The crisp, technical description of the museum registration indicates a
ceramic jug, 20 cm. in height, 17cm. in diameter, with a brown glaze. That’s it. Also the donor, of
course, and the date of acquisition, other information not pertaining to the object in question. But
the actual significance of this ‘brown jug’ to the life and culture of this country in an earlier
era is not immediately apparent, but let’s just call it a whiskey bottle.
This jug has a lot to do with corn, actually, and with avoiding dysentary,
and with getting through the day 150 years ago. Corn because when the east coast settlers
spread over the Adirondacks into fertile midwestern lands and began to harvest more grain than
they could consume, there was a transportation problem: all that bulky grain had to go back over
the mountains or down the river(s) to find a market. That kind of economic inconvenience
looked for a way to reduce that bulk and at the same time add value. So, make whiskey, lots of whiskey.
many convenient sources available, but the thought that the next glass of water might bring on
a disabling bout of cramps and gut ache used to be on the mind of a thirsty person. A bit of
whiskey would clear up the uncertainty over that water and perhaps ease the troubled mind as well.
Dysentary and the troubled mind were definitely part of the experience of
Civil War soldiers, drinking from rivers, creeks, and unfamiliar wells, enduring long periods
of boredom, terrifying battles and brutal wounds with little by way of pain relief. That is why
the official infantryman’s daily mess was supposed to include at least a pint of whiskey.
So much whiskey needs something by way of a container and one that’s
cheap and can take the rough handling of the rural, backwoods life. Before glass and metal
were used and widely available, stoneware pottery did the job. Clay is one of the most
common materials available and pottery one of the oldest solutions to the container problem.
A potter could dig his clay at no cost and was paid at the rate of a few cents per gallon.
The ‘brown’ of this jug is simply a thin layer of slip, the liquid form of a particular clay which
forms a glaze in the kiln. This kind of pot usually has finger marks and careless wipes across
the bottom where it was held and dipped and quickly swiped more or less clean. It is almost
elegant in its minimal, functional form: a wide, stable base curving gradually to a small opening
with just a stout strap for carrying or pouring.
still many, many examples that can be bought for as little as 10 bucks. Some are far more
beautiful ovular forms, with a fine, orange peel- textured salt glaze and caligraphic cobalt
brush strokes. But this piece is in its simplicity represents a the kind of handmade object
that is at the center of human culture throughout history.
Phil Wilson has been making functional pottery for 25 years while at the same time
reading, cooking, fly fishing, and so forth.