Powder Horns Were Like Cell Phones In The 18th Century

Jun 30, 2017

Long before cell phones held all of our photos and stored calendars for meetings, there was a primitive, but equally as personal object: the carved powder horn. 

This weekend, an exhibit opens at the Fort Pitt Museum in Point State Park, featuring more than 60 horns, which held gunpowder for soldiers and residents in 18th Century America.

“In some cases, it’s a war record that has the history of the campaign that he’s been on,” said Mike Burke, curator at the Fort Pitt Museum. “In other cases, it is literally a picture of his wife that he’s scratched on the side of his horn that he takes with him everywhere he goes.”

Horns could be engraved with anything of significance from portraits of family members to war records to maps of a region.
Credit Joaquin Gonzalez / 90.5 WESA

The horns were effective containers for gunpowder, because they were lightweight and kept the powder dry. Most powder horns were made of cow, but Burke said some were fashioned by bison or buffalo, which could be found in western Pennsylvania.

“One of the interesting things about cow horn is it is a thermo-plastic material,” Burke said. “So when it’s 

heated to about 450 degree Fahrenheit, it actually becomes plastic and you can mold it into different shapes.”

Many of the horns on display at the museum feature intricate engravings with pictures of family members, war records or maps.

But Burke said colonial Americans weren’t the only people using powder horns; Native Americans made many of the horns and adorned them with brass tacks to make them more visually appealing.

Three of the horns at the exhibit are said to have been carved in Pittsburgh by John Fox, who may have been a solider stationed at Fort Pitt. One horn depicts the Forbes Road between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh around 1764.

“We think oftentimes as Fort Pitt being this 18th Century backwater, but it’s actually home to a lot of very creative and inspired craftspeople,” Burke said. “Some incredible objects were produced here at the fort in the 18th Century.”

The exhibit, From Maps to Mermaids: Carved Powder Horns in Early America, opens at the museum on Saturday, July 1.