In the Spring of 2016, Valparaiso University’s Material Culture class studied artifacts from our collection, giving detailed historical context to some of our most unique and insightful artifacts. Thanks to Dr. Buggeln, Valparaiso University, the PoCo Muse collections volunteers, and the students for all the work and dedication put into this project.
The following research was compiled by Casey Main:
Symbolism of the Horn Chair
Horn chairs were popular from the 1860’s all the way through the 1950’s in the United States, their height of popularity spanning from1870 to 1900. This peak popularity was probably related to the idea of Manifest Destiny, America’s obsession with the West and desire to conquer the remaining frontier.
According to museum records, the great-grandson of “a German Immigrant who opened up a hardware business at his home on North Avenue in Chicago’’ gave this chair to the historical society in 1941. The donor’s grandparents on his father’s side came from Germany and Bavaria and moved to Indiana, and the donor’s father moved to Illinois right before marrying the donor’s mother. The donor’s mother’s family, however, lived in Chicago for at least two generations before the donor was born. Therefore, the original purchaser of this chair was likely the grandfather of the donor’s mother.
In the late nineteenth century, the Midwest became the furniture making capital of America. In 1860 there were eighteen furniture factories in Chicago alone. In addition to furniture making, Chicago’s meatpacking industry was extensive, and in1855 Chicago had the world’s largest lumber market. With an abundance of both lumber and cattle horns, it would not have been hard to obtain the raw material for such a chair. In the 1870’s, the Tobey Furniture Company on State Street, (which runs from North Avenue at Lincoln Park all the way down to the South Side of Chicago,) began selling upholstered parlor furniture with horns of cattle, buffalo, and elk used to form the legs, arms, and backs (see Sharon Darling, Chicago Furniture). The Porter County Museum’s horn chair likely was purchased in the 1870’s from the Tobey Furniture Company in Chicago, near the beginning of the popularity of upholstered horn furniture in the United States. Most of State Street and all of Tobey Furniture burned down in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, but the Tobey Company made a quick enough comeback for the chair to have been purchased as early as 1872.
Horn chairs allowed the consumer to embrace the rage for the West without actually moving anywhere. The owner of a horn chair could cheer from the sidelines, and could support Manifest Destiny without taking any of the risks that migrating westward entailed. A romanticized West could be purchased in the form of a horn chair, an idealized image of hunting and cattle that could be enjoyed in the safety of a Victorian parlor.