Among the more than 16,000 objects in the National Heritage Museum collection, Masonic symbols appear on a mind-boggling number of items – clothing, furniture and ceramics, to name just a few. The ceramic squirrel statuette seen here is unusual, but comes complete with the familiar square and compasses. Known as “sewer tile” folk art, figurines like this squirrel were made from a type of clay used in the production of sewer pipe. The clay for the pipe was locally dug, poured into plaster molds and then fired in the kiln. Throwing buckets of salt into the kiln at the height of the firing achieved the golden brown glaze.
After a long day of monotonously turning out pieces of pipe, some employees used their creativity to make these whimsical items after hours. Some sources suggest that these figures were popular gifts from factory employees to their family members. While the maker of this figurine is unidentified, Ohio was a center for sewer tile folk art because of its rich natural deposits of red and white clay. The state was home to many sewer pipe and brick companies, providing both the materials and the opportunity for local workers.
These items seem to have originated around 1880 and continued to be made into the early 1900s. Figures, like the squirrel, were usually cast in molds. Other popular animals include lions, dogs and pigs. In addition to figural items, some artists made functional pieces like match holders or ashtrays. Inspiration for the animal figurines may have come from imported fine ceramic Staffordshire figurines, which were popular during the late 1800s, but considerably more expensive.
Masonic sewer tile squirrel, 1880-1900, probably Ohio, National Heritage Museum collection, gift of E.R. Moody Family, 93.035, photograph by David Bohl.