Horns, Bones, Tusks, Antlers and Hooves
by Jim Taylor
Bones, antlers and tusks have been a part of mankind's lifestyle since day one. Use of such articles as tools has been accepted by science and paleontologists for several hundred years. My own interest relates to the use of these materials in the cutlery and allied trades in Sheffield.
We all know about Chaucer's reference to a Sheffield "Thwytel", and I won't bore you with all that stuff, except to say that the date associated with that knife is 1387. Although we know very little about the actual knife, the odds must be that it was hafted in horn or bone. Nobody of course is absolutely certain, but it is known that horn clasp knives of Roman date have been found on more than one occasion.
R. E. Leader wrote a monumental work in 1905 entitled History of the Sheffield Cutlers Company, surely a must for any serious knife historian, in which he refers to horn workers being employed in the cutlery trades as early as 1681. Leader also makes particular reference to the opposition shown to the exportation at that time of horn tips. Adequate proof I would suggest of the antiquity of the trade.
The Gentlemans Magazine of 1764 made reference to the "multitudes of horn buttons of Sheffield origin." A Sheffield directory of 1787 (the first one devoted to Sheffield along) lists three manufacturers of Lant Horns (lanterns). The transparent horn scales being used in the early days, due to the exorbitant price of glass.
My research into this subject eventually led me to a fine volume entitled The Sheffield Horn Industry by Wilmot Taylor (1927), and I owe much of the technical data, names, addresses and dates included in this article to this volume.
The premises used by the horn cutlers and pressers became numerous in the early 19th Century and could be found in High Street, Change Alley, Fargake, Queen Street, Orchard Street, Barkers Pool and Pool Square. The best evidence of all surely rests in the fact that a public house, "The Pressers Arms" existed and flourished at that time. This small inn--now long gone-- was owned in its early days by one of the Gouldthorp family, a name synonymous with the horn industry in Sheffield, and a name that will be mentioned later in this series of articles.
In a directory of Sheffield dated 1832, a certain Samuel Pass resided at No. 10 Coat Pit Lane. This man's occupation on that date is described as "Bone Dealer and Furniture Broker." Mind boggling is surely an inadequate term to use in these more enlightened times?
Expansion and more expansion, the Victorian era was the heyday of the horn and bone workers until by 1850, Wilmot Taylor writes that the "total of firms and small workers reaching one hundred and forty five, no doubt employing well over a thousand lands."
Early Merchants and Workers:
Without the least doubt the man that first made his mark on the horn and bone industry was John Fisher. Evidence suggests that John Fisher was engaged in the hoff pressing trade in 1730 and, although little is known of his actual business, we do know that his son, another John, carried on the business after his father. John Junior's name is to be found residing at Church Lane in 1787.
R. E. Leader, yes the same one, authored another impressive publication, "Sheffield in the Eighteenth Century", in which he made a notable reference to the Fisher family, and I think that his remarks make delightful reading even today. The extract states:
"It was a well built and respectable house, with palisades in front and a fine old staircase. In this John Fisher, grandfather of the late Alderman Fisher, lived. Behind it was a productive garden, in which in addition to the common fruits, grapes grew on the walls. Behind the garden, with Orchard Place between, were the horn pressing works of Mr. Fisher. A very fine pear tree, a survival of Brelsforth's orchard, long remained growing by the entrance gate. After Mr. John Fisher, who dies in 1820, his sons Robert and William, the latter a fine old politician and reformer, occupied the house. When the Fishers went to live away from their works--Mr. Robert Fisher to Pitsmoor and Mr. William Fisher to Eyre Street and then to Woodside--Mr. John Stacey, merchant, occupied the house, and from him it passed to the Sheffield and Hallarnshire Bank, but the works were retained at the back by the Fishers, and are still carried on, though the trade has changed its character by their descendants."
William Fisher, it was, in 1854, who brought dignity and luster to the industry upon being elected Mayor of Sheffield. To this day he remains the only member of the trade to have held such exalted office.
"William Fisher and Sons, Horn Merchants, also dealers in Ivory, Tortoise-shell, Pearl, Stag and Bone," so states the Sheffield Directory of 1849. Obviously a large and important business and easily the most prosperous and best known of all such firms, whose names are now but a ghostly reminder of Sheffield's former greatness. Fishers are still remembered as being the first people to press horn machete handles (1860) and in fact their trade in scales was still being carried on with the United States up to the 1930s, but not by Fishers. The old firm had changed hands a couple of times and finally died of neglect and was sold up in 1890.
Samuel Parker arrived on the scene in the early part of the 19th Century, and in 1825 his premises were listed as No. 3 Porter Street and later to Canal Wharf. So large became his business that the wharf itself became known as Parker's Wharf. This man was a true merchant, and he it was that eventually supplied horns for the entire demand of the trade. Samuel was succeeded by his son, William, for a few short years. This fine business ended upon William's retirement.
Wilmot Taylor (no relation) was the descendant of several well known traders and pressers of horns and bearers of that illustrious surname. Much of the information attending this article is due to Wilmot writing the book mentioned at the beginning of these words. Seldom can a man hae had a better pedigree for such a task. I merely list the names:
- Richard Taylor (1817) 33 Coal Pit Lane: pressor and horn dealer
- William Taylor (1825) 48 Fargate: horn dealer
- James Taylor (1840) Wilmot's grandfather: Razor scale presser
- B. J. Taylor (1865) Wilmot's father: horn presser
- Wilmot Taylor (1890, age 14) horn cutter and presser
Wilmot recalls the first day very well and states that he was presented with an apron and put on the job of counting hafts and scales. The salary, Six pounds, ten shillings per annum (Exchange rate C. $6.00 per pound)
The Taylor family had also acted as ivory merchant agents for the London Company of Moses Brothers. Large quantities of tusks were handled by Taylors and sold to the specialist Sheffield ivory cutlers and also to the cutlery firms, many of whom had facilities to cut ivory themselves. In Taylor's stock account of 1872 there appeared particulars of no less than one hundred and twenty two tons lying in the stock room. Uncut tusks were piled up to the ceiling. Records also exist showing that on one occasion, November, 1872, one consignment left London, consisting of one thousand four hundred tusks--the elephant herds must have been vast--the accounts book further shows that these tusks were sold for over six thousand pounds Sterling. An enormous amount of money in those days--not an isolated case either. It is difficult in 1998 to realize that these figures apply to one company for one month only.
(1) The Sheffield ivory workers all used the term, "teeth" and never "tusks"
One of the old folk tales relating to the horn cutlers and pressers involves an old cow's tail that hung in one of the wharehouses for many years. Legend has it that one of the old maskers used this tail frequently to chase lethargic yard boys around the premises! Such tales are normally based on fact.
THE LONDON AUCTIONS:
In the early days, the horn cutlers and pressers obtained supplies locally from the knockers yards/slaughtermen or when cattle were polled (de-horned). A substantial trade also existed with gamekeepers and Scottish wardens for stag antlers. The major supplies however invariably came thorough the London auction rooms.
Originally the sales were conducted through the London coffee houses, very much in a haphazard manner, according to convenience and supplies. The items wee sold by the "Candle"---May I explain? A pin was thrust through a candle, roughly an inch from the top, the candle was lit, coffee was drunk and the occasional offer wad made. When the candle burnt down to the pin, and the said pin dropped into the candlestick, the last bidder was declared the purchaser. Yes, I know it's quaint, but that's the way it use to be. The "lots" of horns were large and few, and the candle but a taper, one can well imagine however, the bad tempered under bidder's disgruntled departure.
About 1826, the mincing Lane salesrooms became the acknowledged and fixed abode of the auctions. The horn and allied material sales, always took place in the No. 5 saleroom.
One remarkable oddity, that has never been explained, lies in the fact that ox and cow horns were always sold at so much per 123! Does anyone have any ideas? The very best days for the London auctions were from 1880 to 1900. Very large quantities of horn started to appear in the catalogues and, incredible though it may appear today, the following is an exact extract from one such catalogue:
- 250 Tons of buffalo horns
- 350,000 Cape ox and cow horns
- 200,000 Australian horns
- 150 Tons of Calcutta ox and cow horns
- 100 Tons of Madras ox and cow horns
- 120 Tons of deer horn
also quantities of South American, Mauritius and West Indian horns, and endless varieties of horn tips, to which there yet remains to be mentioned as many as 300 tons of bones.
The number of animals represented at this single auction must be absolutely astounding and unbelievable, but I assure readers that the above is a faithful copy of a normal quarterly auction catalogue.
One of the Sheffield bidders at these auctions recalls spending two full days inspecting the samples at the London wharves. The sale itself took a further two days- Thursday, deer horn; Friday, ox, cow, buffalo etc. Quite regularly it appears, that difficulty in completing the sale of all the lots in the ponderous catalogue, resulted in late night bids still being accepted.
Continental buyers, of course, also attended the auctions; but it can be truly stated that the vast majority of these items went to Sheffield.
Consider now, the actual physical task of transporting these enormous quantities from London to Sheffield. It is recorded that the old Midland Railway, Great Northern Railway and the canal carriers were kept at full stretch for many a week. Long processions of horse drawn drays were a common sight in Sheffield, the unloading of the carts and drays was no light undertaking either.
The leading London horn brokers of the 19th Century included: Dyster Nalder & Co (Est 1770); Goad, Rigg & Co.; Culverwell, Brookes & Co. and a legion of others, all long since past.
Public horn auctions were always held in England, a fact due (at that time) to the countries of collection being largely parts of the British Empire.
HAFT SCALE PRESSING HOW WAS IT DONE?
The Victorian horn pressers had been taught the rudiments of pressing by the men of the previous century. They improved mightily on the somewhat bare and uncultured work of their forefathers to such an extent that horn was far and away the most popular hafting material, certainly for cutlery of every description. A study of the methods employed gives a delightful insight into the inbred desire to achieve a perfect product.
In the earliest days of course, the haft was produced from raw horn by hand; smoothed as neatly as possible and pinned roughly onto the handle end of the blade. Pressing horn must not be confused with such basics. Wilmot Taylor, in his book mentioned earlier, gives his own tried and tested method of procedure. I quote: "Firstly the warming of the piece of horn, ensuring pliability and elasticity; then the shaping of the piece with a short-bladed knife until something like the approximate shape of the hooked steel die waiting to receive it is attained: the horn piece is then placed in the die, and both are subjected to heavy pressure in a hand-screwedvice and allowed to remain till cool, when, on being taken from the die, the horn will be found to have attained its exact modeling. Naturally, the more wonderful the cut ornamentation of the die the more elaborate the result of the finished article. As to when this process was first used no guess can be attempted. Enquiries of the oldest workman prove that they never knew, neither did their fathers, nor grandfathers. Of the idea that the process was the product of local brains there remains little doubt."
Wilmot put this process into plain words, but this scribe must confess to a still considerable ignorance of the full picture. Time was obviously not of the essence, and there is little wonder that such time consuming practices were doomed to failure. A new process was allegedly discovered in German, whereby the horn was ground up to a powder and, together with some foreign matter, was turned into a pulp, thus allowing for any solid shape to be reproduced; but wait, if dropped this new "horn" split and broke, and no wonder! The destruction of its greatest asset had taken place, it no longer retained its fibrous nature, and as such could only be classified as a composition. Hydraulic presses became fashionable of course and the tedious and slow, simple pressing operations became things of the past. You must admit though, these new fangled ways do not produce as good an article.
The hours or work expected of the men employed in the horn pressing trade were long and ill paid in the mid 19th Century, for it was not unusual to find men at work as early as 7:00 AM and the same men would not be expected to complete a day's work until 8 or 9 PM. A seventy hour working week was common in all branches of the cutlery trades and such exertions would be rewarded with the princely sum of twenty-five shillings or so (less than ten dollars) back then.
Button making was another one of the Sheffield skills; and although always referred to as "horn" buttons, this description is a misnomer, for they were actually made out of animal hooves, a soft and pliable substance easily worked. The method of manufacture was similar to the haft pressing except that the hoof-filled dies were approximately 7" x 3" and they contained cut impressions of as many as a dozen buttons; therefore meaning that number could be turned out with the single operation.
Comb making was yet another of the uses to which the animal horn was put, including the fancy and ornamental head comb with fretwork-like adornment: tortoiseshell was also much used for the same purpose. Many handsome specimens still exist today in both kinds of material.
An amusing story pertains to the comb making trade; and it concerns Alfred Wynn, one of Sheffield's largest and most prosperous comb makers. It transpires that various experiments had been made with horn substitutes and celluloid was one of them, it was first commercially used in Sheffield about 1890. However, about 1870 some sort of similar composition was in its trail stage. Alfred Wynn received s sample with the instructions to try it for combs and, in the usual way, as he would have treated horn, he placed it on a hot plate to soften: returning to look at it a few minutes later, nothing was to be found! An incident of much astonishment at the time, and remembered in Sheffield to this day.
INLAYING OF HORN
John Stevens, one of Sheffields well established comb makers started the sale of jewelry and earrings made of polished horn and inlaid with tiny pieces of pearl, abalone, silver wire and shields, etc. The work of inlaying was first practiced by an expert Frenchman in the town--his name is unfortunately not known-the quality of his work could only really be seen, to be properly appreciated, but in time the local girls mastered the art and very soon Stevens had thirty so employed.
Sheffield later enjoyed a reputation for fine quality horn handled walking sticks, umbrellas and parasols. The dies from which these handles were produced were very often of the most ingenious design and peculiar to the city, with lots of fine cut ornamentation, the handles were further beautified by the addition of ivory and pearl inlaid work.
The Scottish Ram has a horn of a clear and pleasing amber colour, this horn was a most excellent article for dying of various shades and proved to be ideal for parasol handles, selling readily on the Indian market.
DIE SINKING FOR HORN PRESSING
Sheffield has long been fortunate in the inborn ability of its sons to produce exact and delicate articles perfectly. Die sinking might not strike the reader as a delicate art, but I must assure you that it most definitely is.
John Atherton was an early die-sinker of the finest ability. His speciality was to create extremely fancy dies for the umbrella handle trade. Horn pressed into his dies would likely emerge in the realistic form of a wide variety of animal's heads: dogs, lions, horses, oh the list is endless.
Bennet Greenwood followed Atherton, and he too was unequalled in his day. Many of these beautiful dies could be obtained for but a few pounds, even the most laborious and elaborate specimens could be obtained for such amounts. The die-sinkers of those days can only be properly described by using the term artists.
I append below a list of the various articles produced by the million in Sheffield, all of them made from pressed horn throughout the 19th Century:
- Hafts and scales for cutlery (This was number one)
- Pocket and pen knife scales
- Machete, sword, pistol and hunting knife scales
- Razor scales and razor strop handles
- Dagger, steel and butchers knife handles
- Door furniture (finger plates, knobs and key hole covers)
- Buttons and combs
- Corkscrew and bicycle handles
- Lantern lights and clear horn drinking cups
- Valve wheel knobs and turnscrew handles
- Brooches, earrings, pendants etc.
- Desk knife handles and penholders
- Umbrella, walking stick and parasol handles
- Golf club sides and saw handles
- Violin chin rests and monocle rims
- Watch, snuff and tobacco boxes
- Tea and coffee pot handles
- Riding stirrups
- Gun plates, pistol caps and revolver plates
- Chemical scoops and shoe lifts
- Telephone mouth pieces and album backs
This may appear to be a fairly comprehensive list to you, dear reader; but I assure you that it is anything but.
Before anyone starts writing to the beloved editor of this illustrious publication, stating that I have missed the most obvious thing of all-the pipe stem or mouthpiece-I have to say that, in the main, this article was made in Germany from the horn tips. Such items were normally turned from the beautiful coloured ox tip.
The self-tip handle is another one of Sheffields own productions. This being a handle made from the ox or cow horn tip and, as a consequence, showing all the beautiful colouring naturally present. The cutlery houses used hundreds of grosses per week, and it was Henry Gouldthorpe (the third one of four so named) of Rockingham Lane, whose turnover of self-tips was by far the highest in the city. Henry Gouldthorpe was the man who hit upon the idea of straightening the bent horn tips by boiling them in water and setting them in vices. Previously, when cutting, the best available use had been made of the natural shape. Horn tips of course were used by the countless millions in the pocket knife trade as straight cut black buffalo scales. Germany and Sweden placed very extensive orders for cut buffalo scales with the horn dealers as well as their Sheffield counterparts.
DEER HORN AND BONE
Deer horn, because of its wiriness and textured appearance has long been associated with the Sheffield cutlery industry. Early supplies, as previously mentioned, came from local deer parks both in Scotland as well as England.
Demand for the product far outstripped home production, and it was to the Empire that Sheffield looked. East India provided the answer, having vast herds of Sambar stags. Initially the stag was used for carvers, steels, umbrella and riding crop handles. Specialist stag merchants in the 1870s would include: Wm Beet & Son, John Chester, Samuel Hoyland and many more.
The London auctions of the day would offer one hundred and twenty tons per sale, every ounce of which would find its way to the city of Sheffield. The estimates of the day reckon that an output of four to five hundred gross of stag handles and scales would be the minimum used weekly by the cutlery industry.
Most of the horn pressers and cutlers also availed themselves of the profit to be had from the relatively new deer horn trade.
Bone, whilst not being "horn" is its nearest possible relative, and I sincerely hope that the reader is not looking to me to suggest a date for its earliest use, such a task is obviously not possible, but an educated guess would lead me to man's earliest days on this planet.
London and Birmingham have had long years of traditional use for bones, as well as Sheffield, due mainly to their turning expertise; but it must be said that Sheffield once again was recognized as the world's biggest user. Since the 1820s one of Sheffields leading families in the bone trade was the Winterbottoms (a name that is very familiar to American knife enthusiasts.) Records show that in busy times a weekly quantity of some fifty tons would be required to keep the saws going. Such a quantity would provide some three hundred and fifty gross of hafts and scales for use by the cutlery industry in one week. Such was the massive and seemingly unquenchable demand for Sheffield made cutlery.
One of the by-products of cutting up bones, ivory, horn and stag with a saw is dust! The usefulness of this dust was very apparent to the Sheffield traders; and, being the shrewd men that they were, they found ready markets for this wonderful fertilizer. One company, Meggitts, records that in 1910 they bought a total of almost one thousand tons. Records show that one firm alone supplied them with two hundred and eighty two tons of hard horn waste. The enormous volume being used annually becomes readily apparent when it is fully realized that these enormous weights are related only to the saw-dust.
It may interest the reader to know that carefully protected, clean ivory dust was often made into a very nutritious jelly that could be taken internally by humans and often was.(*) This was said to be even better for invalids than calves'-foot jelly.
In the late 1920s, the decline in the stag, horn, ivory and bone trades became very obvious. Fashion and price of course was one of the reasons, crudely coloured plastics and other substitutes became the order of the day. The Sheffield craftsmen resented and resisted change and quite naturally the markets vanished. The price of the product made it impossible to sell except in small quantities, and in a few short years the entire cutlery industry had undergone a violent and dramatic change. Virtually every company changed over to synthetic materials, plastic, celluloid, rubber and metal alloys. The old firms had no customers. They closed down. It was inevitable. In Sheffield one company only lingered on until 1977. Scarlett and Whiting formerly of Rockingham Street, Sheffield, hung on until the bitter end. That day arrived on March 31, 1977 when the final nail in the coffin of what had been a very busy race of men, and boys, was hammered Home. This was Sheffield last outpost. Bernard Whiting was 81, Harry Scarlet was 67. Enough is enough!!
And yet, and yet, pride of possession is such that perhaps one day the fine grey marbling of the Cape ox: no two pieces alike and entirely beyond the skill of man to imitate, will be born again? In great quantity? No, I'm sorry, I just can't see it myself.
(*) In England "jelly" is the same as the product known in America as "jello."
Copyright (C) 1999 Oregon Knife Collectors Association. No part of this article may be reproduced without permission of the OKCA.