Saturday, March 28, 2015

W.C. Fields: The Tippler in Ceramics

The American comedian W. C. Fields, shown here, has been a favorite of mine since grade school. From movies like “My Little Chickadee,” and “The Bank Dick.” to his radio sparring with Charlie McCarthy, Fields’ wit and ability to create a distinctive image have never failed to engage my attention – and that of millions of others. Much of his humor revolved around drinking, a personal obsession of Fields that ultimately would lead to his death. In life, however, he made it a prime source of his humor.  Some examples:
“Always carry a flagon of whiskey in case of snakebite and furthermore always carry a small snake.”
"Once ... in the wilds of Afghanistan, I lost my corkscrew, and we were forced to live on nothing but food and water for days."
"How well I remember my first encounter with The Devil's Brew. I happened to stumble across a case of bourbon— and went right on stumbling for several days thereafter."
“So long as the presence of death lurks with anyone who goes through the simple act of swallowing, I will make mine whiskey.
"When life hands you lemons, make whisky sours."
“The advantages of whiskey over dogs are legion. Whiskey does not need to be periodically wormed, it does not need to be fed, it never requires a special kennel, it has no toenails to be clipped or coat to be stripped. Whiskey sits quietly in its special nook until you want it. True, whiskey has a nasty habit of running out, but then so does a dog.”
As a result of this close identification of Fields with drinking, he has been depicted numerous times on spirits bottles, jugs, beer steins and mugs. I have a whiskey decanter/ jug from the Turtle Bay Distilling Company of Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, called W.C. Fields Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. It dates from about 1970. In this case, Fields’ head is filled with whiskey. It is accompanied by a water pitcher with a similar face.   Although neither item has a pottery mark, they are attributed to the McCoy Pottery Company of Roseville, Ohio.
The David Sherman Corp. (DSC), more recently known as Luxco, issued at least three Fields decanters for their whiskey. They depict Fields with a tam from his golfing spoofs, the typical top hat and as a uniformed guard from the movie, “The Bank Dick.” In each case the hat is removed to decant the spirituous contents. These ceramics were issued during the mid-1970s. Each jug bears the name of Paul Lux, a founding partner of DSC in 1958 and, by 2004, the CEO of the firm. Lux is assumed to be the designer of these bottles. The St. Louis based organization owned at least 60 liquor brand names and produced these Fields bottles for its network of distributors, wholesalers and retailers.
England’s Royal Doulton Pottery, famously the largest producer of Toby Jugs, made Fields the subject of a character jug, one that emphasized his florid face and red bulbous nose. A piece of his walking stick serves as the handle. The jug was issued in 1982 as part of the pottery’s Celebrity Collection and included on the base a line from the Fields movie “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break”: "I was in love with a beautiful blonde once. She drove me to drink. That's the one thing I'm indebted to her for."
Two other Toby-like jugs, perhaps designed as bar water pitchers, appear to have come from Japan. The one at right shows Fields in a straw boater hat with a more benign look than is usual. On the base a mark identifies this item as a creation of “Sigma the Tastesetter,” This was a Japanese-based organization. A second jug, left with a black hat has no attribution but the appearance of the item also seems a product of Japan.
Fields also has been a popular figure for beer steins and mugs. One dated 1971 appears to be a hand-thrown artisan creation. The comedian, in bas relief, appears to be struggling to emerge from the vessel. A more conventional beer stein, unmarked, emphasizes Field’s top hat and swollen nose.  Finally, dated 1982, is a mug with a carnival glaze.
Although the Fields image most often appears on items linked to drinking, the McCoy Pottery also used his face as the motif for a ceramic cookie jar.  He also has made appearances on a number of glass objects, including shot glasses, drinking glasses and decanters.
Question is, how long will W.C. Fields be recognized as the American icon of the tippler? Note that many of these items were made years after his death in 1946. Because his movies will continue to be available to generations down through the years, my guess is he will be remembered for a long, long time and artifacts bearing his face will continue to be collected.

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