April 3, 2010

Anna Potters Delivered “Sermons in Stoneware”

Anna Pottery snake jug in the collection of the Illinois State Museum

In the first part of the blog post on the Anna Pottery I promised to describe the amazing temperance-minded objects made by the Kirkpatrick brothers during the second half of the 1800s. They made flasks in the shape of pigs, which were called “Railroad and River Guides.” The idea for the flasks, which were based on old German glass prototypes, was attributed to Cornwall, the older of the two brothers. The stoneware pigs are generally about eight inches long with the flask opening on the nether end of the hog. They were made by throwing cylinders and then altering them with the addition of a snout, legs, a tail, and male genitalia.

two pig flasks showing different sides, inscription

on obverse and

map of Illinois Central Railroad on reverse

These delightful objects were further complicated by elaborate incising overall, usually mapping prominent railroad lines and identifying cities along the routes. Although there are many variations of these routes, the common version shows the Illinois Central Railroad with Chicago (“the corn mart”) at the mouth and Mounds (a town at the tip of Illinois) at the other end. Cincinnati (“the ancient porkopolis” or “the pork city”) is usually underneath. The Mississippi River runs down the spine and St. Louis (identified as “the future capitol”) is shown in the center. There was a movement in the nineteenth century to change the U.S. capitol to St. Louis, which is more centrally located on the continent than Washington, DC.

One reporter in a local newspaper noted that “The pigs are a curious piece of workmanship, and appropriate, for it is rather a hoggish propensity to be guzzling whiskey, and if the habit is indulged in, will soon reduce a man below the level of the hog, and cause him to wallow in the gutter.” In the 19th century people who lived in cities and towns across the US knew a lot about pigs, which were allowed to roam the streets in order to take care of the garbage. Hence, the reference to pigs wallowing in the gutter.

In a broader context these dandy pigs are a metaphor for the economy of the Midwest. Even in the 19th century, corn was a principal cereal crop, but it was worth little on the commodity market. Instead, the clever Midwesterners raised hogs and distilled whiskey as a convenient means of taking this staple to market. These commodities were shipped across the land by railroad. Corn, pigs, whiskey, and railroads formed a tight and profitable economic network that is neatly represented by this humorous artifact.

I can’t think of many examples of metaphorical pottery that rivals these pigs. They are just remarkable objects that combine utility with symbolism in a way that is completely enthralling. Many variations are recorded because the Kirkpatrick's made them on order for saloons and taverns throughout the Midwest and the South.

snake jug, 10½ inches high, private collection

Like the pig bottles, which combine utility with art, the brothers’ snake jugs are remarkable expressions of temperance philosophy. The classic snake jug is about ten inches tall in a shape suggestive overall of the old-fashioned bellarmines (bearded-man jugs – see my last post for more on them and Dan Finnegan’s recent post on his blog). Instead of the bearded face, however, there is the upper torso of a man emerging from the jug, whose head is being attacked by a snake from above. In fact, the jug is covered with snakes. Insects such as dung beetles can also be seen on these jugs, along with frogs, lizards and the like. And there is usually a fair amount of writing that identifies the theme of each jug, many of which are political in nature. The most temperance-minded of the group is called “The Drunkard’s Doom.”

Drunkard’s Doom snake jug, two views, 9½ inches high

It features the bottom half of a male body diving into the jug on one side (labeled “nice young man going in”) and the top half emerging from the other side, looking disheveled and titled “The Drunkard’s Doom.”

This puts me in mind of the scene in Mark Twain’s classic novel Huckleberry Finn (1884) in which Huck describes his father in the throes of delirium tremens: “I don’t know how long I was asleep, but all of a sudden there was an awful scream and I was up. There was pap, looking wild and skipping around every which way and yelling about snakes. He said they was crawling up his legs; and then he would give a jump and scream, and say one had bit him on the cheek—but I couldn’t see no snakes. He started and run round and round the cabin, hollering ‘take him off! take him off! he’s biting me on the neck!’ I never see a man look so wild in the eyes.”

In the snake jugs Wallace Kirkpatrick combined a fascination with serpents

small coiled snake in collection of Illinois State Museum, 4 inches across

and his strong feelings against alcohol with a remarkable ability to model stoneware caricatures of human and animal life. The ghastly images evoked in these jugs are brutal and meant to be a warning to those tempted by liquor. Kirkpatrick “preaches sermons in stone,” noted a reporter in 1874.

It would not be fair if I did not mention that another writer on the Kirkpatricks has taken a different interpretive route. Richard Mohr’s ideas have their followers as do mine. Mohr does not believe the Kirkpatricks were temperance-minded. Instead he feels that their work was produced with tongue in cheek, whereas I doubt that an artist could come up with things that are so compelling unless he/she held a strong opinion, such as being temperance-minded in the case of the Kirkpatricks’ snake jugs and pig flasks.

Other Kirkpatrick jugs investigated the whiskey revenue scandal of President Grant’s administration (1876, now in National Museum of American History, Smithsonian) and the NY City Hall boondoggle perpetrated by Boss Tweed and his gang of nefarious politicians (1871, a gift to cartoonist Thomas Nast). One interesting variation is owned by the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Collection in Williamsburg. It has many movable parts.

You can see more Kirkpatrick work at this website.

I wonder as I contemplate all of this whether the upcoming booze vote in Burnsville will engender such commentary in local craft. Perhaps one vote in one town does not a movement make, and it is national/international political events and situations that provoke commentary among today’s potters. My thoughts turn to some of the sculpture by Viktor Schreckengost and Robert Arneson. I know you will think of many more examples of clay used as political expression. Please share them in your comments to this blog post.

There has long been a lot of blather about so-called functional ware vs. sculpture in ceramics and other craft media. But I think the lesson one can take away from the Kirkpatricks’ work is that utility need not limit one’s desire to express opinions on political or social situations, hence bottles in the shape of pigs and jugs covered with snakes. In fact, the Kirkpatricks’ use of utilitarian forms as their starting point is integral to the themes and metaphors of their work.

And Ayumi Horie’s invention of “Obamaware” in 2008 as a fundraiser is proof that the ability to express political opinions while also practicing utility with one’s work is not dead.

Cornwall Kirkpatrick and his children with a giant pitcher

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 ellen@sawdustanddirt.com