Memory Jugs

The depth and breadth of Memory Jugs make them the perfect subject for the inaugural Don’t Throw That Out blog post. Everything about this folk art screams UPCYCLE. From the reused jug and reinvented mastic to the collection of recycled trinkets, each facet of a memory jug is gloriously recreated. Famous for their use of tessera (an ancient Greek term referring to pieces of tile or marble and today include small baubles and miscellany), memory jugs are a form of mosaic. However, instead of a mosaic wall or floor, they are…wait for it…jugs encrusted with tidbits in mosaic fashion.

Everything’s Coming Up Roses (Sara Lederer)

The origin of memory jugs can be traced to a seventeen-century African American slave custom, when they were used as grave markers. In place of a costly headstone, the memory jug was embellished with broken china, pottery shards, and small items either belonging to or in memory of the deceased.

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Untitled (Memory Jug), 19th century, Smithsonian American Art Museum (https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/untitled-memory-jug-111083)

More readily available evidence suggests memory jugs were a nineteenth-century pastime where women of leisure—adhering to the idiom “Idle hands are the devil’s playground”—made Victorian lace, elaborate embroidery, and memory jugs, the latter a precursor to modern-day scrapbooking.

Google memory jugs and you will meet contemporary artists who have made this art form their medium. Fabulous renditions are showcased on Pinterest and Etsy, which is where I discovered the art form and was inspired to learn the process. The lumpy putty-like substance, a telltale sign of memory jugs, is window glazing used as both mastic and grout. The beauty of window glazing is its malleability. It dries slowly from the inside out, so you can spread it all at once over the entire piece and it won’t dry out (at least not overnight).

As the name implies, memory jugs are made in memory of a person or an event, which aids in the selection of tessera. While the design of a memory jug appears seemingly random, its execution follows a carefully constructed plan. 

Picture of plate stash with glass jug circled
One of several collections, this is my first stop when making a memory jug. The glass jug is the vessel for my next project.

Typically, a memory jug container is made of ceramic, earthenware, or glass. The jug shape is ideal for mosaics, because the small opening at the top makes it easy to cork and prevent dust from collecting on the inside of the vessel. The jug handle also makes it practical. The accumulation of mastic and tessera makes for a heavy piece of art, so a handle comes in handy if you have to lift the jug to move it. Memory jug vessels are easy to find at thrift stores; the glass jug depicted above was picked out of the trash. (Side note: This picture illustrates just one corner of my upcycling treasures.) For ideas on collecting memory jug materials, be sure to read my blog post, entitled The Art of the Find. For tips and techniques to create a work and storage area for your memory jug work, read my blog post, entitled Upcycling Storage and Workspace.

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Pastorale (Sara Lederer)

Really, any vessel that appeals to your artistic sense will work. Memory jug makers often think outside the box to consider other types of containers—vases, pitchers, wooden boxes—basically any object or form with a flat surface that can hold a smear of mastic and a heavy application of tessera. The piece above, Pastorale, was auctioned off to raise funds for a local Suzuki program. Not the greatest photo, but if you zoom in on the picture, you will see that this 1/8 child’s cello (damaged and beyond repair) is lined with decoupaged lace doilies and encrusted with old jewelry that I found at thrift stores and garage sales. Upcycling, I think, at its best.

My work with memory jugs often combines another form of mosaic called pique-assiette, which uses broken chinaware rather than uniformly shaped mosaic tile squares. This blog post’s featured image, Everything’s Coming Up Roses, is an example of my fusion of memory jug art and pique-assiette. The picture below, Sax and Violins, is memory jug I made from a damaged violin with missing scroll. I gave this piece to my sister, a classical violinist, for her birthday. The tessera in this piece includes pique-assiette in hues of blue (my sister’s favorite color) with Capodimonte bits and old costume jewelry.

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Sax and Violins (Sara Lederer)

Stay tuned for my upcoming blog post on pique-assiette entitled Pique Your Interest with Pique-Assiette Mosaics.

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