Friday, July 31, 2009

Hunting the Ceramic Hillbilly

Early in the new century it became clear to me that an entire class of artifacts with historical and cultural significance were in danger of being lost to future generations. They were ceramic souvenirs from the 1940s through the 1960s that celebrated that American icon, the Hillbilly. These included ashtrays, jugs, salt and pepper shakers, coffee mugs, and figurines.

These souvenirs were manufactured in the U.S. and overseas for a traveling public in mountain and Southern states eager to bring something home for relatives related to the scenes they had experienced. The Hillbilly -- the last stereotype still politically correct -- proved be a popular image. These ceramics involve representations of mountain folks, bearing familiar hillbilly themes and stereotypes:
* The men are inevitably heavily bearded, in ragged clothing, with a gun and/or a jug of whiskey at hand and often a dog or a pig at their side;
* The women are puffing on pipes and raising great clouds of smoke; and
* Most people are barefoot and wearing floppy hats.

Dozens of these items were showing up daily on internet auctions, most selling for under $5. My concern was that these interesting examples of Americana would be lost to future researchers and scholars. A collection resides in boxes at the Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill but is catalogued under the dismissive rubric “Southern Tacky.” Surely, I thought, these examples of American culture deserve better.

As a result, over a four year period I set out to find and buy as many different hillbilly ceramics as possible. By 2006 my collection had grown to 183: 82 ashtrays, 39 jugs, 37 salt and peppers, and 25 miscellaneous banks, toothpick holders, plates, and coffee mugs. Pieces from the collection are shown here.

During the process of collecting, I was able to research some of the potteries responsible for creating the souvenirs. For example, the Clinch Mountain jug depicted was from the Cash Family Pottery of Erwin, Tennessee. About 1945 Ray and Pauline Cash, who had run a pottery sales stand, founded their own ceramic business in Erwin that they first called Clinchfield Pottery and later renamed for themselves. Purchasing molds from defunct potteries and hiring local women decorators, they issued a line of painted stoneware until foreign imports caused them to close in 1989.

The “Corn Likker...Tennessee” jug was from Parkcraft, one among several product names used by the Ahrold Family of Burlington, Iowa, for specialty ceramics they produced at their own facilities or commissioned from other potteries. Their hillbilly jugs actually were made by Taneycomo Pottery of Hollister, Missouri, a town not far from the Branson music center. Parkcraft did the marketing only.

The pair of coffee mugs with hillbilly handles represent two major producers of hillbilly material. The one at left is from a design by Paul Webb known for his cartoons of mountain people. Marked 1948 it was made by the Imperial Pottery Company of Zanesville, Ohio. The mug on the right is from Twin Winton, a California firm that was guided until his death in 2007 by Don Winton, a talented artist and designer. His hillbilly line was launched in 1947.

Another American product is the ashtray with the man sleeping on a pig. It was produced by Charles Houston of Fresno, California, under a copyright of 1950. Other items shown here are either labeled “Made in Japan” or can be identified as such by head gear more akin to Chinese coolies. The origins of the drinking pig are completely uncertain.

Three years ago, as my hillbilly ceramics overran the space to contain them, I looked for a place to donate the collection. Through a series of contacts I was made aware of the Appalachian Cultural Museum in Boone, North Carolina. An adjunct of Appalachian State University, the museum celebrates the lives and activities of mountain people. The curator, Dr. Charles Watson, was delighted to have the donation. He drove a van to my home and carried my collection to Boone.

His museum subsequently lost its space at the University and relocation plans have been pending because of a lack of funds to lease and renovate new space. I still am full of hope that someday soon my hillbillies will find a permanent good home.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Fulper Phenom

Sixteen years ago after a decade of research I ventured in an article, on rather flimsy evidence, that a line of frequently seen decorated whiskey jugs were the product of a New Jersey pottery prominently known for its high quality and expensive art pottery. It was the Fulper Pottery Company of Flemington, located about 23 miles north of Trenton, New Jersey.

Fulper and its successor firm, doing business from 1814 until 1980, had an international reputation for colorful glazes and innovative shapes. Its vases, lamps, figurines and other objects regularly command high prices in the antiques trade. Linking Fulper to so crude an item as a whiskey jug might seem ludicrous.

My 1993 article made the connection because of a 1905 advertisement that the Fulper company ran in a national trade publication for liquor manufacturers and distributors. Shown here, the ad featured two jugs. The one pictured on the left is shaped approximately like the whiskey ceramics in question. Moreover, the ad described the Fulper jugs as “fancy,” “handsomely made,” and “fancifully marked.” From that slim evidence and with some trepidation my published conclusion was that Fulper was the manufacturer.

For years I sought further evidence -- either to refute or confirm my identification. Calls to experts and collectors of American pottery yielded no solid information. As time passed, my frustration grew. Then in 2002 I learned that a Fulper museum had been established in Flemington by pottery historian Rob Runge and his wife. I contacted him. He answered that it was quite possible that Fulper had been the potter, and asked me to send him some photos of the jugs, which I did. His response came quickly and had me whooping with glee: “Yes, they were indeed produced by Fulper Pottery.” he wrote.

The find explained the purpose of a small kiln at the Fulper complex, shown here, whose uses had posed a mystery for Runge. After the blank jugs had been formed in the main factory, this kiln, capable of temperatures of only 1200-1300 degrees, was used to fire the gold lettering and characteristic painted flowers. The Meadville Rye jug shown here demonstrates the decoration in its pristine condition.

I subsequently sold the bulk of my Fulper whiskeys to the Runges for their museum, where they put them on display, graciously giving me credit for making the connection. I also wrote a follow-up piece about the link having been confirmed. That article has been widely circulated via the Internet and today many offerings of these jugs identify them as Fulper made. Nonetheless, these whiskey ceramics seldom command more than $100. One problem is that during the century or more they have been around, the gold decoration often has deteriorated, particularly on the dark bottom half of the jug.

For the past twenty years, I have kept an eye out for these jugs on Internet auctions and elsewhere and have compiled a list of them which now has reached 88 varieties. The list is available from me for $2.00 and a self-addressed stamped envelope. In spite of my years looking, previously unknown to me Fulper whiskeys still come along from time to time. One surfaced only last month. It is a Klein & Hyman jug from Cincinnati that is labeled “Our Champion.” It can dated from the decade 1887-1897 when that firm existed. Also notice the poor condition of the gold letttering.

As a final note, the Fulper Museum was forced to shut down several years ago because of the deteriorated condition of the building it occupied. Efforts to establish the collection at another Flemington location unfortunately have not been successful.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Where to Buddy? Hospital or Graveyard?: Ambulance Hearses

Telling the difference between an ambulance and a hearse in contemporary times is not difficult. But from 1909 when gasoline powered hearses first appeared and for three score-and ten years thereafter the distinction might be entirely in whether passenger being conveyed had vital signs -- or not. This oddity is recognized by those who collect vintage paperweights bearing vehicle images of bygone days.

Funeral homes, liveries, and other businesses that operated coaches often found paperweights a discrete way to advertise. When Aunt Fanny was choking on her meatballs, the glass object on the desk would tell you whom to call. Shown here is a small sample of the genre, along with some brief facts about the issuing merchants.

A Chicago-based outfit, the Arntzen family were not only were a limousine service and undertakers, they actually built hearses and other coaches such as this “invalid conveyance.” The Arntzens claimed to design their vehicle so that it had “no appearance of an ambulance.” The camouflage apparently was intended to deceive the neighbors when someone was carted off with bubonic plague.

Like the Arntzens, Geo. Sharer and Son were undertakers, with a chapel and funeral home on Prospect Avenue in Cleveland. Their “limousine invalid car” would take you anywhere in the city for $5. Even, I suppose, to the East Cleveland Cemetery. Putnam’s “invalid car” bears a strong resemblance to a hearse, but nowhere does the paperweight disclose that the Putnams also operated a funeral parlor in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

Further evidence of being coy about their core business shows up on a paperweight from Ziegenhein Bros. of St. Louis, Missouri. It shows a vehicle that has many attributes of a hearse but gives its business only as “L. and U.” -- to be understood as livery and undertaker. The Ziegenhein family still runs a funeral home in St. Louis, but wisely have dropped the livery business.

By contrast, the Smith-Hoff-Jacobs Funeral Directors had no compunctions about making their principal occupation known to the people of Kokomo, Indiana, while advertising their “new invalid cab “ -- one that also looks suspiciously like a hearse. Gracing another weight, one made of celluloid not glass, the coach from Westcott’s of Sioux City, Iowa, likewise seems more fitted for a trip to boot hill than the emergency room.

For a non-expert like me, it is difficult to tell the make and model of these conveyances. Walter’s Funeral home in St. Petersburg, Florida, made it easy by advertising their ambulance/hearse as a Lincoln. It is reassuring that the riding with Walker meant being accompanied by a “graduate nurse.” She probably did not do the cemetery runs.

Although our final item, also celluloid, trumpets its ambulance as the “world’s finest, it says nothing about the make of the car or the name of the firm. With research it was possible to identify both. The paperweight was issued by the J. T. Hinton & Sons Funeral Home. Operating a busy mortuary in Memphis for many years, the Hintons were reported by contemporary sources as famous for their “ambitious ambulance tactics.” Might they have run over pedestrians in order to cart them away? Records indicate that their 1922 model ambulance was made especially for them by the Cunningham Motorcar Company of Rochester, New York.

The hearse/ambulance confusion lasted some 70 years. Until as late as 1979 hearses in the United States could be combination coaches that also served as ambulances. In the late 1970s, however, stricter Federal standards were decreed for ambulances. The hybrids were unable to meet them and after 1979 were discontinued. In many smaller communities even today, however, ambulances --in vehicles distinct from hearses--continue to be the business of the local undertaker. Thus, my earlier question may still be valid: “Where to Buddy?”

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Pope's Cocaine

My post on Maltine led me to some research on beverages containing cocaine. That in turn led me to a French chemist, originally from the island of Corsica. His name was Angelo Mariani (1838-1914). His particular contribution to humankind was inventing a product called coca wine. Importing tons of coca leaves from Latin America to France, Mariani soaked them in Bordeaux wine. Ethanol in the wine acted as a solvent and extracted the cocaine from the leaves, which then laced the beverage.

In 1863, at the age of 25, Angelo -- reputedly the young man shown here -- began marketing this cocaine-riddled tonic. He called it, “Vin Mariani.” Its green bottles originally contained 6 mgs. of cocaine per fluid ounce of red wine. When after many years he began exporting Vin Mariani to the United States, stronger cocaine tonics were already on the American market, so he boosted the cocaine content to 7.2 mgs.

Colorfully advertised, almost from the beginning Vin Mariani was hugely popular in Europe and America. The French writer Emil Zola bubbled over in praise, calling it: The Elixir of Life...a veritable scientific fountain of youth, which in giving vigor, health and energy would create an entirely new and superior race.” Other notables who were reported to be regular imbibers of Vin Mariani were Queen Victoria of Britain and U.S. President William McKinley. Thomas Edison endorsed the wine, saying that it allowed him to stay awake (inventing?) for longer hours.

But the most famous customer was Pope Leo XIII who is said to have carried a flask of the stuff around with him to bolster his spirits in times of need. So grateful was the Pope that he awarded a Vatican gold medal to Angelo. A hustling entrepreneur as well as inventor, Mariani saw the benefits of celebrity endorsements and frequently featured the gold medal and the Catholic pontiff in his advertising. It can be asserted without contradiction, however, that he did not seek the Pope’s blessing for a 1896 advertisement featuring a Titianesque beauty.

Meanwhile, in the United States, alarm was growing about the use of cocaine-laced beverages. Doctors and hospitals began warning about serious cases of addiction. In 1914 the Congress passed the Harrison Act that outlawed cocaine and heron in over-the-counter products. Dr. Harvey D. Wiley, first director of the forerunner of the FDA, wrote that more than a hundred wines, bearing different names, had been used for the administration of cocaine. He singled out Vin Mariani as the most widely used of these preparations. The injury caused by it and other coca tonics, Wiley asserted, “cannot be overestimated.”

As this saga was unfolding, John Pemberton of Atlanta was merchandising what he called Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. When Atlanta went dry, he responded by developing a non-alcoholic version and eventually called it Coca Cola. He later removed cocaine as an ingredient, but the name remained. For that reason some have called Angelo Mariani “the grandfather” of Coca Cola. I would agree.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Reflections on Pocket Mirrors

If it had not been for the invention of celluloid, one of America’s most popular advertising giveaway items might never have existed. A New York inventor named John Wesley Hyatt, shown here, stumbled on the substance during the 1860s while trying to find a substitute for elephant ivory in billiard balls. In the process he developed the world’s first industrial plastic.

Put into mass production in 1872, celluloid rapidly became popular for its ability to be shaped and to carry elaborate colored lithographic images. In particular it was suited as backing small mirrors that could be stowed away in a pocket. The mirrors came both round and oval, with typical size for the latter at 2 3/4 by 1 3/4 inches. An ad was on the back, a reflective surface on the front.

Millions of pocket mirrors have been distributed down through the years advertising everything from baby shoes to funeral parlors. In keeping with a theme of this blog, I have been interested in them as vintage giveaways by whiskey makers and sellers.

Even in this narrow universe, designs vary widely, although most reflect the merchandising themes of the brand of liquor they advertise. For example, Duffy’s Malt Whiskey, which claimed to be America’s only medicinal whiskey and able to make “the weak strong,” regularly featured the aged alchemist who presumably first cooked up the potion. Petts’ Bald Eagle Whiskey patriotically featured the white headed national bird on its mirror back, calling it “The Representative American.” The owner was Sanford Petts who ran a liquor business in Boston, Mass., with his son until Prohibition.

Woodford Club Rye, self-described as “the unequaled whiskey,” showed less imagination by featuring its labeled quart bottle. This booze originated with the Hanley-Hoye Co. Cofounder James Hanley was an Irish immigrant who became a towering figure in the in beer and liquor industry of Providence, Rhode Island, during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Pictures of women, sometimes clothed, sometimes not, often were featured on pocket mirrors. Phil G. Kelly of Richmond, Virginia, called one of his many rye whiskey brands “Miss Tempting.” The picture on his giveaway pocket mirror shows a middle aged woman with a mop of hair and a large hat whose allure escapes me. Lowenbach Bros., liquor dealers of Alexandria, Virginia, did not make the same mistake. Their illustration for Wakefield Rye is a full-bodied beauty fashioned after Diana, the Greek goddess of the hunt. Note the bow and arrow after dwelling on other features.

Each of these pocket mirrors is a highly collectible item -- and all made possible by John Wesley Hyatt and his serendipitous discovery of celluloid. By the way, celluloid did not prove practical for billiard balls.