Before the arrival of synthetic resins, natural plastics such as amber, horn, tortoiseshell, bitumen, shellac, gutta-percha and rubber were used to mould and manufacture artefacts. In Europe horn was the most readily accessible and played an important role in the development of plastic products.
Horn combs and carved vessels have been found in Egyptian graves that dating back to 3000 BC. In medieval Britain, a 'Horners' guild was set and by the 1700s was based in London.
Horn differs from ivory (tusks, teeth and bone) as it is made up of the keratinous hard tissue which also creates claws, hooves, hair and baleen in whales. Of these horn and baleen were the most used by early European manufacturing industries. Horn is found on artiodactyls (even toed hoofed animals) and is not to be confused with antlers which are the direct outgrowth of bone.
Horn grows around a bony core and needs to be separated before it can be worked. The most common way of doing this is to leave the severed horns in water and allow the connecting membrane to rot. As a result, the horn trade was not for the faint hearted and in the 1700s the smell of rotting horn was offensive enough to ensure 'Horners' resided outside city walls.
In the 1600s, London 'Horners' began to export worked and un-worked horn from America, India, and America to Europe. Much of this was split into thin layers or leaves which were used as windows in lanterns or lant-horns as they were originally known. Horn was also used to make combs, buttons, fans, drinking horns, powder horns, window panes, and jewellery.
It was a popular raw material because it could be heated and moulded into a range of products as well as carved and dyed. Moulded products were faster and more economical to produce than carved ones. For this reason horn was pivotal to the later development of plastics in Europe, as the methods used to shape horn and tortoiseshell were adapted in the synthetic manufacturing processes.
Geoff Barker, Assistant Curator, April 2007
MacGregor, A., 'Bone, Antler, Ivory and Horn: the technology of skeletal materials since the Roman period', Barnes and Noble Books, New Jersey, 1985.
Knight, E., H., (ed), 'Knights American Mechanical Dictionary', Vol 1, J.B. Ford and Company, New York, 1874
Schaverien, A., 'Horn, its History and its Uses', Everbest Printing Co., 2006
Mossman, S., (ed.), Early Plastics; perspectives, 1850-1950, Leicester University Press, London, 1997
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