Antique horns appeal to the ear, the eye, and the pocketbook

Collectible horn
tin litho circus horn
Brightly-colored 1960s circus tin litho horn. Photo courtesy Rene Vintage Treasures,

“Oh the old dinner horn, telling t’was noon, sweet music it seemed to me …” croons a 1884 “Hit of the Season” song. To hungry farmers in far away fields, any call to dinner probably sounded sweet. Up close, however, these gently flared tin tooters were ear-benders.

What did they sound like? Though simple, tin horns, like their relatives, conch shells, animal horns, and straight English hunting horns, offered a variety of tones and ranges. Farmers’ wives, with a bit of practice, often learned to mellow their strident calls. By experimenting with various tonguings, lippings, and variations in air pressure, some even learned to produce chords. Now, from their stoops, they could summon their husbandmen home with an amusing tune or two. Since some of their instruments stretched nearly four feet long, this was admirable both musically and physically.

Why tin? Tin was both long lived and inexpensive. The 1897 Sears Roebuck Catalog, everyone’s dream book, sold tin dinner horns at six or fifteen cents apiece, depending on their length.

Tin horns, in times gone by, have served many other purposes too. They have called men to arms, sounded alarms, signaled directions, and enlivened political rallies and demonstrations. Even Abraham Lincoln, it was said, trying to speechify, was heckled not only by catcalls, but also by tin horns “filled with air.”

Horns also played a starring role in hornings or shivarees, mock serenades for newlyweds. The night of the marriage ceremony, townsfolk would silently gather outside the home of happy couples. Then suddenly, they would break into a cacophony of noise, beating old kettles with tongs or spoons, clanging horseshoes and shovels, and tooting on horns loudly enough to wake the dead. Only when the wedded pair, still in their night clothes, good naturedly joined the throng did the noise die down and the party begin.

Horns were the stuff of legends too. Paul Bunyan owned a tin horn so large that a single blast felled forests, caused cyclones and storms at sea!

New Yorkers living near Grammar School No. 3 in 1888 might sympathize. Assembled just minutes before the start of Christmas recess, 300 fidgety boys received a holiday surprise, a gift of 300 tin toy horns. Their principal, declaring that they needed to let off steam, instructed them, at his signal, to all blow their horns at once. They did, producing the noise of “a hundred threshing machines.” Visitors plugged up their ears as the blast grew agonizingly louder.

The school principal, however, remained oblivious to their pain. He himself was tooting on an immense, three-foot long tooter. At last, after many minutes of unbridled raucousness, he signaled for silence. Obediently, no one moved a muscle. Then declaring that the boys had not blown loud enough, he gave them a second chance. The New York Times proclaimed, “It was a great day for the boys of ‘No. 3.’”

From the late 1800s, hucksters pushing carts piled high with fruits, vegetables, or pots and pans, use to announce their arrival in town by shrilly tooting straight tin vendor horns. Tin horns also rang though the streets on other occasions. In January 1891, the New York Times reported that hobbledehoys (gawky adolescents) and respectable women alike whooped up the New Year with strident blasts on these “untunable, cacophonous, diabolical” instruments of torture. Their “everlasting and ear-splitting din,” they lamented, even drowned out jubilant church bells.

The development of offset lithography, in which designs are printed on tin-plated steel sheets allowed manufacturers to embellish horns with a growing variety of colors and themes. As evolving techniques speeded up production, these tin litho toys, as they were called, became increasingly cheaper, imaginative, and popular.

At one time, horns not only rang through the streets, but also punctuated private parties. Nearly every Fourth of July, sleighing party, or holiday festivity was without these requisite “happy-time horns.”

If we take the words to the popular children’s song, "Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town," to heart, horns also played a big roll in Christmas festivities. A whole stanza, after all, is dedicated to “little tin horns and little toy drums.”

Tooting long, spooky orange and black tin litho horns, replete with lifelike graphics of skeletons, bats, black cats, and witches, was once as popular at 1950s Halloween parties as lighting paper-mache jack-o-lanterns and bobbing for apples. Hosts often distributed shorter versions to children as party favors, whether this was to increase the festivities or keep rambunctious youngsters from vandalizing the premises, we will never know.

A fair number of these decorative Halloween horns, squirreled away in attics from one year to the next, except for light scratches or slightly damaged plastic mouthpieces, survived intact.

Many other tin litho horns, featuring bright stripes, storybook characters, or fanciful Spanish dancers, survived too. So did bell-bottomed red, white, and blue striped patriotic horns, some adorned with images of the Statue of Liberty. Vintage Japanese-made horns, typically featuring popular cowboy, folklore, and circus themes, are also readily available.

Nineteenth century tin horns, which may have languished in attic trunks, and storage sheds for up to a century, turn up today at estate sales, auctions, and flea markets. Antique dealer and collector Dave Weller recently acquired a beautifully preserved vendor’s horn at the Farmersville Auction in Ephrata, Pa. Prices vary. Those acquired at auction, or those dented or rust spotted, are generally inexpensive. Others, like a 1930s delicately ridged and embellished dinner horn or an authentic hand-wrought shivaree horn, may command hundreds of dollars.

It’s fascinating to imagine that farm women once summoned their husbands for dinner, school children celebrated Christmas vacation, and people whooped up the New Year with tin horns.

But collectors need not just imagine. Many vintage tin horns, despite their age, still make themselves heard – with blasts from the past.