The National Texas Longhorn Museum


The Horn Furniture of
Herman Metz

by Alan W. Rogers

For thousands of years, man has made use of horns and antlers, sometimes for utility to help in his daily living and many times for ornaments and ceremonial use, which is evidenced by ancient illustrations and man-made artifacts. As an example, a known oxhorn spoon dates about 1500 B.C. Horn was an important part of everyday life.

It is believed horn furniture was first made in Europe at least as early as the Middle Ages. Horn chair designs date back to the 1700’s and were probably then made of antlers of elk and deer. In the mid-1800’s, horn furniture was very popular in Europe, especially in Germany and Britain. London, Hamburg and Frankfurt were principal cities of its manufacture. Immigrants from Europe brought to America their knowledge of the many uses of horn. It isn’t known by whom or when the first piece of horn furniture was made in America. An elk antler chair was sent to President Lincoln; a buffalo horn hatrack appeared at an 1867 New Jersey fair. The oldest American-made cattle horn chair I know is dated 1877. I've heard of a chair said to have been made in 1871 but don't know about it for sure. Horn furniture was produced in earnest and enjoyed its heyday from about 1880 to roughly 1910 when its popularity began to wane. Of course, horn furniture continued to be made after this period. The quality of horn furniture will vary in its appearance from crude to nearly elegant.

Horn furniture was made in various parts of the country, some by individuals and some, as a sideline, by furniture companies. Pieces are known to have been made in Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, along the Eastern Seaboard, and much was made in San Antonio; and in the mid-1880’s, Chicago, already the world’s leading producer of parlor furniture, would become a center for the making of horn furniture due to the availability of horns from the nearby giant Union Stockyards. Cattle horns have been fashioned into much more than chairs, tables, and hatracks. The list includes buttons, glasses, combs, knife handles, powder horns, mirror frames, canes, and on and on. Horn furniture is perhaps the greatest accomplishment in the use of horn, with horn veneering the pinnacle of the furniture maker’s art.

One artist was Herman Frederick Metz, born September 2, 1861 in Auglaize County, Ohio. He and his wife Ella came to St. Joseph, Missouri in the latter 1880’s and, with their daughters Ivy and Clara Mae, lived at 1718 Pacific. In 1891 Metz became a fireman and was appointed to Hose Company #2 at 10th and Olive. He was popular and well thought of, and was considered a genius in the carving of wood and stone. Part of his spare time was spent making toys for area children. Perhaps the greatest testament to his skill is in his horn furniture which, since its appearance at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, has been virtually unknown.

How Herman became interested in making horn furniture isn’t known. Likely because horn furniture was enjoying much popularity in the late 1880’s. Maybe his skill as a carver spurred his interest. The busy St. Joseph Stockyards were only blocks away, so good horns were plentiful. We believe he made various pieces of horn furniture for a period spanning 14 years beginning about 1890 and, as far as we know, none was made for public sale. He had intended to make a horn chair for President Roosevelt, but I can’t confirm that he did.

As a part of a display for the Enterprise Furniture and Carpet Company, Herman exhibited 8 pieces of furniture at the 1904 World’s Fair which included a dresser, three hatracks, a center table, a horn rocker, a standard horn chair, and a hall tree, all covered with horn veneer. According to a newspaper article, several pieces were exquisitely carved, ornamented with a near-perfect likeness of human hands. I haven’t discovered another maker of horn furniture who included the use of ornate carvings on his work. A few days before being shipped to St. Louis, the furniture was displayed in the window of the Enterprise Furniture Company at 214 South 6th, downtown St. Joseph. I have a picture of Herman and Ella taken in their front yard with three elaborate pieces of horn-veneered furniture: a chair, a table, and a picture frame. In addition, I have individual photographs of three other pieces.

OFFERED (and declined) $10,000 FOR FURNITURE!
Sometime before its appearance at the World’s Fair, Herman refused an offer of $800 for one of his chairs, an enormous amount of money for a piece of horn furniture. As a comparison, in 1889 other horn chairs were being sold for as much as $85. Certainly, the $800 was more than generous. He had hoped to receive an offer of several thousands dollars for the display after its exhibition. His expectation was greatly exceeded; his obituary states that after the Fair he refused $10,000 for the 8 pieces. According to the Economics Department at the University of Missouri and based on figures from Standard and Poor’s, the 10,000 dollars offered then is equal to roughly $148,000 in 1995. I discovered that about the time of the offer a handsome nine-room, natural-finished stone house with steam heat, beveled-glass doors, yellow pine floors, and even indoor plumbing could have been purchased for around $3,000. This shows a little more clearly the incredible buying power of $10,000. Why he changed his mind and didn’t sell isn’t known. It certainly would have made him a very wealthy man.

In January 1997 I was fortunate to locate and add to my collection a child’s horn rocker which I suspect Herman made for his daughters in the 1890’s. 28 ins. tall and 14 ins. wide, having a cushioned seat covered with the type of material commonly used on buggies, the back, arms, legs and rockers are fashioned in a framework of steel rods over which has been placed 533 pieces of drilled cattle horn. Into these pieces are inlaid 525 dots of horn. Into the back and arms were inlaid four stars and three diamonds made of horn. The ends of the steel rods were fitted with nine hand-carved acorn finials also made of horn. I know of no other chair so constructed. A laborious piece of work seen by thousands at the 1904 World’s Fair.

The corner dresser is perhaps his crowning display of talent. I first learned of it in 1983 when friends said, "You ought to go see this piece of horn furniture. You just won’t believe it." Within days I was in an old warehouse in Trenton, Missouri. And there it stood! Although I was familiar with horn furniture, I couldn’t believe anything like this was ever made, and January 1991 it was added to my collection.

Standing an incredible 8 ft. 3 ins tall and 5 ft. 10 ins. wide, I believe it’s the largest piece of steer horn furniture ever created. Certainly, in my many years of research and study, it is by far the largest of which I am aware. Even without the use of horns and veneering, its construction is a carpenter’s delight with oak, mahogany, and walnut as the principal woods. Having three large mirrors, the dresser is substantial and made for use, and far heavier than two men can lift. Of particular eye appeal is its 7-sided front. The entire wooden surface is covered with 1164 pieces of hand-cut, polished steer horn fit together with a high degree of precision and abundant mitering, being held in place with glue and nearly 9000 brass finishing nails. There are 8 drawers, the pulls of which are fashioned from horn. Nineteen hooves adorn the bottom while 14 sets of buffalo and 8 sets of black cow horns decorate the front in striking contrast to the mostly yellow horn veneering. It sits on 7 iron, wooden-wheel casters which bear a patent date of 1886. Truly, an enormous undertaking!

The use of horn veneer on American-made furniture is very rare and, to date, I have discovered only six makers, three of which I have identified: Herman F. Metz of St. Joseph, Missouri, and Wenzel Friedrich and Charles Puppe, both of San Antonio, Texas. I know of a table having a lower shelf, middle shelf and top with a veneered surface made by an unidentified maker, and a small, single-horn hatrack, which I have attributed to Metz. There is in an Oklahoma museum a cloth-covered horn table with figures and designs (such as anchors) applied to the surface, which is actually not veneering in a sense but an interesting use of horn on a surface. Two chairs and a horn table are known with horn veneering applied; their makers are unknown. Previously written articles on horn furniture have reported that veneering was unique to the work of Wenzel Friedrich, but we now know differently. Certainly, the use of horn veneer is very rare and limited to a few American horn furniture makers.

The use of cattle horn added to a furniture surface is quite old. A French furniture maker, Andre Charles Boulle, made use of horn, ivory, and brass as an overlay on furniture as early as the beginning of the seventeenth century. The process of cutting, shaping and flattening cow horns into thin sheets dates back to the time of the Romans.

Cattle horns are a protein matter called keratin, the same as our hair and fingernails. The outer horn that you see on an animal’s head actually covers a bony inner core that is a part of the animal’s skull and is held in place by a thin layer of sticky, fleshy membrane. When removed by natural drying or in boiling water, this outer horn is found to basically hollow and grows in layers of uneven thickness. It is most thin at the base and thickens to a solid tip.

There are at least two methods to produce horn veneer. In the 1700’s, European horn crafters would cut horn into various sized pieces, soaking it in hot water or oil for softening. (Horn becomes very pliable when subjected to heat, especially hot water.) The horn was then flattened, placed in wooden clamps or between hot iron plates treated with tallow, and pressed to the desired thickness. Another method was to put the pieces in boiling water. After a time, the layers would begin to separate, possibly due to the fact that there is a thin layer of liquid between them. These sheets of horn would then be flattened, allowed to dry, cut, shaped and fitted to a wooden surface, producing horn veneer. Allowing that the separated layers of horn are not identical in their thickness, it seems likely the craftsman would attempt to even the thickness of the cut pieces as much as possible before application. If he found any variance after application, he probably removed it by a light finish sanding to produce the desired smooth surface. This, of course, would depend on how near a perfectly-smooth surface the craftsman wanted. Not all veneering will be found table-top smooth. To date, I’ve seen two veneered pieces with uneven surfaces.

In its natural state, the horn has a rough surface After being softened in the hot water, this roughness can be scraped smooth with a straight-edged instrument. This scraping can be done before or after the horn is cut into pieces and, from my experience, it is much easier to sand or scrape the horn before cutting it. A final polishing produces a beautiful finish. In today’s world, machine sanding of a dry horn is common practice.

How many horns were used to produce Herman’s dresser isn’t known. Thousands of tedious hours must have gone into its making. The dresser represents the most labor-intensive piece of horn furniture I have yet seen and is a testament to Herman’s patience.

On the morning of February 22, 1918, about two o’clock, Company #11 at 18th and Walnut received a fire call to the home of E. P. Davis, 2807 Sacramento. The horses and fire wagon were made ready. Metz, the driver, and firemen J. P. Riordan and O. R. Raymond, also aboard, were en route. At 22nd and Sacramento, Herman leaned over to apply the whip; losing his balance, he fell. At this point, exactly what happened step-by-step is not recorded. Reconstructing the incident, I suggest that if Metz had fallen to either side, he would have fallen away from the horses. It seems likely that after losing his balance he fell forward, possibly between the horses, onto the wagon tongue and, finally, to the ground under their hooves where he was trampled. The police ambulance was called, and Metz was taken to Noyes Hospital. He suffered, visually, only a bruised leg. Along with internal bleeding, three ribs on his left side were broken, one of which punctured his lung. Herman was conscious to the end and died at 4:10 am.

The Fire Department provided Metz an elaborate and impressive funeral afforded to few. The service was conducted at his home by Rev. W. C. Harms of Wesley Methodist Church of which Metz was a member. Led by Chief Pat Kane, and including Maupin’s Band along with thirty firemen on foot, the procession started from the home and headed for Mount Mora Cemetery. A group of firemen met the funeral party when it reached Frederick Avenue and another group joined the procession as it entered the cemetery. The pallbearers were fellow firemen. The wagon from which Metz fell, draped in mourning, conveyed his coffin. His hat and coat lay on the seat. Herman, at age 56, was buried February 24, 1918.

Many years have passed since the death of Herman Metz. The making of horn furniture as it was known in his day is over. The glory days of the big stockyards with horned cattle shipped in by the thousands are no more. Where are the other pieces of horn furniture made by Metz? Probably sitting quietly in someone’s house or on display in a museum. The use of horn veneer is a forgotten art and, as far as we yet know, was perhaps only ever attempted by a handful of American makers. Over the years I’ve seen quite a number of pieces of horn furniture, and some of it was truly splendid. In time, I’ll see more. It’s not likely I’ll find an equal to the masterpieces of Herman Metz.

Copyright Alan Rogers   1991

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