The Versatile Horn: Nature’s Plastic

In an earlier blog post, A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts, we introduced objects created from coconut shells. Yet of all the organic materials in the Winterthur collection, perhaps the most versatile is the horn. Hooved mammals produce this layered growth over a boney core, which traditionally was removed through a lengthy seasoning process, leaving a hollow and largely circular cone.  For the craftsman, the most important quality of horn is its thermoplastic nature, meaning that when heated, the material becomes malleable enough to cut, flatten, and mold, giving it much of the versatility that characterizes modern plastics.

Two views of a folding comb, horn and brass, United States, 1790–1810. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont 1953.61

Two views of a folding comb, horn and brass, United States, 1790–1810.
Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont 1953.61

 

The maker of this small folding or case comb took full advantage of horn’s thermoplasticity. A seasoned horn was heated, incised, and then uncurled into a flat sheet, which was placed into a press to keep it from reverting to its natural curvature. A comb maker used a relatively thick sheet of horn known as a plate. The protective front and back were cut from the plate into matching elongated ovals. These were then heated at a lower temperature and pressed into a metal mold bearing the negative of the intended pattern. This was secured with a vice and allowed to cool. Some makers soaked the horn plate in a solution to make the material more malleable and improve the quality of the molded design. For the comb itself, the craftsman selected a thick horn plate with blonde striations that boldly contrast with the rich chocolate brown of the outer case. Using a delicate saw, the maker cut the teeth, which were then further refined through the use of files. The three elements of this comb are held together by brass rivets and a horn spacer.

Although the comb case measures only a little over three inches long (it easily fits in the palm of your hand), the molding technique imparts an impressive level of detail. Even the text above and below the figure of George Washington can be clearly read as Liberty and Washington.  The two plates incorporate popular national symbols of the period, including a liberty cap, bald eagle with arrows and olive branch, thirteen stars, and a cornucopia. The workshop or manufacturer who produced this comb selected these details with a direct eye on the taste of his consumers—patriotic motifs were available on everything from imported ceramics to furniture inlay. Winterthur is even home to two
straight razors of a similar design. Thanks to the thermoplastic qualities of horn, a founding father could be part of your grooming routine!

Razors with pressed horn cases. Left: razor, horn, iron, brass, blade marked WILSON, England, 1815–25. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont 1958.2367. Right: razor, horn, iron, blade marked by William Parker, England, 1814–25. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont 1958.2368.

Razors with pressed horn cases. Left: razor, horn, iron, brass, blade marked WILSON, England,     1815–25. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont 1958.2367. Right: razor, horn, iron, blade marked by William Parker, England, 1814–25. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont 1958.2368.

 
Post by Lea C. Lane, Elizabeth and Robert Owens Curatorial Fellow

 

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