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The Best of Sawdust and Dirt

A record of the goings on around Michael Kline Pottery!

Filtering by Tag: Kirkpatrick Brothers

Anna Potters Delivered “Sermons in Stoneware”

Michael Kline

Anna Pottery snake jug in the collection of the Illinois State Museum

In the first part of the blog post on the Anna Pottery I promised to describe the amazing temperance-minded objects made by the Kirkpatrick brothers during the second half of the 1800s. They made flasks in the shape of pigs, which were called “Railroad and River Guides.” The idea for the flasks, which were based on old German glass prototypes, was attributed to Cornwall, the older of the two brothers. The stoneware pigs are generally about eight inches long with the flask opening on the nether end of the hog. They were made by throwing cylinders and then altering them with the addition of a snout, legs, a tail, and male genitalia.

two pig flasks showing different sides, inscription

on obverse and

map of Illinois Central Railroad on reverse

These delightful objects were further complicated by elaborate incising overall, usually mapping prominent railroad lines and identifying cities along the routes. Although there are many variations of these routes, the common version shows the Illinois Central Railroad with Chicago (“the corn mart”) at the mouth and Mounds (a town at the tip of Illinois) at the other end. Cincinnati (“the ancient porkopolis” or “the pork city”) is usually underneath. The Mississippi River runs down the spine and St. Louis (identified as “the future capitol”) is shown in the center. There was a movement in the nineteenth century to change the U.S. capitol to St. Louis, which is more centrally located on the continent than Washington, DC.

One reporter in a local newspaper noted that “The pigs are a curious piece of workmanship, and appropriate, for it is rather a hoggish propensity to be guzzling whiskey, and if the habit is indulged in, will soon reduce a man below the level of the hog, and cause him to wallow in the gutter.” In the 19th century people who lived in cities and towns across the US knew a lot about pigs, which were allowed to roam the streets in order to take care of the garbage. Hence, the reference to pigs wallowing in the gutter.

In a broader context these dandy pigs are a metaphor for the economy of the Midwest. Even in the 19th century, corn was a principal cereal crop, but it was worth little on the commodity market. Instead, the clever Midwesterners raised hogs and distilled whiskey as a convenient means of taking this staple to market. These commodities were shipped across the land by railroad. Corn, pigs, whiskey, and railroads formed a tight and profitable economic network that is neatly represented by this humorous artifact.

I can’t think of many examples of metaphorical pottery that rivals these pigs. They are just remarkable objects that combine utility with symbolism in a way that is completely enthralling. Many variations are recorded because the Kirkpatrick's made them on order for saloons and taverns throughout the Midwest and the South.

snake jug, 10½ inches high, private collection

Like the pig bottles, which combine utility with art, the brothers’ snake jugs are remarkable expressions of temperance philosophy. The classic snake jug is about ten inches tall in a shape suggestive overall of the old-fashioned bellarmines (bearded-man jugs – see my last post for more on them and Dan Finnegan’s recent post on his blog). Instead of the bearded face, however, there is the upper torso of a man emerging from the jug, whose head is being attacked by a snake from above. In fact, the jug is covered with snakes. Insects such as dung beetles can also be seen on these jugs, along with frogs, lizards and the like. And there is usually a fair amount of writing that identifies the theme of each jug, many of which are political in nature. The most temperance-minded of the group is called “The Drunkard’s Doom.”

Drunkard’s Doom snake jug, two views, 9½ inches high

It features the bottom half of a male body diving into the jug on one side (labeled “nice young man going in”) and the top half emerging from the other side, looking disheveled and titled “The Drunkard’s Doom.”

This puts me in mind of the scene in Mark Twain’s classic novel Huckleberry Finn (1884) in which Huck describes his father in the throes of delirium tremens: “I don’t know how long I was asleep, but all of a sudden there was an awful scream and I was up. There was pap, looking wild and skipping around every which way and yelling about snakes. He said they was crawling up his legs; and then he would give a jump and scream, and say one had bit him on the cheek—but I couldn’t see no snakes. He started and run round and round the cabin, hollering ‘take him off! take him off! he’s biting me on the neck!’ I never see a man look so wild in the eyes.”

In the snake jugs Wallace Kirkpatrick combined a fascination with serpents

small coiled snake in collection of Illinois State Museum, 4 inches across

and his strong feelings against alcohol with a remarkable ability to model stoneware caricatures of human and animal life. The ghastly images evoked in these jugs are brutal and meant to be a warning to those tempted by liquor. Kirkpatrick “preaches sermons in stone,” noted a reporter in 1874.

It would not be fair if I did not mention that another writer on the Kirkpatricks has taken a different interpretive route. Richard Mohr’s ideas have their followers as do mine. Mohr does not believe the Kirkpatricks were temperance-minded. Instead he feels that their work was produced with tongue in cheek, whereas I doubt that an artist could come up with things that are so compelling unless he/she held a strong opinion, such as being temperance-minded in the case of the Kirkpatricks’ snake jugs and pig flasks.

Other Kirkpatrick jugs investigated the whiskey revenue scandal of President Grant’s administration (1876, now in National Museum of American History, Smithsonian) and the NY City Hall boondoggle perpetrated by Boss Tweed and his gang of nefarious politicians (1871, a gift to cartoonist Thomas Nast). One interesting variation is owned by the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Collection in Williamsburg. It has many movable parts.

You can see more Kirkpatrick work at this website.

I wonder as I contemplate all of this whether the upcoming booze vote in Burnsville will engender such commentary in local craft. Perhaps one vote in one town does not a movement make, and it is national/international political events and situations that provoke commentary among today’s potters. My thoughts turn to some of the sculpture by Viktor Schreckengost and Robert Arneson. I know you will think of many more examples of clay used as political expression. Please share them in your comments to this blog post.

There has long been a lot of blather about so-called functional ware vs. sculpture in ceramics and other craft media. But I think the lesson one can take away from the Kirkpatricks’ work is that utility need not limit one’s desire to express opinions on political or social situations, hence bottles in the shape of pigs and jugs covered with snakes. In fact, the Kirkpatricks’ use of utilitarian forms as their starting point is integral to the themes and metaphors of their work.

And Ayumi Horie’s invention of “Obamaware” in 2008 as a fundraiser is proof that the ability to express political opinions while also practicing utility with one’s work is not dead.

Cornwall Kirkpatrick and his children with a giant pitcher

Ellen Denker is a consulting curator and independent scholar of material culture, specializing in American ceramic history. She has many publications, some of which have won awards from obscure organizations. For “Sawdust & Dirt,” Ellen contributes historical insights into contemporary issues in studio ceramics and review books and exhibitions that feature ceramics. Ellen can also be reached at

Temperance-minded Potters

Michael Kline

Carry Amelia Nation, described herself as "a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus,
barking at what He doesn't like."
There has been a lot of talk lately in the area where Michael and I live about the upcoming referendum on alcohol sales. Last year, Spruce Pine (in Mitchell County) fell to the inebriates. This year, the voters of Burnsville (in Yancey County) will take to the polls in early April to decide if liquor will be sold in town. This includes liquor by the bottle through an alcoholic beverage control store licensed by the state of NC, liquor by the drink at eating establishments, and beer and wine in the super market. There are 100 counties in North Carolina. Only two are still dry counties, where there are no sales outlets for alcoholic beverages. If (or when) Burnsville falls under the spell of spirits, there will be only one left.

All of this got me to thinking about research I had done long ago on the Kirkpatrick brothers, proprietors of the Anna Pottery from 1859 to 1896 in Anna, Illinois. The situation vis-à-vis alcohol in those days was exactly opposite as this upcoming referendum in Burnsville. You see the brothers were temperance-minded potters. I know that seems like a contradiction in terms. Potters, like most laborers, have long been accused of spending their hard-earned cash on beer and booze. But in the late 1800s, temperance was a topic that could boil your blood in the way abortion rights, gay-marriage rights, and gun rights can generate a heated discussion today.

I have heard the argument put forth in Burnsville that allowing alcohol sales will go against tradition. In the U.S. during the 1800s the situation was just the opposite. The widespread consumption of alcoholic beverages was the tradition; temperance was the Johnny-come-lately. The imbibing of alcoholic beverages in those days was seen as an inalienable right by most Americans, keeping in mind that fermented and alcoholic drinks were safer historically than milk, apple juice (cider), and even water. All of which were bound to harbor many more microorganisms than alcoholic beverages. In other words hard cider was safer to drink than apple juice, and milk was more dangerous than beer. Water purification systems were generally desired, but needed invention.

Fulper Pottery stoneware germ-proof water filter made about 1900

Many potters tried to figure out how to build a better stoneware water filter. Most Americans drank alcoholic beverages from childhood as their main source of liquids.

This was the situation the temperance movement was trying to overcome – widespread alcoholism supported by standard accepted practice.

John Greenwood, “Sea Captains Carousing at Surinam”
painted about 1755

Of course, this kind of behavior produced a laundry list of bad habits that are still associated with alcoholism, not the least of which were poverty, chronic shirking of social responsibilities, and abusive tendencies toward wives and children. No wonder some members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (Carry Nation is probably best known of them) routinely busted up taverns and bars (Carry called these actions “hatchetations”) that they considered scourges on their communities. All they wanted was for men to go easy on the booze. Prohibition, an extreme form of temperance, became the law of the land in 1918, but not before many states had passed their own rules.

image of NC newspaper headline, 1908

Well, what does all this have to do with two potters working in a small town in southern Illinois? Alcohol consumption and temperance were major subjects of the Kirkpatricks’ work.

Like most American potters in the 1800s, the Kirkpatrick brothers made lots of crocks and jugs for use in the homes and on the farms of their neighbors.

Anna Pottery packing receipt, ca. 1881

These sturdy containers were beginning to pass from favor, being pre-empted by glass Mason jars, which were easier to handle. The Kirkpatricks filled in the gaps in their income by mining and selling clay (for the ceramics as well as other industries, including metals, paper, paints, and confectionaries). They had a small work force that mined the clay and prepared it for shipment from a nearby railroad siding.

In addition, the Kirkpatricks had five or six journeyman potters working for them who made the standard crocks and jugs at the pottery. This left the brothers free to play in the clay.

They made all manner of whimsies that were sold at agricultural and mechanical fairs in the towns and counties throughout the Midwest, including frogs on shells which functioned as inkwells, whistles in the shape of owls, little brown jugs, mugs with frogs in the bottom to surprise the drinker, and many more.

One type of novelty particularly favored by fair-goers was the miniature jug or log cabin (about one inch tall) containing a Stanhope lens (small magnifying lenses). The jugs and cabins were hollow for stanhope insertion. Users could hold the jug or cabin to the light and view something magnified by the stanhope. These pictures included a miniature rendition of the Lord’s Prayer, a picture of a snake coiled to strike, or a naked woman. (Surprised? You probably thought Marilyn Monroe calendars were the first of their kind.)

All of these fair novelties are fun to contemplate, but it’s the brothers’ sculptural work that is truly amazing. More about these objects next time I visit the Sawdust & Dirt blog.

Ellen Denker is a consulting curator and independent scholar of material culture, specializing in American ceramic history. She has many publications, some of which have won awards from obscure organizations. For “Sawdust & Dirt,” Ellen contributes historical insights into contemporary issues in studio ceramics and review books and exhibitions that feature ceramics. Ellen can also be reached at