Texas Longhorn Museum
The Horn Furniture of
by Alan W. Rogers
For thousands of years, man has made use of horns and antlers, sometimes for utility to help in his daily living and many times for ornaments and ceremonial use, which is evidenced by ancient illustrations and man-made artifacts. As an example, a known oxhorn spoon dates about 1500 B.C. Horn was an important part of everyday life.
Horn furniture was made in various parts of the country, some by individuals and some, as a sideline, by furniture companies. Pieces are known to have been made in Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, along the Eastern Seaboard, and much was made in San Antonio; and in the mid-1880s, Chicago, already the worlds leading producer of parlor furniture, would become a center for the making of horn furniture due to the availability of horns from the nearby giant Union Stockyards. Cattle horns have been fashioned into much more than chairs, tables, and hatracks. The list includes buttons, glasses, combs, knife handles, powder horns, mirror frames, canes, and on and on. Horn furniture is perhaps the greatest accomplishment in the use of horn, with horn veneering the pinnacle of the furniture makers art.
How Herman became interested in making horn furniture isnt known. Likely because horn furniture was enjoying much popularity in the late 1880s. Maybe his skill as a carver spurred his interest. The busy St. Joseph Stockyards were only blocks away, so good horns were plentiful. We believe he made various pieces of horn furniture for a period spanning 14 years beginning about 1890 and, as far as we know, none was made for public sale. He had intended to make a horn chair for President Roosevelt, but I cant confirm that he did.
THE 1904 WORLD'S FAIR IN ST. LOUIS
declined) $10,000 FOR FURNITURE!
PIECE OF HORN FURNITURE
Standing an incredible 8 ft. 3 ins tall and 5 ft. 10 ins. wide, I believe its the largest piece of steer horn furniture ever created. Certainly, in my many years of research and study, it is by far the largest of which I am aware. Even without the use of horns and veneering, its construction is a carpenters delight with oak, mahogany, and walnut as the principal woods. Having three large mirrors, the dresser is substantial and made for use, and far heavier than two men can lift. Of particular eye appeal is its 7-sided front. The entire wooden surface is covered with 1164 pieces of hand-cut, polished steer horn fit together with a high degree of precision and abundant mitering, being held in place with glue and nearly 9000 brass finishing nails. There are 8 drawers, the pulls of which are fashioned from horn. Nineteen hooves adorn the bottom while 14 sets of buffalo and 8 sets of black cow horns decorate the front in striking contrast to the mostly yellow horn veneering. It sits on 7 iron, wooden-wheel casters which bear a patent date of 1886. Truly, an enormous undertaking!
The use of cattle horn added to a furniture surface is quite old. A French furniture maker, Andre Charles Boulle, made use of horn, ivory, and brass as an overlay on furniture as early as the beginning of the seventeenth century. The process of cutting, shaping and flattening cow horns into thin sheets dates back to the time of the Romans.
Cattle horns are a protein matter called keratin, the same as our hair and fingernails. The outer horn that you see on an animals head actually covers a bony inner core that is a part of the animals skull and is held in place by a thin layer of sticky, fleshy membrane. When removed by natural drying or in boiling water, this outer horn is found to basically hollow and grows in layers of uneven thickness. It is most thin at the base and thickens to a solid tip.
There are at least two methods to produce horn veneer. In the 1700s, European horn crafters would cut horn into various sized pieces, soaking it in hot water or oil for softening. (Horn becomes very pliable when subjected to heat, especially hot water.) The horn was then flattened, placed in wooden clamps or between hot iron plates treated with tallow, and pressed to the desired thickness. Another method was to put the pieces in boiling water. After a time, the layers would begin to separate, possibly due to the fact that there is a thin layer of liquid between them. These sheets of horn would then be flattened, allowed to dry, cut, shaped and fitted to a wooden surface, producing horn veneer. Allowing that the separated layers of horn are not identical in their thickness, it seems likely the craftsman would attempt to even the thickness of the cut pieces as much as possible before application. If he found any variance after application, he probably removed it by a light finish sanding to produce the desired smooth surface. This, of course, would depend on how near a perfectly-smooth surface the craftsman wanted. Not all veneering will be found table-top smooth. To date, Ive seen two veneered pieces with uneven surfaces.
In its natural state, the horn has a rough surface After being softened in the hot water, this roughness can be scraped smooth with a straight-edged instrument. This scraping can be done before or after the horn is cut into pieces and, from my experience, it is much easier to sand or scrape the horn before cutting it. A final polishing produces a beautiful finish. In todays world, machine sanding of a dry horn is common practice.
How many horns were used to produce Hermans dresser isnt known. Thousands of tedious hours must have gone into its making. The dresser represents the most labor-intensive piece of horn furniture I have yet seen and is a testament to Hermans patience.
The Fire Department provided Metz an elaborate and impressive funeral afforded to few. The service was conducted at his home by Rev. W. C. Harms of Wesley Methodist Church of which Metz was a member. Led by Chief Pat Kane, and including Maupins Band along with thirty firemen on foot, the procession started from the home and headed for Mount Mora Cemetery. A group of firemen met the funeral party when it reached Frederick Avenue and another group joined the procession as it entered the cemetery. The pallbearers were fellow firemen. The wagon from which Metz fell, draped in mourning, conveyed his coffin. His hat and coat lay on the seat. Herman, at age 56, was buried February 24, 1918.
Many years have passed since the death of Herman Metz. The making of horn furniture as it was known in his day is over. The glory days of the big stockyards with horned cattle shipped in by the thousands are no more. Where are the other pieces of horn furniture made by Metz? Probably sitting quietly in someones house or on display in a museum. The use of horn veneer is a forgotten art and, as far as we yet know, was perhaps only ever attempted by a handful of American makers. Over the years Ive seen quite a number of pieces of horn furniture, and some of it was truly splendid. In time, Ill see more. Its not likely Ill find an equal to the masterpieces of Herman Metz.
Copyright Alan Rogers 1991
Texas Longhorn Museum