This article describes American flasks depicting war heroes and presidents, noting the importance of each image. It originally appeared in the October 1942 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.
The popular feeling for men and the events they bring to pass which profoundly influence a nation’s development — politically, economically, and culturally — always has found expression in the arts and crafts. These embodiments of history-in-the-making form part of the cultural heritage of a nation. Furnishing, as they do, a thread of continuity with the past they have an intangible appeal independent of their value as objects of fine art, folk art, craftsmanship, or mere antiquarian interest. Therein, I believe, lies the secret of the impulse to collect historical flasks.
The historical flasks were a distinctly American medium of expression. In a sense their significance went far deeper than a mere record in glass of personages or episodes in American history. Prior to their introduction, such historical glass as had been made in the United States, or elsewhere, had been of fine, blown glass with extrinsic decoration, principally copper’ wheel engraving. It was made not for the common man of slim resources and limited political privileges, but for an individual of prominence or the few who could afford fine glassware.
But our legions of historical and pictoral flasks were made for the common people. The designs reflect the democratic trends of the times. Their makers undoubtedly regarded them only as “good sellers,” but had there not been a growing market acutely sensitive to national pride and politics there probably would have been no historical flasks.
It must be more than coincidence that when flask designers turned to men and events the country was more ardently nationalistic than ever before and production grew with the growing masses — a lusty, sometimes boisterous, people who by the mid-1820’s were coming at last into political power.
Among the most popular of these flasks today are those bearing a portrait bust of an eminent American — Washington, Franklin, De Witt Clinton, Adams, Jackson, Harrison, Clay, Ringgold, Taylor and, by adoption, Lafayette. Of these, made from about 1824 to 1850, five depict United States presidents. All but three portray military heroes —evidence, perhaps, that in popular appeal the primitive fighting instinct tilted the scales to the man of the sword rather than to the statesman.
With the exception of Franklin and some Washington flasks, affairs of the moment inspired the commemoration of past and contemporary achievements. Which portrait flask appeared first, whom it depicted, who thought of it, is not known. I hold no brief for the theory, but the conception of so clever an idea might be expected of Thomas W. Dyott, who knew his fellowmen’s foibles so well.
One would expect Washington to be first in flasks as well as in the hearts of his countrymen. He may have been. In October, 1824, Dyott advertised “Washington, Lafayette, Franklin…flasks” made at the Kensington Glass Works. Because they were so closely associated in the minds of the people, it would have been natural for him to produce a Washington flask at the same time as a Lafayette.
Whether or not Washington flasks were the first, there is no doubt that more bore his supposed likeness than that of any other man. At least sixty-one varieties are known. It is interesting to note also that more than two-thirds of these Washington flasks reflect glory on current heroes — Jackson, Clay, or Taylor.
The earlier flasks, about 1824 to late 1830’s, emphasize Washington’s military career (Illustration I). On only five of those of the 1840 period does he appear in uniform, four Baltimore and one Bridgeton. All others bear a classical bust symbolic of the statesmanship of “The Father of His Country” (Illustration II).
Most of the early Washington flasks have the American. Eagle on the reverse, the mold maker’s version of the United States Coat of Arms. Dyott flasks sometimes have the motto E Pluribus Unum, but others have a plain field above the eagle with stars or, in a few instances, rays to stars. One of the most interesting (Illustration 1) is the common Kensington flask having the motto above the eagle and, on the edges, Adams & Jefferson July 4, A.D. 1774. When both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, that astute merchandiser, Dr. Dyott had those inscriptions cut in his old mold.
Many of the finest Washington flasks were blown in glasshouses in and near Pittsburgh. The initials J.R., F.L. and B.K. found on three varieties have been identified with John Robinson, Frederick Lorenze, both of Pittsburgh, and Benedick Kimber, probably of Bridgeport, Pennsylvania.
The molds for all the flasks from this section having beaded edges like Illustration VI probably were made by Joshua Laird, mold maker of Pittsburgh. Laird SC Pitt appeared in the molds for J.R. Washington and Jackson flasks. Evidently Mr. Laird considered even a mold for a whiskey flask an object of craftsmanship. “SC” undoubtedly stands for sculpsit.
The only other statesman of the colonial and revolutionary periods portrayed on a flask is Benjamin Franklin. In the 1820’s probably few of the generations of Americans outside the Philadelphia area had heard of him although he had contributed so largely to our science, culture and national being. So it is not surprising to find his portrait on only five flasks, and four of these made at Kensington.
Dr. Dyott flattered himself by having his own portrait on the reverse. In an 1825 advertisement “3000 gross” are listed as “Dyott-Franklin,” not “Franklin-Dyott.” Franklin’s sentiment, “Where Liberty Dwell, There Is My Country,” appears on one (Illustration III). On another, Dyott paid tribute to Franklin in the inscription Eripuit Coelo Fulmen Sceptrumque Tyrannis. Freely translated, this reads: “He snatches the thunderbolt from the sky and the sceptre from tyrants.”
On June 11, 1824, about two months before Lafayette landed at Castle Garden, New York, a Moscow, Ohio, glasshouse announced that it would have “Lafayette, Clay and Jackson flasks” by September. On September 10, 1824, Dyott advertised that “Pint Pocket Bottles, with the likeness of General Lafayette, and on the reverse the United States Coat of Arms, are now blowing at the Kensington Glass Works.” The occasion, of course, was Lafayette’s long-heralded visit to America, for which a truly triumphant tour was planned.
The only two of fourteen known varieties of Lafayette flasks which show him in uniform are the Kensington flasks (Illustration IV). They bear the appropriate inscriptions General Lafayette and Republican Gratitude. On the reverse is the American Eagle and on one E Pluribus Unum appears above the Eagle’s head.
Lafayette’s prominence as a Mason led to the making of six varieties of Lafayette-Masonic flasks which must have had special appeal to members of the many Masonic lodges where Lafayette was accorded high honors and lavish entertainment.
Two varieties with a small bust under a Masonic arch and above a modified fleur de lys and, on the reverse, the American Eagle, were produced by midwestern glasshouses. One was marked Knox McKee, Wheeling. It is thought that the other may be the Lafayette flask advertised by the Moscow glasshouse. Two other varieties were made at the Mt. Vernon, New York, glass works and two at Coventry, Connecticut.
Three Coventry Lafayette flasks have the French liberty cap on the reverse. Three others have the bust of De Witt Clinton (Illustration V). There was no particular bond between Lafayette and Clinton, but Lafayette’s stay coincided with the completion of the Erie Canal. Clinton more than any other man was responsible for the construction of this vital waterway, “Clinton’s Ditch,” which solved the sore problem of commerce between the midwest and the east.
These flasks represent sentiment coupled with national and local pride. The others of the 1824-1850 period had the quality of political propaganda. First came the John Quincy Adams and the eleven recorded Andrew Jackson flasks. These were probably made during the bitter political campaign extending from 1824 through 1828. Adams, prominent in the field of diplomacy and statesmanship, was accused of monarchial tendencies and branded as an aristocratic representative of the reactionary old guard. Jackson, a military hero and definitely a man of the people, was the leader of the new democratic forces.
Adams did not represent John Q. Public. Jackson did. All of which probably explains the existence of just one known Adams flask, made by John Taylor & Co. Perhaps it was the abortive effort of a lone midwestern supporter to boost his candidate. The examples of this flask are extremely rare (Illustration VI).
As would be expected, glasshouses in the intensely democratic midwest made several varieties of Jackson flasks. Among them were John Taylor & Co. and John Robinson of Pittsburgh, who put out the General Jackson flasks showing him in uniform — as did all others — and, on the reverse, the American eagle (Illustration VII). The Mantua, Ohio, glass works made an extremely rare A. Jackson flask with Masonic arch and emblems, on the reverse. Knox & McKee used the design of their Lafayette flask but labeled the bust Andrew Jackson instead of General Lafayette. In the east only Keene and Coventry made Jackson flasks. These have Washington on the reverse.
The 1840 Whig campaign for William Henry Harrison, veteran of the Indian wars and War of 1812, was the next to inspire a flask. The political platform for this presidential campaign was built mainly on slurs by Democrats, who dubbed Harrison the Hard Cider Candidate, the poor ignorant farmer living in a log cabin. Dramatized by the Whigs, such aspersions became a political boomerang. Also the cry of aristocrat was raised against Van Buren.
Harrison, hero of Tippecanoe and Fort Meigs, was presented as the man of the people. The so-called “Hard Cider flask” bearing Harrison’s likeness was made somewhere in the Monongahela-Pittsburgh district. On the reverse are campaign emblems — the Log Cabin with latchstring out, symbolizing “everybody welcome” in that humble abode, the plow of the poor farmer, and the hard cider barrel (Illustration VIII).
In the light of Henry Clay’s important roles in national affairs, particularly in implementing his “American system” of protective tariff, his apparent absence from the whiskey flask gallery has seemed odd. Today we believe he was depicted on the reverse of three Washington flasks, two Baltimore and one, Bridgeton. The busts in each resemble an 1844 engraving of Clay. As the flasks are definitely of the 1840’s, it is quite likely that they were made in 1844 when the Whigs, convening at Baltimore, nominated Clay for president (Illustration IX). A Clay flask was advertised by a Moscow, Ohio, glasshouse in 1824 and probably celebrated the 1824 tariff, protective in fact as well as in intention. No specimen of this flask is known.
The last group of American political campaign flasks before 1850 feature Zachary Taylor in uniform. Excepting two, probably made earlier in the Monongahela-Pittsburgh district, all are of eastern origin, produced from about 1847 to about 1850.
Taylor became a national hero almost overnight. Early in the Mexican War a Philadelphia paper published a résumé of his career. The public was asking who he was. When the news of his Buena Vista victory swept the country, an unabating clamor for “Taylor for President” resulted. In February, 1848, at a Buena Vista Festival held in Philadelphia to celebrate the anniversary of Washington’s birthday and Taylor’s victory, this toast was offered: “Washington and Taylor — men of the same mould — each one sufficient to mark a century. Hail Columbia,”
Such sentiments may account for the twenty varieties of Washington-Taylor flasks made by the Dyottville Glass Works, usually having The Father of His Country above the classical bust of Washington and various inscriptions above that of Taylor, such as: General Z. Taylor, G. Z. Taylor, I Have Endeavored to Do My Duty, General Taylor Never Surrenders or A Little More Grape, Captain Bragg (Illustration X). Presumably the last refers to more shot, ordered perhaps when Bragg, to quote his report, “Feeling that the day depended upon the successful stand of our artillery, I appealed to the commanding general, who was near, for support.”
Of the remaining Taylor flasks, one — a Washington-Taylor — was made at Bridgeton, New Jersey; three or probably four at Baltimore. The Baltimore Monument and Fells Point appear on the reverse of one of these (Illustration XI). Two quite good attempts at portraiture had the inscriptions Zachary Taylor, Rough and Ready and, on the reverse, an ear of corn with the wording Corn for the World. The probable fourth flask of Baltimore origin is the Taylor-Ringgold (Illustration XII).
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.