March 24, 2010

Temperance-minded Potters

Carry Amelia Nation, described herself as "a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus,
barking at what He doesn't like."
There has been a lot of talk lately in the area where Michael and I live about the upcoming referendum on alcohol sales. Last year, Spruce Pine (in Mitchell County) fell to the inebriates. This year, the voters of Burnsville (in Yancey County) will take to the polls in early April to decide if liquor will be sold in town. This includes liquor by the bottle through an alcoholic beverage control store licensed by the state of NC, liquor by the drink at eating establishments, and beer and wine in the super market. There are 100 counties in North Carolina. Only two are still dry counties, where there are no sales outlets for alcoholic beverages. If (or when) Burnsville falls under the spell of spirits, there will be only one left.

All of this got me to thinking about research I had done long ago on the Kirkpatrick brothers, proprietors of the Anna Pottery from 1859 to 1896 in Anna, Illinois. The situation vis-à-vis alcohol in those days was exactly opposite as this upcoming referendum in Burnsville. You see the brothers were temperance-minded potters. I know that seems like a contradiction in terms. Potters, like most laborers, have long been accused of spending their hard-earned cash on beer and booze. But in the late 1800s, temperance was a topic that could boil your blood in the way abortion rights, gay-marriage rights, and gun rights can generate a heated discussion today.

I have heard the argument put forth in Burnsville that allowing alcohol sales will go against tradition. In the U.S. during the 1800s the situation was just the opposite. The widespread consumption of alcoholic beverages was the tradition; temperance was the Johnny-come-lately. The imbibing of alcoholic beverages in those days was seen as an inalienable right by most Americans, keeping in mind that fermented and alcoholic drinks were safer historically than milk, apple juice (cider), and even water. All of which were bound to harbor many more microorganisms than alcoholic beverages. In other words hard cider was safer to drink than apple juice, and milk was more dangerous than beer. Water purification systems were generally desired, but needed invention.

Fulper Pottery stoneware germ-proof water filter made about 1900

Many potters tried to figure out how to build a better stoneware water filter. Most Americans drank alcoholic beverages from childhood as their main source of liquids.

This was the situation the temperance movement was trying to overcome – widespread alcoholism supported by standard accepted practice.

John Greenwood, “Sea Captains Carousing at Surinam”
painted about 1755

Of course, this kind of behavior produced a laundry list of bad habits that are still associated with alcoholism, not the least of which were poverty, chronic shirking of social responsibilities, and abusive tendencies toward wives and children. No wonder some members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (Carry Nation is probably best known of them) routinely busted up taverns and bars (Carry called these actions “hatchetations”) that they considered scourges on their communities. All they wanted was for men to go easy on the booze. Prohibition, an extreme form of temperance, became the law of the land in 1918, but not before many states had passed their own rules.

image of NC newspaper headline, 1908

Well, what does all this have to do with two potters working in a small town in southern Illinois? Alcohol consumption and temperance were major subjects of the Kirkpatricks’ work.

Like most American potters in the 1800s, the Kirkpatrick brothers made lots of crocks and jugs for use in the homes and on the farms of their neighbors.

Anna Pottery packing receipt, ca. 1881

These sturdy containers were beginning to pass from favor, being pre-empted by glass Mason jars, which were easier to handle. The Kirkpatricks filled in the gaps in their income by mining and selling clay (for the ceramics as well as other industries, including metals, paper, paints, and confectionaries). They had a small work force that mined the clay and prepared it for shipment from a nearby railroad siding.

In addition, the Kirkpatricks had five or six journeyman potters working for them who made the standard crocks and jugs at the pottery. This left the brothers free to play in the clay.

They made all manner of whimsies that were sold at agricultural and mechanical fairs in the towns and counties throughout the Midwest, including frogs on shells which functioned as inkwells, whistles in the shape of owls, little brown jugs, mugs with frogs in the bottom to surprise the drinker, and many more.

One type of novelty particularly favored by fair-goers was the miniature jug or log cabin (about one inch tall) containing a Stanhope lens (small magnifying lenses). The jugs and cabins were hollow for stanhope insertion. Users could hold the jug or cabin to the light and view something magnified by the stanhope. These pictures included a miniature rendition of the Lord’s Prayer, a picture of a snake coiled to strike, or a naked woman. (Surprised? You probably thought Marilyn Monroe calendars were the first of their kind.)

All of these fair novelties are fun to contemplate, but it’s the brothers’ sculptural work that is truly amazing. More about these objects next time I visit the Sawdust & Dirt blog.

Ellen Denker is a consulting curator and independent scholar of material culture, specializing in American ceramic history. She has many publications, some of which have won awards from obscure organizations. For “Sawdust & Dirt,” Ellen contributes historical insights into contemporary issues in studio ceramics and review books and exhibitions that feature ceramics. Ellen can also be reached at