A Passion for the Past Reunites Two Alumnae
“My son (17) and I have been participating in Revolutionary War reenactments from Maryland to New Hampshire for the past six years. Although I started out as my son’s chauffeur and chaperone, I’ve grown to love living history and can check ‘hand sewing 18th-century clothing’ off my to-do list,” McCarthy shared in a recent class note in Glade & Glen.
“I’ve found my niche, though, in making period-authentic powder horns for the living history community. The scrimshaw engraving work takes me right back to the intaglio printmaking days of my senior year at Hamilton,” the studio art major added.
McCarthy was surprised that her newfound talents (see account of the powder horn-making process below) led to another Hamilton connection.
“Catherine and I were both anthro majors and had the same advisors [Beck and Jones]. Although she and I were not at Hamilton together, it was nice to connect with her as professional museum colleagues!”
For the past two decades, Claire Carlson ’86 has been on staff at Historic Deerfield, a museum dedicated to the heritage and preservation of Deerfield, Mass., and history of the Connecticut River Valley. “I took my first archaeology field school at Hamilton with Professors Tom Jones and Charlotte Beck,” recalled Carlson, an anthropology major and music minor. “That set me on my career path into education, museum programming, and archaeology.”
At Historic Deerfield, Carlson researches, plans, and manages programs that enhance the visitor experience, including the open hearth cooking program, historic trades demonstrations, and hands-on spaces like the one-room schoolhouse and the apprentice’s workshop. She also plans larger events like Wooly Wonders: Heritage Breed Sheep Weekend and ghost walks in October. As director of archaeology, she has been working on public programming and archaeological demonstrations during the restoration of one of the house museums, the 1799 Stebbins House.
Although Carlson and McCarthy had some mutual friends during their time on College Hill, they didn’t truly connect until recently. After seeing photographs of McCarthy’s powder horns on Facebook, Carlson immediately reached out and invited her for a visit. “Laurie came to Historic Deerfield last year and demonstrated powder horn carving. She is an amazing artist and craftsperson,” Carlson said. “We had a great time catching up over dinner after her demo. She’s now come twice and is on the books for 2024 already!”
McCarthy agreed: “This is my second year speaking about and demonstrating powder horn making for her historic trades program there. It’s a small world!”
And in another more recent chance Hamilton encounter, Carlson met Catherine Prescott ’12 at a recent New England Museum Association Conference. “As it turns out she is the curator at the Keeler Tavern Museum in Ridgefield, Conn., and we were finishing up a restoration of our Barnarad Tavern at Historic Deerfield,” Carlson said. “We took our tour guides on a trip to see Keelter, and then, late last year, the Keeler Tavern staff came up to Deerfield for a visit. Catherine and I were both anthro majors and had the same advisors [Beck and Jones]. Although she and I were not at Hamilton together, it was nice to connect with her as professional museum colleagues!”
How to Create a Powder Horn
Laurie Semple McCarthy ’86 shares the process behind creating historically accurate powder horns:
Necessity is the mother of invention. Having been a studio art major at Hamilton, I was drawn to the visual details of the historical accurate clothing and accoutrements used in the reenacting community when my son and I became involved. First I learned to hand-sew all of our clothing, and then I wanted to replicate some of the other items a soldier would carry in the field — a wooden canteen, a knapsack, a powder horn, etc.
I became fascinated with surviving examples of scrimshawed powder horns, which reminded me of the intaglio printmaking work I did at Hamilton. I read all the books and articles I could find — both on the significance of the imagery and the tools and methods of carving — and ultimately purchased a horn-making kit. The horn was for my son and received such a positive response from his fellow reenactors that I started taking commissions.
I make powder horns from polished cow horns or from vintage powder horns I find on ebay and elsewhere. A raw horn first needs to be boiled to clean it and then scraped until a polished surface is achieved. That's the part I try to avoid — the fumes and the dust particles are noxious. Once the horn is polished, I hand carve a wooden plug for the wide end. The plug can either be flush with the end of the horn or rounded out past the opening in order to be accurate to the 18th century. The plug is kept in place by tiny wooden dowels inserted around the perimeter of the horn, or by tiny iron nails. At the narrow tip, the pointed end is sawed off and a hole drilled into the end until it reaches the cavity inside the horn. This is where the black powder will be poured from.
I’ll detail the narrow end with one or two ridges to catch one end of the strap, and sometimes I’ll add more decorative carving, or “engrailing,” which was typical of more ornate horns of the period. This removes some of the thickness of the narrow end and creates a ridge separating it from the wide end of the horn. An engrailed tip is generally dyed black or dark brown. If I start with a plain “vintage” horn, some of the elements, such as the wooden plug or a simple ridge at the spout end, might be in place (which can save time while adding an authentic air). I’ll work with the horn as I find it and adjust the details to make it accurate to the 18th century. This often means removing later hardware (such as screw eyes or upholstery tacks) or a metal pouring tip, or modifying the shape of the wooden plug.
The scrimshaw is usually the last part of the creative process. There are many surviving horns with no decoration, so technically the horn would be historically accurate at this stage. I generally choose imagery for the scrimshaw based on the reenactor’s focus and background. Sometimes I’ll be given free reign, and other times the reenactor has specific imagery in mind. For reenactors based in Massachusetts, for instance, I’ve carved imagery representing the Siege of Boston based on extant horns. For another, I included a rendering of the College of William & Mary, his alma mater, which has been in existence since before the American Revolution. I learn something new every time I carve another horn.
I work out the imagery using modern tools (i.e., Photoshop and a computer) until I’m satisfied that the layout works with the horn. I also work out any lettering this way, to ensure that it fits properly along the curve of the horn. I trace the artwork and any lettering onto the horn with graphite and then start carving into the horn with an engraving tool. Historically, horns made in the field would have been carved with a knife and the lines darkened with lampblack or coal dust. I use a waxy black engraving filler stick, which I work into the carving and then rub off the surrounding areas with a rag or steel wool. Once I’m satisfied that the scrimshaw is complete, I apply several layers of a hard wax to the surface and buff it to a low gloss. I add a leather or woven strap which attaches to a small loop or iron staple at the wide wooden plug and to the ridged area near the narrow end. I carve a wooden stopper to plug the opening at the narrow end, drill a small hole through it, and tie it with a bit of waxed twine to the strap so it doesn’t get lost.