07 May 2012

Animal horn was the early craftsman's plastic

Several months ago, after writing about "A true lanthorn" made with animal horn, I began to wonder what other items craftsmen of earlier eras might have made with this material.  The most obvious would be a powder horn.  Pioneer Handbooks describes the process:
Before the early 20th Century, cattle horn was what they used in place of plastic. Horn is waterproof, can be made transparent, is easily worked and can be molded into all sorts of shapes.  And it can look beautiful...

Horns were ideal because horn kept the powder dry, it doesn't shatter when dropped and it won't create a spark that will set your powder off...

Marc Carlson, who is an expert in historical crafts, says cattle horn will soften at 350 degrees F +/- 25 degrees. Once the horn has hit that temperature it can be shaped.  It hardens quickly, so a lot of horn work is done in many small steps.  Going over this temperature will destroy the horn, so hotter isn't better.

If you're lucky your horn will also change color to the lovely golden brown typical of worked horn.
The top photo comes via A Woodsrunner's Diary, whose author Le Loup (a TYWKIWDBI reader) used to be a hornsmith.  He lists these other items that could be made from horn: horn measures, horn books, horn combs, the windows in lanthorns, shoe horns, buttons, knife handles & cases.
The horn book was usually made of wood and the text was written on parchment or paper. A sheet of horn scraped thin so as to be transparent was placed over the text to protect it.
At the right is an example of a "horn book."  The link has photos of horn-rimmed (literally) glasses, a reading glass, knife case, spoon, and measuring cup.

At the Victoria and Albert, I found some additional items, including crosses carved from horn, a work basket made from horn and porcupine quills, and the two items pictured below: an ox horn beaker with silver mounts, and a Portugese drinking cup carved with hunting designs.

And lastly, again from A Woodsrunner's Diary, is a shoe horn made by LeLoup:

Until I wrote this post, I had never given a thought to the possibility that a "shoe horn" would actually have been made from horn.  The Wikipedia entry suggests that the first ones may have been made from hooves, and they list some additional items that were once crafted from horn (musical instruments and bows).

You learn something every day.


  1. You certainly do learn something new every day when you read your blog, Minnesotastan. Thank you!

  2. I suppose this shouldn't surprise me, given that you can melt a hole in a fingernail (if it's broken, to drain it) and the nail matter softens and then sets. I didn't realize just how extensively this could be done. Very cool.

  3. I've used horn cups,forks, and spoons (thanks to my father's fascination with early 19th century history when I was a youth) and they work just fine. The bottom of the cups were wood sealed with bee's wax so they weren't much good for hot beverages.

    Horn does soften in water very slowly so soaking in boiling water can also be used to bend horn implements a bit when crafting your own.


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