Here’s a memory jug from the collection of Melver Jackson Hendricks (1867-1933) who served in the North Carolina House of Representatives in the early 1920’s. Memory jugs made from bottles, urns, bowls and other vessels have been found on graves, particularly in the South, and almost always on African American graves. Often they are decorated with trinkets including seashells, glass shards, jewelry, coins, mirrors or other visual reminders of a loved one.
The memory jug shown here is currently in the North Carolina Museum of History. The museum’s information on the provenance of the jug is a bit sketchy. Its creation date is estimated at about 1900, probably because of the gray salt glaze used on it and the specific items attached to it, and the museum assumes it was local to Davie County, where Hendricks lived.
It’s easy to conclude that memory jugs existed as inexpensive memorials for poor families who couldn’t afford headstones for loved ones. But that explanation too easily overlooks the influence of Africa’s Bakongo culture on slaves brought to America.
The Bakongo culture believed that the spirit world was turned upside down, and that they were connected to it by water. Therefore, they decorated their graves with water bearing items such as shells, pitchers, jugs or vases, which would help the deceased through the watery world to the afterlife. They also adorned graves with items such as crockery, empty bottles, cooking pots and/or personal belongings of the deceased that he/she may need in the afterlife. Items were placed upside-down, which symbolizes the inverted nature of the spirit world.
Items were also broken to release the loved one’s spirit and enable it to make the journey. The fragmented possessions, reconformed in the memory jug, paid homage to and simultaneously appeased the spiritual beings, encouraging them not to interfere with the lives of the living. The container could be placed on a grave or held in the home to contain the unquiet spirit.
A memory jug can be any type of vessel or container that has first been covered with a layer of adhesive, such as putty, cement, or plaster. Then, while the adhesive is still damp, a variety of objects are embedded into the surface, including beads, buttons, coins, glass, hardware, mirrors, pipes, scissors, seashells, tools, toys and watches. The endless variety of adornment causes the surface to take on such importance that the form becomes secondary. Memory jugs are also called forget-me-not jug, memory vessel, mourning jug, spirit jar, ugly jug, whatnot jar, and whimsy jar.
A grass-roots revival of ‘Memory Jug Making’ swept through Appalachia and the African-American south in the 1950’s and 60’s.
See also Blue Bottle Trees