Tuesday, September 18, 2018

From Boredom to Art

QUESTION: I belong to a reenactor group that specializes in Revolutionary War reenactments. Some of the men carry powder horns as part of their equipment. Most of these are plain reproductions. They serve the purpose. At several larger gatherings of reenactment groups, I’ve seen some beautifully engraved horns. What can you tell me about these engraved horns?  Might they be original or are they reproductions?

ANSWER: Powder horn collectors are a very specialized group. The horns they collect are usually engraved but not all of them are valuable. Today, there are a number of very good reproductions and contemporary powder horns being made. They’re so well done that it’s often impossible to tell the authentic ones from the reproductions.

Powder horns once provided a practical, inexpensive way to carry gun powder for use in the early flintlock and percussion firearms. They were America's first art form. Early settlers had to work so hard there was no time to make art.

The French and Indian War was the catalyst for horn art. Soldiers had a lot of time on their hands and were lonesome. So on their horns they drew images of their houses, trees, their gardens, their dogs, their girlfriends and other things that reminded them of home. But the simple powder horn of the early frontier evolved into personal works of art out of necessity. Soldiers, and perhaps groups of hunters, had to have an obvious way of identifying their horns.

Sometimes they used only their initials. If the horn owner was literate, or knew someone who could copy letters, dates, names and places, he had them engraved onto his horn. Eventually, animals, mythical creatures like mermaids or griffons, birds, snakes, various styles of flowers and vines and all sorts of geometrics decorated powder horns. To make their horns more personal, some men engraved rhymes on their horns. Next to his wife and children, a man’s powder horn was often his most cherished possession.

This high level of artistic competence among common soldiers and pioneers shows that many people in the Colonies must have had art training. Children who went to school learned penmanship and calligraphy which helped in engraving their horns as young adults.

Less artistic soldiers could pay professional hornsmiths, who traveled with the troops, set up tents, and took orders, to customize their horns. Better-paid military officers could afford to set the trend around camp for horns with similar designs. Historians believe there was a community of horn carvers who observed and borrowed from each other's work.

The earliest known American engraved horn, inscribed with the name Daniel Tuttle, dates from 1727. But older doesn't translate into more valuable. Seventeenth-century "pilgrim horns" sell moderately because they were plain and lacked artwork. Most of the classic engraved horns are 13 to 17 inches long. But horns may vary from a few inches to over two feet long. Usually, the bigger the horn is, the older it is, because men took longer forays into the forest to hunt in the 18th century.

Early on, settlers hunted for weeks at a time. As they got more settled, they would go hunting in the afternoon, so they didn't need to carry two or three pounds of powder with them. Because of this, they took smaller horns which they would carry in their bags or pockets.

Early settlers often carried two horns. One was a smaller horn which held fine-grain, faster burning gunpowder used only for priming the pan in early flintlock mechanisms. When percussion replaced flintlocks beginning in the 1830s, most men carried only a single horn in the field.

But many hunters and soldiers ceased using powder horns altogether in the 1830s with the advent of brass flasks and leather pouches.

So how can a collector tell an old horn from a new one. Old engravings often start deep when the knife first enters but then pressure is decreased and the rest of the line has uniform depth. Lines made with a knife and not a dentist's drill won’t end abruptly but will extend beyond the image's outline.

Collectors look for the "warmth and glow" emanating from an antique powder horn. The most prized horns are those with maps engraved on them. Often they show forts or towns along a river. Some originated as guidelines allowing soldiers to find their way back to forts. They became popular Ind eventually were professionally made by hornsmiths. Some map horns, though are believed to have been carved long after the war when soldiers returned tome. In some cases, horns were used as proof of military service, thus qualifying their owners to a pension.

While ordinary 18th- and 19th-century horns are common and usually sell for $10 to $40, those engraved with intricate artwork have attained the level of treasured American folk art worth thousands of dollars. Engraved horns can sell for as little as $34 and as much as $34,000. Many engraved horns came from the area around Lake George, New York, site of Fort Ticonderoga. Horns inscribed with historic names from that region are more valuable.

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