Making a Memory (Jug)

When I was in Santa Fe, NM, in November, I went to this neat antique shop called 136 Grant. It’s located on Grant Avenue, not too far from the Santa Fe plaza and right around the corner from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

136 Grant is housed in the historic Pinckney R. Tully House, which was built by its namesake in 1851. While the Tully House looks like brick from a distance — and I apologize for not having taken a close-up photo — it’s actually adobe, painted to look like brick.

Pinckney R. Tully House

Brick wasn’t easy to come by in mid-19th-century Santa Fe. After all, New Mexico had only just become a U.S Territory in 1846 and the Santa Fe Trail, which stretched from Missouri to Santa Fe, was a far cry from a modern-day highway.

If you travel around Santa Fe today, you might see a row or two of brick at the roof line of some New Mexican Territorial-style structures. It’s there for ornamental purposes and to protect the building, at its most vulnerable point, from erosion.

Without ready access to brick but wanting that Eastern look of home, some 19th-century Santa Feans did the next best thing: tediously faux painted the entire home with brick-red paint and white, brick-sized rectangles. It’s pretty amazing, really. Even from about 12 feet away, the Tully House looks like brick, although you can’t miss the adobe’s rounded corners.

Again, sorry I didn’t take a photo.

136 Grant has a friendly staff and a lot of different vendors. Most of the items in the shop are very different from what you’d see in an East Coast or Southern antique shop. For example, there were lots of Native American items, including pueblo pottery, jewelry and silver work. One thing they did have that seemed typically Southern to me, however, were a few memory jugs.

If you’re not familiar with the memory jug, it’s basically a jug (or jar), covered with clay or mortar that has all kinds of crap stuck into it. That might sound crude, but hey, look at these photos and you’ll probably agree. And I say “crap” with affection because I like memory jugs.

There are some really great examples of memory jugs on the Internet, including here on this artist’s website.

There are different theories as to the origins of the memory jug. One is that they were used in Southern, African-American burial traditions to mark grave sites. Everyday items, once owned by the deceased, would be pressed into clay or mortar that had been spread on the jug. The items used were thought to be useful in the afterlife, sort of like the stuff buried with Egyptian mummies.

Another theory, albeit still involving mourning traditions, is that memory jugs evolved out of Victorian sentimentality and a passion for collecting. As described on this website, “Saving mementos of loved ones has universal appeal … the odd button, a single earring or other bit of jewelry that reminds one of the deceased relative.”

Memory jugs are a little on the tacky side, but I’ve always liked them, and seeing the ones at 136 Grant inspired me to make my own. So, one day when I should have been working on a big writing project for a local magazine, I went to the hardware store, bought some pre-mixed mortar and made a memory jug.

I didn’t have any old family mementos to press into the mortar, but I did have a good bit of what I’d describe as “junk jewelry”: broken and orphan earrings, costume jewelry and that sort of thing. I also had an amber-colored beer bottle that I’d found in an old trash dump in the woods near my house.

My memory jug.

Back before there was city trash pickup, people would just pitch their trash over the hillside. Even when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, my grandparents in Southeastern Kentucky would pitch the trash over the hill. It’s just what you did.

That said, I love sifting through old trash dumps for bottles, broken pottery and other items. You do have to be careful though. Wear sturdy shoes with thick bottoms, to protect your feet from broken glass, and avoid dumps in warm weather, when ticks and snakes are out and about.

But back to my jug. After spreading the mortar on the bottle, I pressed bunches of junk jewelry into the sides until it was nearly covered. Then, I waited for it to dry, which took several hours.

In the end, I’d made a memory … and a memory jug.


4 thoughts on “Making a Memory (Jug)

    1. I’m sure you could make one. You’re so creative! I have an idea to make one with bits of old plates found in a trash dump at a relative’s early 1800s house. I need to find the right container first, though. Thanks for reading!


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