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.