The following article is from The Spinning Wheel, a National Magazine about Antiques. The article originally appeared in May 1953 and was reprinted in the January-February 1965 issue.
Pictured Rock Sand Potichomanie
by Stella Wythe
Godey's Lady's Book of January 1855 professed to picture the first display of the new parlor art, Potichomanie. With due respect to Mr. Godey, this "firstness" can be doubted, for when Godey reported on a parlor art, the materials for its practice were sure to be available. We know that American factories in the 1850s were producing the necessary blown glass jars, or vases, for potichomanie-minded ladies.
Potichomanie was the art of pasting cut-out colored pictures, medallions, and such on the inside of a glass vase, facing outward, then backing the pasted-on leaves with white or pastel tinted plaster or paint. When well done, this produced a good imitation of an important palace jar of Chinese porcelain, Sevres, Minton, Meissen, or Worcester.
Somehow, as early as the 1870s, this art was adapted by the Choctaw and Sioux Indians, who achieved very cunning results by packing any glass jar or bottle with layers of variegated sands. Potichomanie was a passe parlor art in the East, when the first Indians, then palefaces of the West who admired the Indian gewgaws, began rock sand art in glass and produced many curious and weird pieces of sand-packed glassware. The craft finally attracted expert practitioners, especially the handicapped, the cracker-barrel clubs at general stores, and shut-ins.
By 1882, the master of the craft appears to have been Andrew Clemens, a deaf mute of McGregor, Iowa. Instead of merely packing colored sand in layers, or in patterns simulating Indian textiles or native marbles, he began painting pictures inside bottles with grains of colored sand!
So adept was this workman, who chose to use wide mouth, glass stoppered drug jars as his vases, that he did portraits, landscapes, scenes and genre subjects, and even, so 'tis said, built up the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments, letter by letter, inside a bottle of sand.
Mr. Clemens was a commercial maker of pictured rock-sand potichomanie. He labelled his every jar and sold his work at substantial prices. "To-order" work was done for presentation pieces.
From Virginia Kearney, Salisbury, Massachusetts, comes the pictures above, showing both sides and the bottom of one of Clemens' examples. The Mississippi steamboat is a perfect representation, even to the flag which is in the proper red, white, and blue coloring. The colored sands in this piece run from a cream color, through yellow, to pale brown, red, green, blue, slate, and black.
After the surface parts of the pictures or other work were completed, the outer walls were backed with white sand, tamped down hard, turning to rock-like form in a few years. The wide-mouthed jars with stoppered and sealed with pitch.
There is evidence that rock sand art jars and bottles still exist in sufficient numbers to permit some purposeful collecting. The production seems to have been restricted to Iowa, the Dakotas, western Illinois, Oklahoma, and other states in that area. Perhaps hundreds of examples survive there, even to this day.
From "Memo from Marcia,"
A yellowed page from Farm and Fireside, dated January 15, 1906, sent us by a Chicago reader, described the marvelous sand formations of colorful cliffs and caves only a few miles back from the railroad along the western shore of the Mississippi just south of McGregor, Iowa. Over 32 distinct, but blending, shades appear. W.S. O'Brien was mentioned as a sand artist whose work had popular sale abroad as well as in this country. Apparently O'Brien was still at work in 1906; if so, this increases the span of popularity of this work from the 1870s when A. Clemens inaugurated it . . . Without doubt the residents of the region, wherever they roamed, remembered the sands and, if they had facility, made rock sand potichomanie wherever they came upon suitable materials. Such is borne out by an example purchased by a Western reader in 1900 from a California prospector, a native Iowan, who had made a fine piece from far-Western rock sand.
Helen L. Gillum, Long Beach, California, adds to the Clemens story from information given in a 1942 McGregor Iowa Register. "Clemens created his sand pictures with tools of his own make," she writes. "Choosing from 40 or more colors of sand from the Pictured Rocks along the Mississippi, he placed it in the bottle with a small tin scoop. Using several tiny curved wands fashioned from green hickory, and working through the narrow opening from the bottom upward, he meticulously arranged the sand, a grain at a time, controlling the various colors with patience and skill, packing the sand firmly as he worked. No glue, paste, or dye was used." Several of these scenic sandscapes by Clemens are on view at the McGregor Historical Museum.
The bottle belonging to Virginia Kearney referred to in this article is pictured. It shows a steamboat on one side and is inscribed "R. Daniels, 1988, Christmas" on the other side. Additionally, two more Clemens sand bottles are pictured. One is in a large round top type bottle, and is inscribed "John Riehl, Aug. 31, 1892" on one side and has a beautifully detailed floral design on the other side. The third bottle pictured is also a round top type, with a Missisippi steamboat on one side and a fairy child with flowers on the other side, and was owned by Mr. and Mrs. W.E. Cross of Middletown, N.Y.