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 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.”
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.
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.
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.