Horn Furniture and Accessories Make a Comeback

By Anne Gilbert 

If you think that furniture made of animal horns began in America in the Old West, think again. The horn furniture that was made in Germany as early as 1833 first became noticed after it was displayed at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibit in London. Its popularity grew, and by the end of the 19th century, it was being practically mass produced in the Midwest using horns from the longhorn cattle that found their way to slaughterhouses in Chicago and Kansas.

It was first introduced in America at the Chicago Industrial Exposition in 1876 by the Tobey Furniture Company of Chicago in the form of an upholstered chair and sofa with horn arms. Soon, they used horns for legs and backs of parlor furniture. It was an instant success. By the 1890s, it was made in large quantities by Wolf, Sayer & Heller of Chicago along with hall racks, clock holders and tables. It soon found its way to the East where it was considered perfect for another craze: hunting lodges and mountain cabins. It seemed the perfect furniture, conjuring up images of the Old West and the disappearing frontier.

It was finally made in the West in 1880 by Friedrich Wenzel, in San Antonio. However, much was imported from Topeka, Kansas, where it was made in 1886 by a quality furniture maker, Charles Calwell of Topeka. In a letter left to the Kansas Museum of History, Calwell described how he began making longhorn furniture. He first became interested when in 1880 a German furniture maker, Friedrich Wenzel, began making a variety of horn furniture in San Antonio. In the letter, he related how the entire family participated in making early pieces for personal use. He and his wife first made a table, then two rocking chairs, a bookcase and a settee. His wife polished the horns. Many of these pieces are now in the Kansas Museum of History.

When longhorns became scarce around 1900, that marked the end of horn furniture, and until recently, it has been practically forgotten and out of fashion.

CLUES: Now, once again, there is interest in antique horn furniture. To the hundreds of people now buying mountain homes and rustic cabins, the pieces made in the late 19th century and early 20th of real horns are worth the hefty auction prices. Steer horn chairs can sell at auction for from $2,000 to $5,000. A chandelier fashioned from antlers can fetch as much as $4,000. If a piece can be attributed to an actual maker the price will zoom.

Many of the pieces are quite handsome with imaginative uses of the horns and animal hides. So many were once made, and sturdy, they probably have survived and await discovery in a barn or attic.

Since American-made pieces are more in demand, make sure they didn't originate in Germany or elsewhere.

(L) Steer horn armchair, 19th century; (r.) brass-mounted
steer horn armchair, 19th/20th century; both American.
(Photo: Garth's Auctions, Delaware, OH.)

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