Thursday, November 8, 2012

New Find: A Third “Minnehaha” Whiskey Jug

After more than 30 years tracking “fancy” American whiskey jugs, I seldom see anything new and startling.   Last month, however,  a pre-Prohibition whiskey ceramic was put for auction on eBay that I had never seen before. Shown here, it bears the name “Minnehaha - Laughing Waters.”   It bears a the cobalt blue underglaze transfer design of a Indian brave in a canoe attacking a sea serpent with a bow and arrow,  while a European gentleman lies prone at his side.

The jug is one of three different jugs bearing the Minnehaha name and an elaborate monogram on the back for the issuing company,  Martindale & Johnson of Philadelphia.  According to reports, this was a grocery firm, founded about 1869.   A letterhead from 1883 shows the proprietors as Thomas C. Martindale and William Johnston.  They are billed as “Importers, Grocers, Wine and Spirits Merchants.”  Their trade card emphases dealing in California-origin merchandise.

None of this explains why the firm saw fit to issue three of the most highly sought ceramic whiskeys extant today.   In addition to the first jug shown,  the grocers issued two others,    One features an Indian maiden sitting near a waterfalls. It comes in two versions. In one  the title is the same as on the new find and the illustration is in a crisp dark cobalt. In the second “Laughing Waters” is missing and the cartoon is lighter blue and lacks strong definition. This jug also is found in a sepia brown.

The third jug has nothing to do with Native Americans.  It appears to depict two small birds amidst a floral background looking intently on the ground.   On further inspection it would seem that the birds are on an elaborate Victorian stage and illuminated by rows of footlights. The jug comes in a sepia brown.   Like the others it bears the elaborate M&J monogram at the back.  Like the new find, this jug is quite rare and although I once owned one, I have seen no more than three or four over time.

The name “Minnehaha” is derived from the poem by Henry Longfellow called “Song of Hiawatha.”  It is a long epic tale about an Indian brave who does many heroic deeds to assist his tribe.  It was staple reading in American schools for decades and the characters would have been familiar to most people of the 19th and early 20th Century. We should assume that the Indian shooting the serpent is Hiawatha.   Minnehaha was his sweetheart.  

This Indian brave frequently was depicted with a bow and arrow.  Seen here is the front cover of the Longfellow poem, illustrated by the famous American artist of the West, Frederick Remington.  Hiawatha is shown taking aim at a deer that lies ahead of him in the forest.  Not a sea serpent in sight.  In fact, although I have scoured the poem from stem to stern,  I cannot find any reference to Hiawatha besting a sea serpent.  And white men arrive in the poem only at the very end and with little attention.  The encounter depicted on the jug appears to have been the concoction of the artist, identity unknown.

Still to be determined was why Martindale & Johnson would go to such lengths to put their whiskey in such attractive, and probably expensive,  containers.  The answer may lie with Thomas Martindale.   He was a somewhat flamboyant character.  Born in England, he was brought to the United States with his family when he was eight years old.   In his lifetime he amassed a considerable fortune, much of it from selling whiskey.  His fascination with Hiawatha may lie in his passion for hunting, as evidenced from the trophies on display in his home.   The photo shown here is from about 1900.   When Martindale died in 1916, he was on a trip in Alaska,  likely hunting big game.

The newly found Minnehaha was purchased for $811 on eBay October 6.  It was close to a record for an American whiskey ceramic.   When the jug sold I had a strong suspicion that the ultimate buyer was a collector based in the Southwest U.S., who is a longtime acquaintance.  Before I could check, this individual emailed me out of the blue, “ just to see how I was faring.”  It immediately suggested to me that he had been the high bidder and I replied to ask him.  He confirmed the sale.

Even though most fancy whiskey jugs don’t bring exalted prices,  I think this collector got a bargain.   Not only is the transfer cartoon attractive and well executed,  the jug is in reasonable shape for its age, with just a few dings.  Moreover, it is a true rarity; as far as I know it is the first jug of its kind to emerge for public sale in more than three decades. 



  1. Great post, very interesting, but I think that you should change the background of images because tiles there need tile adhesive, because of what the jugs lost their charm, best wishes!

  2. Hi,
    Regarding this new Third “Minnehaha” Whiskey Jug. I sold one on ebay about 5 years ago. I listed it for $2.000.00. A collector in the United Kingdom made an offer of $1.750.00us and it was accepted.
    Regards, yorkginger

  3. I have one of the jugs with the 2 birds. I only see mention to it in brown yet mine is in blue. Any information you can provide would be great?