Friday, January 31, 2014

The Origin and Uses of the Ceramic Canteen

A definition of a “fool’s errand”  may be trying to find out if soldiers in the Civil War used  ceramic canteens to hold drinking water.   But it is a task I once undertook, at the request of a collector friend who believed it to be so.  I read Civil War reference books and inquired of experts, but to no avail.  Common sense should have told me that  during the conflict canteens must have been made of wood or metal or a combination of the two.  Ceramic or glass containers clearly would have been too fragile for such use.  BUT, after the war ceramic canteens abounded.

They were part of a postwar phenomenon known as the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), shown here in 1892, 80,000 strong, marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.  After the end of the Civil War, organizations were formed for veterans to network and maintain connections with each other. Veterans joined first for camaraderie and later for political power. Most influential among those organizations was the G.A.R., founded in 1866 in Illinois.  The Grand Army called its  national and state meetings “encampments,” because its members often literally camped out in tents on local open areas.

Washington had been the site of the organization’s Fourth Encampment in May 1872 as group was getting started. The next time the Nation's Capitol was chosen for the event was 22 years later in 1892. By that time the G.A.R had grown to almost 400,000 members and were accounted the most powerful political and social organization in America.  

In the decades after the conflict the canteen became a powerful symbol of the bonds of comradeship forged in battle.  The G.A.R. motto, repeated often, was “We Drank from the Same Canteen.” As a result the canteen became a familiar souvenir at such gatherings, with ceramics being a major format.  Shown here, for example, is a stoneware canteen commemorating the 1892 national encampment in Washington.  These would be taken home by delegates and cherished as their proof of attendance.

Although the canteen that follows is a more generic item,  it likely was sold by vendors at  encampments.  The design shows a wartime camp with a Union soldier on duty front and center, a musket in his hand.  This canteen is large enough to hold a reasonable amount of liquid.   Rumor has it that a fair amount of hard drinking went on at these encampments as the participants swapped stories about their wartime experiences.

By 1905 when a “Grand Reunion “ of the G.A.R. was held in Trenton New Jersey, the membership of the organization was beginning to shrink significantly, to just over 230,000. The Civil War had been over for 40 years and many veterans had died in the interim.  The National Encampment was held that year in Denver, a far off destination for many.  That may have triggered regional meetings such as the one in Trenton.   This canteen is a miniature and while it features a stopper, it would hold at most only a swallow or two.

The next canteen, shown front and back, is a relic of a state rather than a national encampment.  It commemorates the a G.A.R. gathering in Davenport,Iowa, in June of 1900, the twentieth time that Iowa veterans had come together.  This ceramic is attributed to Shafer & Vader, a German pottery noted for creating whiskey “nips,” small figural containers that could hold limited quantities of liquor.  (See my post on Shafter & Vader,  February 2010.)

The canteen following is also the product of a state gathering,  this time not from the G.A.R. but from an affiliated California organization of Civil War veterans calling itself the California Volunteer Veteran’s Association. Dated 1894, the seal of California is depicted on the back. This organization met annually in conjunction with the G.A.R. and included veterans from around the U.S. who had served in the Western Army.

Another souvenir demonstrates the iconic status that the canteen had achieved among Civil War veterans.   Created for the 1891 Encampment of the Ohio Department of the G.A.R. in Steubenville, Ohio, it is in actuality a medallion to be worn on a coat or jacket.  The reverse side of the tiny canteen featured the likeness of Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War in the Lincoln Administration.  Stanton, credited with much of the success of the Union Armies, had been born in Steubenville.

The next canteen also is a miniature, created for the reunion of a single unit, Battery D of the West Virginia Light Artillery. Organized in August 1862,  that outfit initially was stationed at Winchester Virginia and forced to retreat quickly when the Confederates attacked the town in force.  After that humiliating defeat the Battery D saw action both in West Virginia and Virginia.  It spent the end of the war doing garrison duty in Parkersburg until mustered out in June of 1865.  This unusual souvenir marks the veteran’s encampment of October 1890.

Some ceramic canteens were personalized.   Shown here is a vessel with painted markings designating it as the property of John Cherry of Company F in the First Regiment of Hancock’s Veterans.   In 1864 Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock had been empowered by the War Department to raise an Army Corp of 20,000 troops from among “that class of discharged soldiers who have served two years in the army.”   Calling themselves “Hancock’s Veterans,” this corp subsequently saw action near the end of the conflict.  John Cherry, who already had served one tour, was among them and apparently proud to be identified as such.

The final artifact shown here is a generic souvenir called a “bullseye canteen” because of the concentric circles on the surface growing smaller and smaller toward the center.  These ceramics were often painted with wartime scenes.   Shown on this item is a line of tents pitched at the edge of a tree line.  The opposite painting is of Union troops charging through a woods.  This container also would have been a sale item at a G.A.R. or similar gathering.

While it was a “fool’s errand” for me to look for ceramic canteens being used during the Civil War, it can be worthwhile to seek them out in a postwar context.  Today those symbolic vessels presented in ceramic evoke two important chapters in our Nation’s history, the Civil War and the period of social and political activity that followed the conflict.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Vlaminck, Vat 69, and Other Bottles

In past posts I have featured famous artists and how they have incorporated bottles, very often holding ardent spirits, into their paintings.  In the past these have included Andy Warhol (Jan. 2011), George Braque (July 2013), and Tom Wesselmann (Dec. 2013).  To that illustrious number is added the name of Maurice de Vlaminck, shown here.

Vlaminck was born in Paris in April 1876 into a family of musicians.  His father taught him to play the violin.  His ability as a musician and a violin teacher later would give him a living while he struggled as a artist.  He early had an strong interest in painting and began his studies 1893 when he was 17.   But it was a chance meeting with Andre Derain on a train while he was completing Army service that proved decisive.  Upon his discharge in 1900 he and Derain rented a studio together for a time before Derain left for his own military service.  Vlaminck continued to paint and achieved a strong following as a Parisian artist.

With Henri Matisse, Derain and others, Vlaminck was counted among “The Fauves,” in translation “Wild Beasts.”  They earned that title because of their wild strokes of color that exceeded anything in the French Impressionist or Post-Impressionist movements.  Although Vlaminck made his reputation principally with his landscapes,  as with many other artists he also rendered a number of still lives. 

Long before Warhol began to paint whiskey ads,  Vlaminck in 1945 rendered a “Still Life with Whiskey Bottle.”   And not just any whiskey bottle:  A Vat 69 bottle.  Shown here as part of entire painting and isolation,  the Vat 69 container was iconic  in its own right.  In 1882 Scottish Distillery William Sanderson prepared one hundred casks of blended whiskey and hired a panel of experts to taste them.  The batch from the cask (“vat”) 69 was judged to be the best and provided the whiskey brand name.  The bottle was introduced to the market shortly after and left  virtually unchanged for the next hundred years.

Vlaminck not only was familiar with the bottle, and probably its contents, but saw it as a fitting centerpiece for a still life.   Moreover, with the assistance of the Atlier Murlot in Paris a 15-color lithograph was produced in 2,000 copies,  further extending Vlaminck’s audience and, one assumes, the fame of the Vat 69 label, as shown here in a contemporary ad. The differences are negligible.

The artist quite regularly put labeled bottles in his paintings.  In the painting shown above, entitled “Still Life with Pears,”  Vlaminck has provided an array of five containers, one a cone containing pears.  What catches the eye, however, is the bottle on the right side, with a slightly obscured label that appears to say “liquor,”  thus leaving nothing to the imagination.  This still life has a definite “cubist” feel about it.  That itself is somewhat unusual since Vlaminck is known to have rejected that school of painting and blamed Picasso for its surge into popularity.

Vlaminck’s “Still Life with Fruit Basket,” below, features some of the same shapes as the pears piece but here the artistic influence seems much more Cezanne.  Again a bottle graces the scene with the vessels and fruit, which appear to be plums (left) and grapes (right). This time the artist has blurred the lettering on the label leaving us to guess if it hold liquor or wine.  My guess is wine.

The artist’s “Still Life with Bacon,” dominated by browns and reds, is unusual, if not unique among still life paintings, in being centered upon a slab of bacon, a pork belly.   Vlaminck has depicted here a bottle without a label.  An amber container it appears to be empty and a foil for the other objects in the picture, including a pitcher and a bowl with fruit.

The last Vlaminck still life to be featured here is particularly striking.  Two things catch the eye.  First the elegant and delicious looking dessert the left foreground and the deep purple grapes in a wicker basket on the right.   The purple is repeated, though muted, in the pitcher at left and the tall wine bottle further left.   Note that this glass container has a cork in its opening,  signaling that there is still wine to be drunk from it. 

As a dedicated “aficionado” of Vlaminck, I find all of these still lifes to be to my “taste.”  He has done well to present bottles and booze in a elegant fashion.  He also may be the first serious artist to include a recognizable liquor label in a painting.  In so doing he forged a path that subsequent generations of artists have emulated and for which they have achieved acclaim.

Vlaminck continued to paint into his old age.  With time his color use and bold brush strokes became more muted.   His later work displayed a darker palette, leavened by heavy strokes of contrasting white paint.  In October 1958 he died in France at Rueil-la-Gadeliere at the age of 82.   The brand of Scotch whiskey he painted lives on.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Coventry Flask: History in My First Glass Bottle

Although for the past thirty or so years I have written for such magazines as the  “Antique Bottle and Glass Collector” and “Bottles and Extras,” including dozens of articles on a wide range of glass containers,  I have not collected them.  Ceramic jugs, yes; glass paperweight, yes; glass bottles, no.  Recently, however, I was awarded an early 19th Century dark olive flask as a writing prize and now I am displaying it proudly as my first glass bottle.

It also offered an opportunity to do some interesting research on a glassworks that gets scant notice in the literature.  Shown here, the flask is from the Coventry Glassworks from the Connecticut town of the same name.  Coventry’s claim to historical fame is that it was the birthplace, shown here, of Nathan Hale.   He regretted that he had only one life to give for his country.

The glassworks was founded about 1813 by a group of businessmen from Coventry and East Hartford, Connecticut.  By 1820 an accomplished glassmaker named Thomas Stebbins was operating the works.   Later he was joined in the enterprise by Rufus Chamberlain.  Other ownership changes followed with Chamberlain being part of them all.  In its final years the company was known as Chamberlain & Turner.  Apparently a scarcity of wood to fuel the furnaces hampered the output of glass and Coventry Glassworks closed its doors for good about 1849.

Despite its many changes of ownership,  Coventry has been described as a “powerhouse.”  During its 36 years of existence the glassworks, according to experts, produced all types of glass, among them snuff bottles, as one shown here. The factory also  turned out porters, wines, inkwells, blacking bottles, octagon vials, jars of all sizes, demijohns, chestnuts, sunburst flasks, and containers for medicinals.  An array of Coventry glass, much of it in shades of olive green and amber, is shown here.  All pieces were “blown in a mold,” a process demonstrated by an illustration.

A primary product of the Coventry glassworks were historical flasks.  Those bottles, which like held some form of liquor, were highly popular in the early days of the Republic and often commemorated national heroes like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and, yes, Nathan Hale.  The first American historical flasks are attributed to Coventry.  They were the Lafayette flask, shown here, to commemorate the visit of the French hero of the American Revolution and a DeWitt Clinton flask honoring the opening of the Erie Canal.

Other Coventry flasks struck similar patriotic themes as in a striking ruby red bottle that features a striking figure of an eagle with a banner overhead with a single word, “LIBERTY.”  Flasks also trumpeted economic progress as in a Coventry flask honoring the railroad. Inexplicably it seems to feature a horse or horses in the design.   Even the flask awarded to me, classified by historians of early glass as a “GIII-4,  has a patriotic message.  Shown at the top of this post, it features a cornucopia, aka “horn of plenty.”  The other side, shown here, features an urn that is similarly filled to overflowing with fruit and other goodies.  The message of the bottle clearly is that America is a land of prosperity.  Thomas Hollis, a druggist and wine merchant of Boston thought so much of the design that he filled it with pale sherry and slapped his label on the flask.  

Although historical flasks usually fetch big money at bottle shows and auctions,  flasks such as the Coventry cornucopia can be acquired by a collector for a reasonable outlay.  They are not highly space consuming,  come in many beautiful shades, and display well against the light.  Most of all they are to be cherished for their historical significance.  The flasks memorialize a time  when the Americans were beginning to understand their country's place and importance in world history.

As for my first piece of glass,  my Coventry flask (my GIII-4) will remain in a place of prominence in our home, not just to remind me of the award, but also of the importance of an early glassworks that did not just mold glass, but also helped shape the American consciousness.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Checking In and Checking Out on VIP Drinks

About a year ago Paul Dickson, a longtime acquaintance and highly prolific author of more than 50 books, including one on all the synonyms for drunkenness, suggested that he and I collaborate on a volume dedicated to alcoholic drinks bearing the names or provenance of famous people.   In contrast to the blizzard of drink books on the market, including some listing celebrity-linked cocktails, Dickson emphasized that our book would be the one truly authentic VIP drink book.

Easier said than done.  As we struggled to research the subject, it gradually dawned on me that there were three basic types of VIP drinks:  1) From historical personages,  2) from contemporary famous people (20th & 21st Century), and 3) from fictional characters.  Each category presented its own set of problems.

1.  Historical Personages.
  This turned out to be the easiest group to survey.  Over time biographers and historians have often recorded the drinks invented by their famous subjects.  Moreover,  many authors have in their own writings recorded their preferred beverages.  For example, the famous English essayist Charles Lamb (1775-1834) in his book “Popular Fancies,” provided his recipe for foaming punch:   “I retire to a solitary corner with my ingredients already sorted; they are as follows, and I mix them in the order here written.  Sugar, twelve tolerable lumps; hot water, one pint; lemons, two,the juice and peel; old Jamaica rum, twos gills; brandy, one gill, porter or stout.  half a gill; arrack, a slight dash.  I allow myself five minutes to make bowl in the following proportions, carefully stirring the mixture as I furnish the ingredients until it actually foams and then Kangaroos!  How beautiful it is!”   Lamb is shown here in portrait.

The English novelist Charles Dickens (1812-1870), known for his love of conviviality, taverns and drink, was visiting America where he prepared for his hosts a series of drinks called “cold cup,” leaving the recipes in his own hand.  Published later they include a “cider cup”: “Put into a large jug, 4 or 6 lumps of sugar (according to size) and the thin rind of a lemon.  Pour in a very little  boiling water, and thrust a napkin into the top of the jug so as to exclude the air.  Leave it to stand ten minutes, then stir well.  Add two wineglasses of sherry and one wineglass of brandy.  Stir again.  Then fill up with ice.  If there be any borage, put in a good handful, as you would put a nosegay into water.  Stir up well before serving.”  Dickens is shown as photographed during his visit to the U.S.

Although the foregoing examples are encouraging building blocks of a “truly valid” VIP drink book,  they are not commonly discovered.  Virtually every President of the United States has had his beverage choices examined and described.  John Quincy Adams (1769-1848), shown here, is credited with a drink called “sangaree.”  The recipe is: “Simmer in water eight cloves, a cinnamon stick, ten whole allspice and some nutmeg for 20 minutes.  Strain and add eight teaspoons of white sugar to the liquid.  Cool.  When ready to serve add four cups of a choice claret and pour over a block of ice in a punch bowl decorated with grapes and grape leaves.”

But did John Quincy actually invent this drink or did he merely taste some and fancied it?   American political figure Henry Clay (1777-1853) often is credited with inventing the mint julep.  But President John Tyler (1790- 1862),  Clay’s contemporary, also is credited with concocting a mint julep.  Who’s to know?

2.  Contemporary VIPs.  The problem gets even more complicated the closer one comes to our own times.   During the last century and into the current one, as the mixed drink came more into fashion, bartenders across America began to name drinks after celebrities.  The ideas was to give a VIP panache to a specific blend of spirits and thus increase sales.

Among them was the Marlene Dietrich Cocktail, named for the incredibly popular film star of the mid-20th Century.   This is the recipe:   “Ingredients, 3 oz rye or Canadian whiskey,  2 dashes of Angostura bitters,  1/2 oz orange curacao.  Pour the ingredients into a cocktail shaker filled with ice cubes.  Shake well.  Strain into a wine glass.  Squeeze orange and/or lemon peel on top.”   This libation, according to one source, was sipped by Marlene at one point and described as “good.”   But she did not invent it, that honor probably belongs to some Broadway bartender.  Similar  dubious origins can be found for the Douglas Fairbanks Gin Cocktail, the Jean Harlow Rum Martini, and the Mary Pickford Cocktail.

One movie personality and for a time a favorite American humorist was Irvin J. Cobb (1876-1944).   Just after the end of National Prohibition in 1934, distillers rushed into print a number of booklets advertising their products that also included the directions for making cocktails,  possibly figuring that 14 years between drinks had dulled the memories of their customers.   Cobb was tapped for that duty and rapped out “Irvin Cobb’s Own Recipe Book.”   While he names several drinks after their originators, he claims none for his invention. He featured the “gin rickey,” shown here. He identified it with Col. Joe Rickey, whom he describes as “an old-time Washington character.”

Cobb got it only partially right.   Joseph Rickey (1842-1903), a well known DC lobbyist, actually invented the “rickey,” but using rye whiskey, at a famous Pennsylvania Avenue hangout he owned called Shoomaker’s.   Rickey never liked the substitution of gin in the drink, which now has become the official cocktail of the Nation’s Capitol.   By order of the DC City Council the recipe is:  “Into a tall glass, 1.5 oz. of gin, .5 oz of fresh lime juice, soda water, garnish with lime wedge and/or sprig of mint.”

No discussion of celebrity drinks would be complete without a nod to the American novelist Earnest Hemingway (1899-1961), whose reputation for heavy drinking was every bit deserved, has been credited with inventing a number of drinks, including his own martini.  Several drink book have been written with his drink preferences highlighted.
There is an Ernest Hemingway majito cited by the “Hemingway and Bailey’s Bartending Guide,” compiled by a relative of the author. This majito reputedly was invented at La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana, Cuba, where Hemingway drank them.  The recipe: Ingredients: 6 fresh mint sprigs, 1 oz. lime juice, 3/4 oz. simple syrup, 2 oz. light rum; lime wedge.  Crush 5 mint sprigs into the bottom of a chilled highball glass. Pour in lime juice, simple syrup, and rum. Fill glass with crushed ice. Garnish with lime wedge and remaining mint sprig. Sometimes a splash of club soda is added.

3.  Fictional Characters.  Early on Dickson and I decided that fictional characters would be allowed into the “authentic” VIP  drink recipe book.  There is Mr. Micawber’s Christmas punch, the James Bond Martini,  and, ala Harry Potter, the Albus Dumbledore Vodka Cocktail.  One favorite of mine is  Homer Simpson’s “Flaming Moe,” which began this way, according to Homer:  “I decided to mix the little bits that were left in every liquor bottle. In my haste, I had grabbed a bottle of the kid’s cough syrup. It passed the first test:  I didn’t go blind . . .  I don’t know the scientific explanation, but FIRE MADE IT GOOD.”   Receiving inquiries about the exact ingredients of Homer’s Flaming Moe, the Fox Network issued this recipe:  “4 oz. tequila, 4 oz. peppermint schnapps, 4 oz. creme de menthe and 2 oz grape soda.  Mix ingredients into a shaker.  Strain into a glass.”  Fox Network did not want folks chugging cough syrup so substituted grape soda.  For additional safety the producer also took “fire” out of the mixture.

In the end, Dickson and I had  about 100 VIP drink recipes of various sorts and validity, attributed all the way from Shakespeare to Bill Clinton.  In the end we never had to do the hard work of validating or describing them.  Our research had revealed the literally dozens of cocktail recipe books that litter the “remaindered” shelves of booksellers.   More important, we could not find a publisher that thought another such book,  regardless of authenticity,  was a good idea.   But in the writing game, nothing is ever lost.  The experience made possible telling the story for this post and for sharing at least a few VIP drink recipes.