Snakes, petticoats, and Civil War politics

This ceramic jug uses satire to poke fun at the defeated Confederacy

Anna Pottery, Snake Jug, c. 1865, stoneware with painted decoration, 31.75 x 21.11 x 22.07 cm (Minneapolis Institute of Art). Speakers: Dr. Alex Bortolot, Minneapolis Institute of Art and Dr. Beth Harris

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Snake Jug

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Key points

  • When the Republican party was founded in 1854, it was founded on a progressive platform that supported the emancipation of the slaves as well as industry. In contrast, mid-19th-century Democrats were interested in states’ rights, and many Democrats in the North supported the South during the Civil War.
  • Cultural and economic ties between communities complicated the Civil War’s geographic division between Northern and Southern states. Northern Democrats and groups like the Copperheads (also known as Peace Democrats) shared sympathies with the South in support of states’ rights and often perpetuated racial inequality and discriminatory practices.
  • The Civil War ended with the surrender of Robert E. Lee to General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865. Jefferson Davis, who had served as President of the Confederate States, was arrested four weeks later when his unit was surrounded in Georgia. His escape was popularized by the media, which suggested that he had attempted to conceal himself by dressing as a woman.
  • The use of writhing snakes to decorate whiskey jugs has traditionally been linked to the temperance movement. However, scholars now believe that the snakes refer instead to the political party known as the Copperheads. The makers of this whiskey jug, the Kirkpatrick brothers, promoted their business through popular entertainment and spectacle. This was the age of P.T. Barnum and Mark Twain, who used humor to amuse while also satirizing the sanctimonious ideals of Victorian America.

Go deeper

Learn more about this work from Mia

See an “Art Story” about this work from Mia

Learn more about Anna Pottery and the snake jars they produced

Learn about the Copperheads in the northern states

Read about the arrest of Jefferson Davis

View an online exhibition about the arrest of Jefferson Davis and its depiction in the media

See lyrics and listen to a recording of Henry Tucker’s Jeff in Petticoats (1865)

Read about the Temperance Movement in the 19th and 20th centuries

More to think about

The decoration of this whiskey jug demonstrates the use of satire and humor to reflect on political events and social conventions. What would be some modern versions of this type of social and political critique? Why do you think satire and humor are often used to make political statements?

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