Friday, November 4, 2011

Anna Pottery and Alcohol

In an earlier post entitled “Snakes in Clay” (September 2010), I traced the history from 16th Century France to the present day of creating ceramic objects that incorporate in them a variety of snakes, lizards and other creepy crawly animals. The article included material and images of the snake jugs produced by the Kirkpatrick brothers at their Anna, Illinois, Pottery, shown here in 1885. I alluded in passing to my skepticism about the standard interpretation that the jugs were powerful anti-alcohol, “temperance” objects.

Ceramic gurus have opined that the jugs “illustrate the evils of strong drink” and that “the ghastly images evoked in these jugs are brutal and meant to be a warning to those tempted by liquor.” One critic cites the Kirkpatricks as “having a tenacious adherence to temperance principles.” Certainly a look at the first jug pictured here would seem to bear out those opinions. It appears to show a man being nibbled to death by a pack of slimy creatures. Is this what Wallace and Cornwall Kirkpatrick, the latter shown here, were try to say?

The fallacy of this temperance view can be seen in two other jugs featured here. This visual evidence is backs up the observations of Author Richard D. Mohr in his 2003 book entitled, “George Ohr and the Brothers Kirkpatrick.” Mohr states: “I suggest that literalist readings of the snake jugs, readings which take them as nothing but temperance propaganda, are almost certainly too simplistic and probably flat out wrong.” Right you are, Mr. Mohr, and shown here is further proof of your contention.

The two Albany slip jugs shown here were commissioned by Brachman & Massard from the Kirkpatricks and Anna Pottery And who were Brachman and Massard? They ran a wine and liquor wholesale and retail business that was located at 81 West Third Street in Cincinnati. The first jug, shown from three angles, features a snake that wraps around the neck of the jug and then loops out to form the handle. The incised letters in the Albany slip on the front identifies the item as a “Little Brown Jug” from the liquor dealers and bears the date 1876.

If the witness of this jug is not enough to dispel the notion of the Kirkpatrick’s temperance crusade, a second ceramic crafted for Brachman & Massard should be sufficient. Shown here in two images, this small jug carries a similar label, including identification of the company as wine and liquor dealers. But it adds a most unusual feature: At the base are incised a group of slashes that indicate 8 to 7.

The most likely interpretation is that this was the Kirkpatrick’s enigmatic reference to the Presidential Election of 1876 in which Samuel Tilden, the Democrat, received a larger popular vote than the Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes, but the electoral vote essentially was a tie. To decide which one would become President a group of five House of Representative members, five Senators and five Supreme Court Members were selected. By an 8 to 7 vote -- widely thought to have been swayed by political promises - - they determined that Hayes was the winner. The result set off a firestorm of protest as expressed in a Thomas Nast Harper’s cartoon of the time. On another snake jug the brothers emblazoned “Eight villains to seven patriots.”

While the Kirkpatricks frequently made such political statements on their ceramics, it is clear that the brothers were not demonstrating a pro-temperance attitude by fashioning two jugs for Cincinnati liquor dealers. Or by creating a ceramic pig, shown here, that invites “a little good old Bourbon.” Rather, the symbolism of the Anna Pottery snake jugs expresses the brothers’ sardonic, highly individualistic look at the world just as they did with other ceramic objects they created.

As a postscript to the story it should be noted that Brachman & Massard went out of business sometime around 1897. The Kirkpatrick’s Anna Pottery ceramics continue to elicit great interest and one snake jug recently sold at auction for $83,650, a new record.

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