Kansas pioneer originated longhorn furniture in Topeka

by Anne Gilbert

While furniture utilizing animal horn and hide may upset animal lovers these days, there was a time when it was a decorative status symbol and costly to boot.  

Antique horn bench, American. (photo courtesy Architectural Anarchy, Chicago)

Furniture and decorative horn accessories were made in Germany as early as 1833. They came to international interest when displayed at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibit in London. Its popularity grew and by the end of the 19th century it was practically mass-produced in the Midwest using horns from the longhorn cattle that found their way to slaughter houses in Chicago and Kansas City.

The style rated a serious second glance when the Toby Furniture of Chicago displayed upholstered chairs and sofas with horn arms at the Chicago Industrial Exposition in 1876.  Soon makers added horn legs and backs for parlor furniture. By the 1890s horn furniture was made in large quantities by Wolf, Sayer & Heller of Chicago. They added decorative accessories such as hall racks, clock holders and small tables.

This table was the first horn furniture item made by Charles Calwell in 1896. It is now in the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka. (photo courtesy Kansas Museum of History)

Horn furniture’s popularity migrated to the East where another new trend, hunting lodges and mountain cabins was taking hold. 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 Frederich Wenzel in San Antonio. However, much was still coming from Topeka, KS where it was being made in 1896 by a quality furniture maker, Charles Calwell, whose family participated in making early pieces for family use. His wife polished the horns. Many of these pieces are now in the Kansas Museum of History.

In a letter to the museum in 1975, Calwell described how he began making longhorn furniture, after he saw some homemade varieties:

“I first became interested in building longhorn furniture for our personal use when I saw a makeshift chair made of horns which I glimpsed in an old wagon containing cabin furniture about 1895. I then set about gathering horns from Texas longhorn cattle being dehorned in our little Kansas town of Wetmore. I helped de-horn these cattle, and in the process, selected and put aside the best horns.”

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

These days, horn items are costly when they make a rare auction or dealer appearance. They are a popular conversation pieces as well as decorative for mountain homes and rustic cabins. Many of the pieces are quite handsome with imaginative uses of the horns and animal hides.

Reproductions are being made using acrylic horns and simulated animal fabrics. They aren’t cheap costing as much as $2,000.

Quality examples of an original early armchair can have a dealer price of more than $4,000.  If the piece is also unique, a dealer price for a rocker can be over $8,000.

The good news is that so many were made, and sturdy, they can still turn up in basements and barns.

Anne Gilbert has been self-syndicating the ANTIQUE DETECTIVE to such papers as the Chicago Sun Times and the Miami Herald since 1983. She has authored nine books on antiques, collectibles and art and appeared on national TV. She has done appraisals for museums and private individuals.