Since the late eighteenth century, “horsepower” has been a familiar unit of measurement. James Watt coined the term to compare the power generated by his steam engine to that of a horse. The word’s use, expanding over time to refer to the output of machines and motors of all types, helped people to understand the power of industrialization in the nineteenth century. Horses were a regular part of daily life during this period and were important sources of energy, transportation, and labor. They also played a meaningful part in the entertainment industry of the era. Show horses were given leading roles in circuses and theatrical performances, and race horses were some of the first celebrity athletes.
A popular subject in art and the wider visual culture, horses were commonly depicted in weathervane form. This installation explores some of the different varieties of nineteenth-century American horse weathervanes and their historical significances. These vanes not only speak to the pervasiveness of horses at the time, but they also embody the enormous affinity people had for these animals. The space between “horse” and “power” in this exhibition’s title signals the unique contributions made by horses and how their likenesses on weathervanes reflect and reveal their important role in nineteenth-century culture.