What is this?
Powder horn belonging to Gunner John Lord, USN
When is it from?
Why is it Important?
Though conforming generally in size to known US Navy priming horns, this example lacks several of the features common to government issued pieces. The most notable omission is the spring-loaded brass dispenser used to regulate the flow of powder from the horn to the gun’s vent- an essential safety feature. The base’s form, a bulbous, turned plug of walnut, is quite unlike any other US Navy or Royal Navy horn of the period. Taken together, these features suggest that Gunner Lord privately purchased the horn for his own use. This is further substantiated by the scrimshaw- no seaman would be allowed to deface government property in such a way. If this were Lord’s own horn, however, he would be free to decorate it as he pleased. He thereby not only marked the horn as his own property, but also participated in a long tradition of ornamenting powder horns with designs with militaristic themes.
Lord’s choice of motifs is indicative of his duties as gunner as well as the symbolic power of Constitution. The sailors’ penchant for naming a ship’s guns is well attested, and here we find further proof of the practice. “Big Will” evidently held special significance for Lord, but which of the guns this represents is open to conjecture. The links of chain circling the horn near its mouth are particularly intriguing. The navy did not adopt chain cables until the mid 1830s, some years after Lord’s death. Is this chain simply a pretty motif, or did it hold a deeper significance for Lord? The same may be asked of the image of Constitution engaged in battle with another frigate (probably meant to represent the Guerriere). It is no doubt a display of patriotism and pride in his ship, but also a talisman for good luck and protection. Just as Herman Melville’s veteran seamen carried “about their persons bits of ‘Old Ironsides,’ as Catholics do the wood of the true cross,” so too did John Lord avail himself of the famed frigate’s seemingly supernatural powers.
A priming horn made of cattle horn stopped at the butt with a turned walnut or maple plug, 14 ½ inches long. It is in good condition overall, but with a yellow patina, and assorted dings, scrapes, and wear from use. There is a small crack near the base, where the base plug has separated from the horn. A loop of soft brown leather (grain side out) with a brass ring serves as an attachment point for the suspension strap of 1/8 inch two-ply hemp cord. This ring appears to be a later addition, as there is evidence of an earlier ring or staple in the base plug now missing. The suspension cord is attached to the brass ring with an eye splice that has been served over with linen thread. The cord is likewise made fast near the spout with an eye splice that encircles the horn.
The horn is decorated with various naval and patriotic motifs incised with fine lines. These include near the spout a circle of chain links; a 24-pounder long gun mounted on a truck carriage with the words “BIG WILL” beneath; a 15-star American ensign waving to the left, a naval battle between and American and a British Frigate with the words “OLD IRONSIDES” bracketed by scrolls beneath; and beneath the flag, a series of scrolls that bear the inscription USF/ CONSTITUTION/ J.LORD/ GUNNER. Between the last two words is a trophy consisting of a crossed anchor and cannon surmounting a pyramid of cannon balls. A brass plate, mounted to the base plug with nails reads in crudely incised letters “J ~ LORD.” The plug for the spout is missing.