny museum in Rye. The contraption intrigued me so much!

LOL, yes, I can see an hilarious scene in a book with a chamber horse. You are just the person to write it. :)

Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks so much for stopping by.

Maggi Andersen said...

I've never heard of this, how interesting! Thanks Cheryl.

Cheryl Leigh said...

Fascinating device, isn't it, Maggi? It looks like fun. :)

Alison Stuart said... learn something every day! It was a sort of Georgian "fit ball"!

Cheryl Leigh said...

LOL, Alison. A Georgian "fit ball" - love it!!

Anonymous said...

This is a great post, Cheryl!! And when I read Anna's comment you don't want to know what image entered my mind. LOL.

Tam :D

Allison Butler said...

Thanks for the fascinating post, Cheryl. I had no idea the Georgian Chamber Horse existed. It looks like fun:)

Cheryl Leigh said...

LOL, naughty Tam. ;)

Alison, doesn't it look like fun? I'd love to try one out to see what it felt like.

Anonymous said...

OMG never knew these existed.
When DH and I went to Paris 4 years ago we visited the Sex Museum in the MONTE-MART district. (it was wonderful) 8 stories with all sorts of *interesting stuff*
That was where I got my inspiration for some of my apparatus's for my new MS, erotic Steampunk series.
There were displays, designs, etchings and later-day tiny-tints of chairs similar...but not for horse riding exercise, (If you get my drift.)
Anna you were right on the ball. LOL
Thanks, Great Post Cheryl

Cheryl Leigh said...

Glad you enjoyed the post, Maryde. Thanks for popping in.

An EIGHT-STORIED sex museum? Wow! It must have been fascinating! Sounds like you found lots of fodder for your Steampunk series.:)

Christina Phillips said...

I'd never come across the chamber horse before either, Cheryl! And LOL Anna, I wonder if we were thinking of a similar scene there? :-)

Anonymous said...

Lady Sophia's Lover by Lisa Kleypas mentions one in the book. The chair was not used for excercising well not in the traditional sense. Lol. I came across this article while looking it up so that I could get a visual.