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  • Writer's pictureKim Sajet

U.S. History on a Jug of Beer.

Updated: Jan 20, 2020

What weirdness is this?! Wandering around the Philadelphia Museum of Art I came across a pitcher designed by Karl L. H. Müller for the Union Porcelain Works in Greenpoint, NY c.1875-80. It turns out copies also exist in the collections of a lot of museums and turn up at auction in different colors & glazes.

According to various museum labels one side shows “King Gambrinus offering beer to Brother Jonathan” with a goat jumping on top of a keg marked by the factory initials U.P.W., and the other “Bill Nye and the “Heathen Chinee” Ah Sin,” capped off by a spout molded as the head of a sea lion and the handle a polar bear. Huh?

It turns out that the scenes adapt two stories written around the same time in the 19th century. The first, Cambrinus, Roi de la Bière, published by the Frenchman Charles Deulin in 1868, recounts the myth of an apprentice glassblower Cambrinus, who makes a deal with the Devil and trades his soul for the ability to make beer as passed down from the Egyptian gods (note the palmetto leaves decorating the base of some of the pitchers). Cambrinus becomes royalty and the mythological ruler of beer, King Gambrinus.

The second, Plain Language from Truthful James by Bret Harte was a rollicking tale told in installments within the pages of the Overland Monthly Magazine together with illustrations by S. Eytinge about a Chinese immigrant who is caught cheating at cards and receives a violent comeuppance from the miner Bill Nye. Reprinted and republished as "The Heathen Chinee," with additional illustrations by a range of artists, the poem became hugely popular and made Harte one of the most celebrated literary men in America in 1870.

One side of the pitcher shows Brother Jonathan as a symbol of the United States—an early version of Uncle Sam—grasping the horns of a goat and selling his soul for a foaming mug of beer at a time when cold larger introduced by German immigrants was gaining in popularity. In fact, the goat references Bock beer, a dark lager dating back to the 14th century from the city of Einbeck..."ein bock" = a goat.

The polar bear and walrus motifs reference the ice industry which was growing rapidly due to improved technology and chilling the beverage. The pitcher even has a spout designed to strain the ice! You can learn more about the symbolism by reading this super interesting post of 2012 by David Park Curry in Mixology.

The scene showing Ah Sin is obviously racist and according to MFA curators Nonie Gadsden and Elliot Bostwick Davis in ‘‘A New World Imagined: Art of the Americas,’’ although the poem was supposed to be a satire of the prejudice faced by Chinese immigrant laborers in the West, early readers took it literally as a reason to engage in discrimination. Harte later disowned his writing calling it ‘‘the worst poem I ever wrote, possibly the worst poem anyone ever wrote,” after realizing that his intention to fight racism had in fact ended up doing the opposite and fueling the rise of anti-Chinese racism at the turn of the 20th century.

Within days of its publication Harte’s poem had been reprinted in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the United States, and the purposefully anti-racist message that was the author’s intention in no way correlated with the cultural work the poem actually performed. As scholar Gary Scharnhorst noted, in fact Plain Language from Truthful James “was read by many a xenophobic reader as satire not of the Irish card-sharks but of Ah Sin and the "yellow peril" he seemed to represent.”[1]

Illustration from The Western News Company, Chicago by Joseph Hull illustrating Bret Harte’s The Heathen Chinee, 1870. Small quarto, nine lithograph sold by L.W. Currey, Inc.
Joseph Hull illustration of "The Heathen Chinee," 1870

As the Department of State’s website belonging to the Office of the Historian notes, the history of US discrimination and the Chinese Exclusion Acts that began in the 1850s were not repealed until 1943, and then only in the interests of aiding the morale of a wartime ally during World War II; while even today, as a survey conducted on behalf of National Public Radio in 2017 reports, a quarter or more of Asian Americans today still report being personally discriminated against in every area of society from jobs, housing, and opportunities of educational advancement.

So once again, a leisurely a trip to an art museum and fascination for a weird object on display, can spark a deep lesson into American culture whose history merges something as fun as drinking beer with something as sinister as racial discrimination that is not only aesthetically uncomfortable but still deeply felt in society today.

[1] Scharnhorst, Gary. ""Ways That Are Dark": Appropriations of Bret Harte's "Plain Language from Truthful James"." Nineteenth-Century Literature 51, no. 3 (1996): 377-99.

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