Nature's plastic


Artefacts from the Collection of the Worshipful Company of Horners

Horn is defined as the hard material covering the outer soft core of the permanent growths on the upper part of the head and toes of certain ungulates, hoofed mammals, such as cattle, bison, buffalo, sheep, goats and rhinoceros. It is formed of keratin and other proteins surrounding a core of living soft tissue.

Horn is a natural thermoplastic substance which means that when heated to a certain temperature it becomes pliable. With little work it can be made into objects which exploit the natural shape of horn, or by the application of heat and/or pressure it can be manipulated to form a wide variety of objects such as spectacle frames, combs and cutlery. It can be carved, engraved, or simply polished to enhance the natural beauty of the material. Splitting the laminations or layers produces a thin, semi-transparent material which has been used in place of glass for windows and lantern panes. Pressing into moulds to produce formed shapes and intricate embossed designs was common practice. Boiling removes the colour from some types of horn leaving a translucent material which can be stained or dyed. The solid tip of horns and hooves is commonly cut, drilled and polished to make buttons.

Different species create different types of horn. Oxen produce a soft horn that can be made translucent, and was used for lantern and church windows, but biodegrades easily and is eaten by weevils. Buffalo horn is much harder and black, so was used for engineering applications such as the nocks of archery bows to prevent the wood splitting. Sheep's horns can be heated and shaped before carving to make the handles for walking sticks.

Horn has been used by man for simple tools and vessels since Palaeolithic times. Evidence exists of its use by early Egyptian dynasties and throughout Europe in the Roman period. Firm documentary evidence shows that horn was worked by craftsmen and that a guild was in existence in London in 1284 during the reign of Edward I of England.

This versatile material is a by-product of the meat and leather trades. Records indicate that where there were butchers and tanners (leather workers), there were often horners near by. Descriptions of the trade in the 17th century show that there were two stages of the manufacture of horn items. Horn breakers or splitters would process the raw horn and then supply the semi-manufactured material to horners or other craftsmen to produce the finished article. Aware that the processes of working horn emitted unpleasant smells, horn workshops were often located away from residential areas.

The Worshipful Company of Horners has recently deposited its collection of over 400 objects with MoDiP for an initial period of 7 years. This will enable greater public access to these significant artefacts and complement MoDiP's permanent collection. Prior to receiving the Horners' collection MoDiP had few examples of natural plastics. This new collection helps to demonstrate the use of naturally occurring plastics before the development of their synthetic cousins. Objects range from the early 1600s to the present day. Horn is still in use in the UK for button making, shoe horns, combs, musical instrument components, sporting equipment and cutlery.

MoDiP would like to thank The Worshipful Company of Horners for the loan of this comprehensive and unusual collection.

The Worshipful Company of Horners

The Livery Companies of the City of London had their origins well before the Doomsday Book and are similar to the fraternities and guilds (or mysteries) that flourished throughout Europe for many centuries. The term "Livery" refers to the practice of wearing a distinctive form of clothing.

The Worshipful Company of Horners operates under a Charter received from Charles I in 1638 but it is known that there were earlier charters. Originally the Company controlled the purchase and sale of raw horns within 24 miles of the City of London and the early statutes were to protect these rights. In addition, it controlled the trade by limiting its membership, assuring quality and controlling the admittance of apprentices. It also acted as a welfare organisation, looking after widows and attending to funerals.

The Industrial revolution and the subsequent dislike of trade restrictions led to a reduction in the influence of the trade guilds. However, some retained their ancient rites and others became associated with their modern equivalents. Many, if not all, artefacts previously made in horn are now made from plastics. As craft working with horn declined, in 1943 the Company adopted the emerging plastics' industry, many of whose production technique were familiar to the practicing horner. For more information please visit the Company's website:

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