What is a Memory Jug?
Memory jugs are 19th-20th century artifacts that were commonly made to commemorate someone’s life, a memento mori of sorts, that could be used to mark a loved one’s grave. They were also made to display within your home as a reminder of those we’ve lost. Memory jugs are made by wrapping clay around a vessel (it could be anything from a ceramic mug to a metal vase) and then decorating the clay with objects of importance. Each memory and item is embedded into the vessel, creating a mosaic of stories and pieces of one’s life.
Memory jugs are tied to African and African American burial practices, traditionally made by the Bakongo people in Central and West Africa as grave markers. The practice migrated to America with the importation of slaves and was mostly practiced within African-American communities in the South.
During the Victorian era, memory jugs became a popular craft that became more of a sculptural art form than a memorial. This period brought in crafts like scrapbooking, decorating frames, and an overall interest in eclectic objects—so it seems only natural that the memory jug transforms at this time. The objects added to the memory jugs shift from personal mementos to sea shells, broken pieces of glass, marbles, porcelain doll parts, etc. Due to their uniqueness and history, they are often sought after by folk art and antique collectors alike.
Now that we know a little more about the history of the memory jug and its importance, let’s make our own!
DIY Memory Jug
–Drop cloth or table cloth – It’s going to get very dirty so don’t use something special.
–Sturdy vessel – This can really be anything you have on hand; a mason jar, old vase, PVC pipe, etc. We grabbed our vase from a thrift store.
–Mortar or clay – We used a quick-setting cement from the hardware store but you can also grab pre-mixed mortars that are really easy to use! We haven’t tried it with clay but would be curious how it turns out since that’s how they were historically made!
–Misc. objects and trinkets – This can literally be anything and depends if you’d like your piece to be personal, artistic, or both! Our objects are a collection of vintage jewelry parts, sea shells, vintage Cracker Jack charms, old keys, worry dolls, etc. There are no rules, get as creative as you’d like!
–Mallet or Hammer – To break larger pieces up, like old tiles or china!
-Clean the surface of the vessel. This will help ensure that the mortar adheres securely.
-Set up your workspace with a drop cloth and all of your needed materials. And throw on an apron too, this project can get messy!
-Start applying the mortar to the vessel. Make sure it’s thick enough for the objects to stick to it, you shouldn’t be able to see your vessel through the mortar.
-Once the mortar is applied to your liking, you can add on all of your objects! If you’re using a quick-drying mortar like we did, you need to apply the objects quickly. If the mortar begins to harden before you decorate it completely, just keep applying more mortar until the vessel is covered will all of your objects. And remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect! We love how all of the imperfections give it more character!
-When you’re happy with how your memory jug looks and all of your objects are secure in the mortar, set it aside to cure. This can take up to 24 hours but will depend on the type of mortar used. Follow the instructions on your mortar package.
-After your memory jug is all cured, place it in a spot where you can admire it daily!
If you make your own memory jug be sure to share it with us on Instagram, we can’t wait to see what y’all come up with!