Two hundred years ago today, Oliver Hazard Perry unfurled his famous "Don't give up the ship" pennant on his flagship, the Lawrence, and led his ships to victory in the Battle of Lake Erie. Intern Matthew Skic explores how Americans celebrated the victory—with cups and jugs.
About 45 miles east of Toledo, Ohio, is South Bass Island and the village of Put-in-Bay. This spot on Lake Erie provided the backdrop for one of the most significant naval victories for the United States during the War of 1812. As a result of this battle, Navy officer Oliver Hazard Perry would become a national hero. Today, however, the War of 1812 and the exploits of Perry are often not well known, overshadowed by more familiar conflicts such as the Civil War or the American Revolution. But at the time, Perry was extremely famous, a national hero and an international figure, and we have the material culture to prove it. ("Material culture" includes things that were made or altered by people and are often studied by historians and museum curators to learn about the past.)
Since the American Revolution, everyday objects have celebrated heroes such as George Washington, instilling pride and preserving memories. The War of 1812 provided a new generation of military heroes and myths, most notably Andrew Jackson, Stephen Decatur, and Oliver Hazard Perry. These figures were lionized and their images commercialized.
In the case of naval hero Oliver Hazard Perry, a few English-made creamware objects in the Ceramics and Glass collections at the museum provide tangible evidence of his immediate fame.
Though made in England, one creamware jug in the museum's collection is dedicated to Perry and his victory over the British squadron. About seven inches tall, this jug or pitcher depicts Perry slightly turned to his left with a ribbon marked with the first words of his famous, yet brief after-action report addressed to General (and future president) William Henry Harrison: "We have met the enemy and they are ours!"
Below that, Perry has been granted the title “Hero of the Lakes.” On the reverse of the jug is a print of an American frigate. It is unclear who in England exactly made this example since it is not marked, but it matches the style and construction techniques of creamware jugs made in or around the city of Liverpool. These jugs were produced for sale to the American market so it makes sense that Perry's likeness might show up on an English-made piece.
Making use of the same image of Perry, the creamware mug pictured below is transfer printed with red ink. Transfer printing is the process of placing an engraving onto a ceramic surface. This process was not done by the potters themselves, but specifically by specialist ceramic printers who partnered with engravers.
Printers often copied popular pre-existing imagery from the time period rather than developing their own images. On this example and on the black "Hero of the Lakes" jug above, the image of Perry is based on an engraving by Philadelphian George Delleker. Once the War of 1812 ended and trade between the U.S. and Great Britain was restored, creamware objects like this one arrived for sale in the shops of American merchants. Americans who wanted to display their most up-to-date patriotic sentiments would purchase a mug like this one and use it in their households.
A third object related to Perry is interesting not because of its inspiring likeness of the "Hero of the Lakes" or its physical size, but because it makes two errors. Since the English printers were removed from feeling that American patriotic zeal or recognizing the American heroes from memory, errors were sometimes made. The image included on the creamware bowl pictured below spells the name of Commodore Perry with an "a" instead of an "e."
What's more, the image is not even of Perry! Instead, the image is based on a painting of US Navy officer Edward Preble, famous for his leadership during the First Barbary War (1801-1805), particularly for his attack of Tripoli in 1804. Because of these errors, it is unclear whether this piece would have been desirable for Americans. However, the fact that it has survived nearly 200 years may speak to that concern.
Following the War of 1812, men like Oliver Hazard Perry were the new American icons and their actions inspired the nation during its early struggles. Across America, Perry and his compatriots were lauded and showered with gifts and mementos of their fame. The museum collections include the silver tea pot pictured below. It was a gift to Commodore Perry from the citizens of Boston, Massachusetts, part of a silver service consisting of nearly 40 pieces. Other cities and towns honored Perry with gifts like medallions and swords, put on "entertainments" re-enacting his victory as well as ceremonies to honor his heroism.
Though still revered, heroes like Perry eventually faded from national attention once a new crop of inspirational figures came about during the decades that followed. For those new heroes, the process of creating objects dedicated to them would begin anew.
Matthew Skic is a curatorial intern in the division of Home and Community Life and is studying history at American University in Washington, D.C. His previous blog post also includes more interesting examples of creamware in the museum's collection.