A 1970s fad and, more recently, an elementary school craft, sand bottles were a real, bona fide art form in the hands of Andrew Clemens, a deaf mute working in 19th-century Iowa.
Rivaling the realism of Victorian painting and lithography, Clemens’ remaining bottles garner thousands of dollars at auction today.
Working without glue, using naturally colored sand from Iowa’s Pictured Rocks region and tools of his own making, Clemens fashioned detailed images of (among others) George Washington, Old Glory, eagles, Native Americans, ships in full sail, steamboats, and flowers — often combining them with beautifully lettered names, dates, and greetings.
Using sand for decoration, however, was not his invention. A technique called marmotinto was employed in eighteenth century Britain to create temporary banquet table pictures for King George III, not to mention for hundreds of years previous by Tibetan monks making elaborate sand mandalas.
By the 1840s the making of permanent sand pictures had become a parlor craft among middle class women. Depicting cottages, cliffs, or churches, they were created by sifting sand — especially naturally colored sand from the Isle of Wight — over glue-covered boards.
These pictures were often made as mementoes of trips to the seaside. Those tourists who didn’t create seaside souvenirs often bought them, including artistically filled bottles of sand.
Sand bottles originated on the Isle of Wight, too. Their invention was influenced by potichomanie, essentially decoupage (the pasting of prints) under glass. Potichomanie, when well done, resembled fine porcelain and, by the 1850s, American factories were producing glassware specifically for doing it and the mass circulation magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, was publishing directions for completing it.
Potichomanie also influenced the sand bottles made by Choctaw and Sioux Indians a decade after the craft fad had run its course in the East, when examples made their way West. Using variegated sand, which they arranged in designs resembling their textiles, these Native Americans sold the bottles as souvenirs.
Soon settlers in the Dakotas, Oklahoma, western Illinois, and Iowa — especially members of the “cracker barrel clubs” that met in grocery stores, shut-ins, and the handicapped — began to imitate the Indians’ bottles. It’s not surprising, then, that an early Clemens bottle design read: “Filled By A. Clemens A Deaf Mute of McGregor, Iowa.”
Clemens may have also been influenced by novelty glassware like barbershop bottles and shaving mugs, adorned with hand painted decoration — sailing ships, cherubs, flowers, and patriotic motifs like flags and eagles. Gold lettering was used both for identification of a bottle’s contents and a mug’s owner.
Clemens may have seen, too, refillable flasks whose colorful labels were embedded under glass for protection. These labels were typical of the era’s beautiful chromolithography, especially its calling cards and scrap pictures which Clemens mirrored in many of his bottles. He would have been surrounded by trade card and product label images in the grocery from which he originally worked.
Born in 1857, Andrew Clemens was the third son of German immigrants who settled in McGregor, Iowa, then a thriving transportation hub. At five, Andrew contracted the encephalitis which left him deaf and, eventually, speech-impaired. For six years, Clemens studied at the Iowa Institute for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb. It was on family trips to the Pictured Rocks region, a mile south of McGregor, that he discovered the sand that was to become the basis of his future fame.
Pictured Rocks sand is colored by the iron oxide in water dripping onto it from the limestone above. Shades range from pale pink to deep red, every shade of grey between white and black, as well as green, blue, and earth tones. Andrew Clemens would use 42 different colors of sand in his bottles. Twice a year, he and his brothers spent two or three days at Pictured Rocks, collecting sand in bags sewn by their mother.
His bottles were bought by steamboat agents to give to their captains and by traveling drummers, among many others.
Soon mail orders arrived, even from overseas — and Clemens moved from the grocery into his parents’ home, setting up in business for himself in their front room. There, probably for the light, he worked by the window — attracting the attention not only of McGregor’s townsfolk, but also of European tourists and local schoolchildren who tried, with limited success, to imitate him.
By then, his bottles had evolved past his early geometric designs into the complex motifs for which he became well known, with different pictures on the fronts and backs. Clemens only worked from a picture or model when he worked on commission — as with a bottle depicting the pontoon railway bridge at Prairie du Chien or one showing an early engine of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railway. He often reproduced a patron’s new home or commemorated a holiday or personal celebration.
For a short time, he even worked in a “dime museum,” earning $25 a week. Chicago’s South Side Museum, however, was more carnival sideshow than art gallery. A barker would break every bottle Clemens made — as soon as he made it — to prove the veracity of his “glueless” method.
Asked to participate in Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition, Clemens declined for health reasons — the tuberculosis which caused his death, at 37, the following year.
Clemens began his bottles by rubbing the sand dry with the bowl of a spoon, creating teeny, uniform grains. His tool kit consisted of seven implements he had fashioned from green hickory. A tiny scoop, holding one-quarter teaspoon of sand and attached to a 9? hickory stick, introduced the sand into a bottle. To do the actual “painting” and to keep his pictures straight, Clemens manipulated two other 9? rods — one sharpened to a point, one ending in a hook.
As if to complicate an already delicate task, Clemens had to “paint” upside-down because of his bottles’ openings. He used four packers, the longest measuring a foot, to press the sand down tightly. A stopper overlaid with wax sealed the finished bottle which bore a round label on its bottom reading: “Pictured Rock Sand Put Up By A. Clemens Deaf Mute McGregor, Iowa.”
Depending on the complexity of its design, a single bottle could take as little as three weeks or as long as three months to complete. A truly complicated pattern occasionally required a year, not that surprising given the detail Clemens achieved, whether in a breaking wave or blade of grass.
Holiday greetings were especially popular in bottles with lettering. One of a sailing ship also bears a “Merry Christmas” message. Another sailing ship bottle wishes “Happy New Year 1887.” “Auntie Stauer Happy New Year 1890,” reads a bottle whose back somewhat incongruously sports a flag and eagle.
Similarly “unconnected” to us — used to Yule motifs — are the sailboat and swan on the back of a bottle whose floral-swagged front says “John Alderson Christmas 1891,” or the “1888 Christmas” bottle with a steamboat on the reverse side.
While Clemens’ messages were occasionally generic — as on the banner emblazoned “Souvenir” — for the casual purchaser, many of his bottles were created for specific people. One is lettered “Cylia Cratte,” another “John Riehl, Aug 31, 1892.” Some personalization was complex: “Esther A. Calvert presented by Thos. Calvert, Jan. 12, 1883,” or “Mr. & Mrs. L.C. Porter from G.T. Seal.”
A pair of bottles were commissioned by Henry Reinken and his fiancee, Helen Wimmler. Interestingly, hers has an eagle and flag on its back; his has flowers. The bottle reading “Joseph-Mary, Aug 16, 1887,” commemorated the wedding of Mary Hausberg to Andrew’s relative, Joseph Clemens.
We know that “Henry” was the son of Fred Scharf who commissioned the bottle to mark the child’s 1888 death, and who “John and Kittie July 23, 1883” were because their daughter came forward, decades later, to identify them. The identities of “M.H.” and “Charlie,” however, the focus of two other bottles, are lost.
Many consider Clemens’ greatest work to be the 12-inch bottle with George Washington (on horseback) on one side, the Great Seal of Iowa on the other. The seal side also proclaims the state motto, “Our Liberties we prize and Our Rights we will maintain.”
For small bottles, Clemens charged $1. A pint-sized bottle with a more elaborate motif cost $5. A large bottle with lettering and fancy designs, however, could set a customer back $8, a lot of money at that time. McGregor’s children often asked $1 for their bottles but were delighted to get a dime.
Clemens made hundreds of bottles in his lifetime, but only a few dozen survive. Most recently, a Clemens bottle with a sailing ship on one side, “E.F. Parkhurst, Sheldon, Iowa 1887” on the other, sold for $12,075, while a bottle with a steamship/eagle and flag sides realized twice that. Although the auction house that sold “C. & R. Cox to Cora Sept 20, 1883,” prefers to protect the amount of the buyer’s successful bid, it too acknowledges that Clemens bottles can sell for as much as $20,000 each.