Memory vessels were made by placing small everyday objects such as keys, screws and nails, glass vials, shells, nuts, and jewelry on the surface of bottles or ceramic jugs using putty, cement, or other adhesive material. Many of these folk art pieces were coated with gold or silver paint, and thus require especially close inspection to discern details; others were left plain so that each applied object was easily recognized.
Several historical explanations have been put forth to explain who made memory jars, and why. One is that they have their origins in Southern Black communities, where they were placed in cemeteries for use as grave markers. The vessels were covered with objects which had belonged to the deceased for possible use in their afterlife.
Another theory is that memory jugs or jars fit well into the “scrapbook mentality” that marked the Victorian era, in which sentimentality reigned, and decoration was abundant. Saving momentos of loved ones has universal appeal...the odd button, a single earring or other bit of jewelry that reminds one of the deceased relative.
And there the possibility that it was a bad weather activity to while away the time, since “idle hands were the devils’ plaything”. Each of these theories has merit. We might never know for sure what the true origin of these folk art vessels is, but they continue to fascinate as remembrances of other times and other lives.
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