You have probably seen horse brasses used as decorations in various establishments, usually country pubs. Whilst you may be able to identify horse brasses and put a name to them, are you familiar with their history? Fascinating and highly collectable, the brasses boast a long and interesting heritage and were first used beyond these shores.
What are Horse Brasses?
A horse brass is a decorative plaque that adorns a harness, especially for shire and parade horses. The brasses became very popular in England from the mid-19th century and remained so until the use of working horses waned with the arrival of the internal combustion engine. The archaeological term for such plaques is phalera and pieces have been found dating back to the Iron Age.
The History of Horse Brasses
In ancient Rome, horse harnesses often had embellishments of phalerae. They were mostly bronze and were in the shape of disks or crescents. The decorations were also usually in pairs on the harnesses. Similar pieces were in use across England before the Middle Ages and were often status symbols or talismans. However, there doesn't seem to be a connection between these decorative items and the harness decorations used in Victorian times. These became popular after the Great Exhibition inspired a greater interest in the decorative arts. The Victorian brasses were generally 3"x 3. 5" and were flat designs with hangers and so could thread onto the horses' harnesses. What had begun as simple cast studs were now becoming progressively more ornate. By the latter half of the 19th century, the production of cast brasses was mainly in the West Midlands. Lighter stamped brasses began to appear around 1880 and evolved from the process utilised to produce military insignia. By the end of the century, people often decorated heavy horses with numerous brasses of different sizes and styles and working horse parades were popular attractions. Prizes were awarded at these events and the brasses were cherished by those who worked with and decorated the horses. The Victorian horse brasses reflected diverse subjects including royalty and significant events. They also became a useful form of advertising. But eventually, working horses fell into decline and many of the brasses found their way into public houses. They are used to decorate licensed premises to this day.
Horse Brass Collecting
Research suggests that people began collecting horse brasses in England from around 1880 when women started using pierced designs as pin cushions, of all things! People then started to use the brasses as fingerplates on doors and by 1890 the collecting of brasses has become a popular pastime with the upper and middle classes. Today, there remain many collectors of these instantly recognisable decorations and there is even a. Both stamped and cast brasses are still produced and whilst most are collectors pieces or bought as souvenirs, brasses are designed and made for the heavy horses which are bred and shown across the country.