King Gambrinus Pitcher

Nineteenth-century bar pitchers are fascinating for the insights one can derive from the iconography of those that are decorated. Greenwood Pottery’s King Gambrinus pitcher is such an object. The low-relief figures on this press-molded pitcher tell two different stories.

This example is actually a copy. The original pitcher was designed by Karl Muller for the Union Porcelain Works (UPW) in Greenpoint (Brooklyn) New York. It was introduced to the trade in November 1875 and was included in UPW’s exhibit at the Centennial Exposition in 1876. (See Alice Frelinghuysen, American Porcelain 1770-1920, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989, for more on the UPW pitcher.) The design must have been enormously popular for the rival Greenwood Pottery to endeavor to copy it.

On one side, King Gambrinus, the mythical inventor of beer, is offering a large glass of lager to Brother Jonathan as though he is introducing the elixir to the United States. Jonathan is attracted to the foaming teutonic beverage for its promise of vitality, sensuality and virility symbolized by the billy goat posed with his front hooves on a beer barrel that contains the initials “GP” for Greenwood Pottery. The scene on the other side illustrates the crescendo of Bret Harte’s poem “Plain Language from Truthful James.” The polar bear on the handle and the sea lion spout remind us that the pitcher would have held cold water, maybe even with ice in it, on the bar for customers to add to their whisky.

In Harte’s satirical narrative poem a cheating “heathen Chinee” named Ah Sin (three aces are falling from his sleeve) is exposed by Bill Nye, one of the three card sharps who had intended to cheat him at a game of euchre. Ah Sin pretended not to know the game, while the card sharps, sensing an easy target, endeavored to take advantage of him. At one point in the game Ah Sin laid down a hand that Bill Nye had dealt from his own sleeves to James, the storyteller:

Then I looked up at Nye,
     And he gazed upon me;
And he rose with a sigh,
     And said, “Can this be?
We are ruined by Chinese cheap labor,” —
     And he went for that heathen Chinee.

In the scene that ensued
     I did not take a hand,
But the floor it was strewed
     Like the leaves on the strand
With the cards that Ah Sin had been hiding,
     In the game “he did not understand.”

The poem was first published in the September 1870 issue of the Overland Monthly. But its tale resonated with readers. It was quickly republished in a number of other newspapers and journals, including the New York Evening Post, New York Tribune, Boston Evening Transcript, Providence Journal, Hartford Courant, Prairie Farmer, and Saturday Evening Post among others. But Harte was chagrined at the poem’s popularity. He had written it as an indictment of the prevalence of anti-Chinese sentiment among the white population of California, but readers missing Harte’s irony, had taken the story literally.

The role of Chinese workers in mining, in building the transcontinental and other western railroads, and in establishing the California fishing industry is well known. They were important as well in the vegetable and fruit growing industries and in civic improvement projects such as laying the streets of San Francisco. They worked in lumber, paper and powder mills, tanneries, rope-walks, lead-works, tin-shops and factories for jute, oakum, sack, bag, blacking, soap and candles, in beet-root sugar refineries and other industries. By 1865, eighty percent of the labor in California’s woolen mills was Chinese. Highly motivated and incredibly industrious, thousands of them used hard-won savings to open private businesses such as laundries, stores and restaurants.

Secretary of State William Seward had welcomed the availability of cheap Chinese labor to settle the west and build the transcontinental railroad. But neither Seward nor Congress had predicted the disastrous economic effect of the Panic of 1873, which left hundreds of thousands of Americans unemployed. Anti-Chinese riots broke out, and violence continued to erupt at intervals for many years. In 1882 Congress, in order to appease white labor, enacted the first of several laws which temporarily suspended the immigration of “coolie labor.” In 1904, entry by any Chinese person, except for scholars and diplomats, was permanently suspended. This stricture continued until 1943.

Harte’s poem exposed the guts of the issue. Its depiction on the Greenwood Pottery pitcher shows the transcontinental breadth of it. Of course, by the late 1870s these pitchers could have been distributed from Trenton, via the extensive US rail system, to bars and taverns throughout the country.  And the longevity of the economic issue insured their popularity for a long time.

King Gambrinus Pitcher, Greenwood Pottery, porcelain, late 1870s, H 9.25 inches. Collection of the New Jersey State Museum, The Cybis Collection of American Porcelain CH1968.210. Photograph by Ricardo Barros.

–Ellen Denker

Photographed as part of a collaborative project with the New Jersey State Museum. The project was made possible, in part, by a grant from the Mercer County Division of Culture and Heritage, in partnership with the New Jersey Historical Commission, Division of Cultural Affairs/ Department of State.