Although horn is seen as a natural plastic, it is a material obtained from animals. Horns can be seen on the foreheads of a range of creatures including cattle, bison, sheep and goats, and are created in laminated layers separated from a bony core by connective tissue. In some cases, horns sprout very soon after birth and continue to grow throughout the life of the animal.

Early use of horn was related to meat production as they were removed when the animal was slaughtered. The use of horn waned when experiments into the practice of dehorning large adult animals began in the late 1880s. Today, calves are disbudded before the age of 2-months, when the bud of the horn is just erupting. Disbudding and dehorning is carried out to prevent, amongst other things, injury to the animal itself, other cattle, and the people who manage them. Processing the material is also time consuming, smelly, and labour intensive. The horn must be soaked in barrels of water, heated, and placed under pressure and moulded or carved to create the intricate shapes and detailing that can be found in the collection of the Worshipful Company of Horners (1-3).


The production of horn objects is reliant on good quality raw material and the skill of the craftsman. A very similar effect, but on a mass level, can be created using synthetic materials, for example, these beakers (4-6) from the 1920s and 1930s are made of urea formaldehyde. Small items such as buttons were made of the solid tips of horns. These would have been plain or mottled in colour and can now be made in materials such as polyester and, again, urea formaldehyde (7-9).


Translucent and transparent horn was cheap and relatively durable compared with early glass. It was used for lanterns as early as the Roman period. The translucent horn pane (3) is simulated in a thermoformed cellulosic material on the front of the perpetual calendar (10).


Horn rimmed glasses were first popular in the 1920s and the fashion has dipped and risen over the 20th century. The most recent horn-like designs, such as the Hyde’s (11) and JF Rey (12) frames, are made in acetate.