What you see: A large (almost a foot tall) ceramic pitcher touting Whig candidate William Henry Harrison’s 1840 campaign for president. Heritage Auctions estimates it at $30,000.
The expert: Don Ackerman, consignment director for Heritage Auctions’s historical Americana & political department.
Who would have bought this pitcher in 1840? Or did Harrison make them to give away to his most ardent supporters? A lot of the campaign items from that period were utilitarian objects. In contrast to campaign buttons or ribbons that you wore to a rally, you’d display the pitcher in your home, and you could use it. I don’t think he gave it away. It was not cheap to produce. If you were a diehard supporter, you’d buy it and put it in your house. After the election, you didn’t throw it out. It had long-term value.
Was the ceramic pitcher a common form for campaign memorabilia in 1840? It was a fairly common form. Pitchers made of soft paste porcelain and china have a history. Before America became independent, there was a 1766 teapot that said ‘No Stamp Act’. That’s certainly one of the earliest political items. After the Revolutionary War, you’d often see Liverpool jugs, which were imported from England. America had very little in the way of pottery. Though England lost the war, they produced patriotic pitchers and tankards for the U.S. because there was demand for them.
William Henry Harrison died barely a month after taking office, so there’s little to collect from his time as president. I imagine there’s much more material from his days as a candidate? You get a lot of stuff for William Henry Harrison and practically nothing for his opponent, Martin Van Buren. Harrison had a highly organized campaign and it caught the public’s attention more than any other campaign before that time. 1840 stands out for a flourishing of political items and material, and probably 95 percent of it was for William Henry Harrison.
Why was that? Was Harrison a marketing and branding wizard, or was the demand for Harrison stuff that strong? I think there was demand for it. His was the first campaign with an icon–the log cabin and the hard cider barrel. Previously, you didn’t have symbols representing the candidates. Harrison came up with the log cabin and the hard cider barrel, and it caught fire.
We think that four or five of these ceramic pitchers survive, but do we have any idea how many might have been made? They probably made very few of them. It was made by an American pottery company.
So you get cross-competition for this pitcher from collectors of American ceramics? Yes. Pottery people really like it. This is the pinnacle of political pottery from 1840. There’s probably fewer than ten examples in existence. When these come up for auction, they consistently sell for a lot of money.
How do the decorations on the pitcher reflect William Henry Harrison’s campaign imagery? It’s got the log cabin and the hard cider barrel.
Where is the hard cider barrel? Below the window of the log cabin. It was a popular image because Harrison was meant to be a man of the people. Contrast that with Martin Van Buren, who was considered a New York elitist who’d sit in the White House and sip Champagne from a silver goblet. The hard cider barrel was originally a criticism of Harrison–that he was a country bumpkin, and if he was given a pension he’d be content to sit in a log cabin and sip hard cider. Of course by that time he was living in a mansion, but he presented himself as born in and lived in a log cabin, and an Ohio farmer, like Cincinnatus, going back to his farm after the war.
Does the pitcher have every element that a William Henry Harrison collector would want? No, it doesn’t, but it’s got the essentials. It doesn’t say “The Hero of Tippecanoe,” and it doesn’t show a canoe. [Yes, Harrison was the ‘Tippecanoe’ in ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,’ and that slogan is not on the pitcher, either.] He was sometimes called the “Farmer of North Bend.” Here he’s the “Ohio Farmer.” It lacks the symbol of the Whig party, which was the raccoon–
Wait, wait, wait. The symbol of the Whig party was the raccoon? What is it with American political parties choosing non-heroic animals to represent them? The raccoon goes with the rustic Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett type of thing. These guys were trappers. They trapped animals, sold the hides, and made stew out of the meat.
This pitcher was a functional object. Does it show any signs of use? Not really. It’s in pretty good shape. It’s got some discoloration on the inside, and it’s got a crack and a chip [which you can see on the spout of the pitcher]. Obviously, it was used. The crack and the chip can be restored, and the stains can be bleached out. Even with the defects, it’s probably the nicest one [of the surviving pitchers] I’ve seen. A lot of them have cracks and tend to be highly discolored.
Another example of the William Henry Harrison pitcher went to auction at Heritage in December 2016, selling for $37,500. But do you remember if and when one of these pitchers went to auction before then? This one and the one sold in 2016 are the only two I remember in political memorabilia auctions. I know of five examples, and I’ve been collecting for 54 years. They’re highly prized. I don’t think I’ve seen one sold for under $20,000, even going way, way back. This is the Cadillac. It’s got four portraits. It was made in Jersey City, New Jersey. It’s big. It’s got great graphics. It’s rare. If you can afford it, it’s a great item to have.
How to bid: The William Henry Harrison ceramic pitcher is lot #43039 in the David and Janice Frent Collection of Presidential & Political Americana, Part IV sale, which takes place on November 10 and 11 at Heritage Auctions.
Earlier in 2018, Don Ackerman spoke to The Hot Bid about a William McKinley campaign poster, also from the David and Janice Frent Collection, which sold for $11,875.
Did you just realize that “William Henry Harrison” scans just like “Alexander Hamilton”? No need to write a Hamilton parody. Actor Jason Kravitz beat you to it.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.
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