Powder Horn

This remarkable and beautiful object is an 18th century powder horn, currently on display at Scarborough Art Gallery.

Made of animal horn, the powder horn would be used on the battlefield to store gunpowder and was often created from buffalo, cow or ox horn. Horn was an ideal material for this purpose, as it was naturally waterproof, very abundant and both resistant to and didn’t cause sparks which could have ignited the powder with, of course, potentially disastrous consequences.

The surface is richly etched with patterns and imagery of birds, animals, flowers and other natural objects and features a map stretching from New York at the bottom to Lake Ontario at the top (note the misspelling of Niagara), showing major settlements and fortifications. This type of carving and engraving is generally known as scrimshaw, a term most people will associate with the whaling industry, but which actually applies to any artwork created on animal by-products such as horn, bone or ivory.

Donated to the Museum in the 19th century, it dates to around 1760, so was possibly used during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).

The horn has had a chequered history over recent years. Our Collections Manager Jim Middleton knew of its existence, but it had been briefly misplaced within the quarter of a million other objects stored safely in the climate-controlled stores.

“I knew of its existence from references in literature,” says Jim.  “It’s referenced (and given the number 746) in the 1946 book American Engraved Powder Horns: A Study Based on the J. H. Grenville Gilbert Collection by Stephen V. Grancsay. It’s also referenced and illustrated in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of London, 2nd series, vol. XIV, (1891-1893) in an article by R. C. Hope entitled A Powder Horn from the Scarborough Museum.

“So at this point, I knew we had it somewhere, and also was lucky enough to know what it looked like. After a few weeks spent opening random boxes, I eventually found it in a box of kitchenalia!”