Brown Jug

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.

 

 

It’s  now possible to get a clean, safe, drink at the kitchen sink or any other of

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.

 

That’s what we’re looking at really, a whiskey bottle of which there are

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.