Design & Make

Horn Measuring Cup

by Sophie Wise January 12, 2011
ReadHorn Measuring Cup

In the eighteenth century, back when this horn cup was made, coughs and sneezes could eventually kill you, and there were few remedies out there besides prayers. The measured notches on this horn cup offered a little certainty in what was surely a not-so-certain cure.
The horn is most likely cow, bison or buffalo. Working with horn seems neither easy nor pleasant. First, you soak the horn in hot water, then remove the mucous membrane by hand from inside of the horn, and scrape out any bits of crud. Cover your nose because that membrane smells like Chinatown garbage on a hot day. Once it’s sterile and free of its core, you can bend, mold and saw your way into the right cup shape, using heat to keep it pliable. Heat also turns the bone-colored horn amber, which is matched by a durable glass-like smoothness that won’t break, unless you fill it full of steaming hot coffee — heat can melt the keratin.

Antique horn measuring cup. (Image courtesy Phisick)

Horn apothecary cup. (Image courtesy Phisick)

Besides steeped bark elixirs, snake oils, scab-water and other eighteenth century cures, what was most likely sipped out of these cups was whiskey. Whiskey has been soothing cold, tired bones for centuries. Even the name means water of life. (Ironic, considering the powerful, soul crushing hangovers it can give you.) During Prohibition, the only alcohol legally sold was whiskey by doctor’s prescription at pharmacies, until they realized that their customers were stumbling in with giant red noses and gout and attempting to buy the stuff by the barrel.

Measuring cup made of horn.

Horn measuring cup

But in moderation, just one shot can nearly cure a common cold. It’s one of the most natural painkillers we know, as long as it’s been distilled and aged in a vat made of wood — more of the chemical compound phenol to go around (a germicide and anti-inflammatory).

Hot water, two ounces of good whiskey, lemon and honey just before bed can knock out the onset of a cold just as easily as that disgusting thick blue goo that makes you fuzzy for two days.

This measured horn cup was most likely made by a man with a carving knife and a wood fire, wincing over the foul smell, crafting a medicine cup. And hopefully soon nipping that cold in the bud. 

Carved horn measuring cup, detail.


– “It’s For Medical Purposes, Honest,” BBC News
– Working Horn, Using and Working with Horn
– Brought to Life: Exploring the History of Medicine, Science Museum

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