Friday, January 16, 2015

The Mystery of the Memory Jug

            At the museum, we are working on an inventory list. When this includes nearly 30 years’ worth of donations, this can sometimes be a daunting task. Unfortunately, labels get lost and misplaced as the years go by, which sometimes leads to mystery objects. Just a few weeks ago, while working up in our attic, we came across a truly mysterious object. Painted gold, this piece of art is about a foot tall and contains hundreds of tiny objects, from buttons to an entire pipe, stuck into plaster. What could it be?
            Now, you may wonder what we do when we have an object that we can’t identify and I am here to tell you that the first place we go—is Google. Now, for in depth research we turn to documents and published books. In the case of a mysterious glass dining room piece, I scoured books on the history of glass—turns out the mystery object was a salt cellar.  But, for a question like “what is this statue with a lot of baubles and gold?” we go to Google.  So, after an hour or so of googling, I discovered the mystery object’s identity. It was a Victorian Memory Jug! And after a few more minutes in the museum records, I discovered that this particular memory jug was made by Harriet Gordon in the mid-1890s.
            Harriet Gordon was the daughter of founding Geary County citizens G.F. Gordon and his wife, Ruth Berry Gordon. Harriet would have been in her late teens or early 20s when this memory jug was made.  It is likely that Harriet made this memory jug following the death of her father in 1893, as that was often the reason for memory jugs. There are objects within the jug that likely belonged to him including: a GAR button—G.F Gordon had fought in the Civil War—a pair of men’s spectacles, and a tobacco pipe.
            Memory jugs were a particularly popular form of folk art during the Victorian Era. They have also been called forget-me-not jug, memory vessel, mourning jug, spirit jar, ugly jug, whatnot jar, and whimsy jars. In order to make her memory jug, Harriet Gordon would have found a vessel of some kind—most likely a vase in this case. She then would have covered with a plaster and then affixed her mementos onto the plaster. After the plaster had hardened and the objects firmly placed, she then painted the memory jug gold, as was the tradition.
Other young women just like Harriet would have also been making these masterpieces around the same time. They are described as a Victorian scrapbook, with small mementos that have personal meaning being placed together into a final work of art. Often, these jugs were made following a loved one’s death, as a way to remember them. In certain cultures, the memory jugs were then placed on the graves of the lost loved one.
            Now, I am fortunate enough to be a lucky googler. I managed to find the right keywords that led me to the object in question.  First looking at the object, I thought of grotto art, popular in Italy. Following that lead eventually brought me around to memory jugs. Sometimes, a simple maker’s mark on an object can start you on the right path, sometimes the object might remain a mystery for weeks or months while you try to decipher its history, but it is all part of the fun!  Come to the Geary County Historical Society to view Harriet Gordon’s memory jug, currently on display in our Cool Things Case and sign up for our first Antique Showcase on February 6th!  
This is a new event planned by our Events and Fundraiser Committee based on the idea behind Antique Roadshow; we’re hoping you’ll help us make it a success. We invite you to come have a delicious dinner and bring 1 antique or special item you have at home: i.e. a statue, picture, jewelry, a small piece of furniture, or an item that you’re still trying to figure out what it is. If you can carry it in you can bring it! You bring your item to the museum and an appraiser will tell you some of its history and possibly its value. Tickets are $20 and the deadline for registration is January 30th, so call now!