Moravian Fish Bottle
The small fish bottle that is displayed in Old Salem's Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) was made in the pottery shop in Salem, North Carolina around 1801 by Gottfried Aust and Rudolph Christ. The bottle is a press-molded figure bottle and is an extremely well-preserved example of earthenware pottery from this time period (Appendix A). The bottle is in perfect condition aside from the small crack under the lip. The bottle has a rich green colored lead glaze that covers the white slip coating beneath it. When a bottle has glazing on the interior, it usually means it was meant to be used for liquids because the glaze seals the interior from having leaks or for the material to absorb the liquid. This bottle was not glazed on the interior. According to J. Garrison Stradling, the appraiser of the bottle in 2004 from The Stradlings Antiquarian in NY, NY, this bottle is the smallest example many people have ever seen. At the time of original purchase, the fish bottle is estimated to have cost one shilling and sixpence, which equates to around seven dollars today. Upon appraisal in 2004, the bottle was estimated to cost about $27,000-$30,000 and sold at auction in 2018 for $20,000. The fish is a prominent symbol in the Judeo-Christian tradition that is used to represent those who are followers of God and it represented the goddess of life and protection in Egyptian culture. The fish bottle was popular during this time because it was an example of sophisticated and complex ceramic craft during the early 19th century.
Before the introduction of press-molding pottery, the Moravians who lived in Salem were primarily making redware pottery. In South Carolina, John Bartlom founded the first English type pottery shop in the United States with his foramen, William Ellis. Ellis, after leaving Bartlom, went to the Moravians and taught them how to adapt their pottery from German techniques to English ones. In addition to the English styles of pottery, the Staddfordshire potter William Ellis, brought the press-molding technique to Salem in 1774. Although Ellis is recognized for bringing the press mold figural bottles to Salem, they are relatively universal and no one knows exactly where the technique and design originated. The press mold is a two-part plaster mold that has half of the interior and half of the exterior on each part (see Appendix B). The two were placed together and the impression of the bottle was created. During the early 1800s, these molds were common for making children's toys, such as doll heads that would be attached to cloth bodies. In addition to doll heads, these press-molds were also used to make Native American inspired figurines that were most-likely inspired by contact with these native peoples a long time ago. None of these Native American figurines remain today, yet their record from the Salem Pottery inventory in 1806 lists the bottles for 10 shillings each or $47 dollars at this time. They were the most expensive pottery item from the inventory. These press molds were also used to make other animal-shaped bottles including examples of squirrels, turtles, crayfish, owls, foxes, and more. Some of the molds were created using a real animal to shape the plaster (see Appendix C).
The three prominent potters who worked in the Salem pottery shop during this time period were Gottfried Aust, Rudolph Christ, and John Holland. Gottfried Aust was the first North Carolinian Moravian potter and taught Christ his craft. Rudolph Christ was born in Wurttemberg, Germany in 1750 and moved to Nazareth, Pennsylvania when he was a young child. After moving to Bethabara in 1766, he began working under Aust. Christ was well known for his earthenware pots and vessels. His earthenware vessels carried the thematic central European style. He also created vibrant plates and dishes that were decorated with slip and imitations of English creamware. After Aust passed away in 1788, Christ became the master potter of Salem and developed a very profitable business from his shop. Christ was one of the most influential potters in all of North Carolina before he retired, at the age of 71, and his work is now some of the most collectible of North Carolinian historical pottery. When he retired, his successor, John Fredric Holland, became the third master potter in Salem. Holland was sent to Salem to attend school at the age of five, while his parents were working and living in Bethabara. John F. Holland is often overlooked when compared to his extremely accomplished pottery forbearers Aust and Christ. It is also suspected that Rudolph Christ and his successor, John Holland, led the pottery shop when Lord Rhodans Eastle Fluke, Alethea Fluke Coffin’s father, came in and purchased the fish bottle as a gift for his daughter in 1803.
The Fluke family consisted of Alethea’s mother, Mary Fluke, and her father, Lord Rhodans Eastle Fluke. Alethea Fluke was born on April 16, 1798 in Guilford County, NC (which is now present-day Greensboro). Alethea and her family lived in Guilford County even after Alethea married Vestal Coffin in 1817, both of whom were Quakers.
Moravians and Quakers:
Both the Fluke and the Coffin families were both Quaker and there are records of her attendance in Quaker community meetings nearly every month. Quakers were relatively uncommon in this area of North Carolina because most of the area was Moravian, including Salem and Wachovia. (we have not gone into detail about the Moravians within the story map).
The Moravian Church originates in ancient Bohemia and Moravia (which is now the present-day Czech Republic). The Moravian Church was officially defined as its own entity in 1467, and by 1517, the Church had amassed over 200,000 members. Following brutal persecution after the Thirty Years War’s end in 1648, the most important Bishop of the church, John Amos Comenius, was exiled. Moving forward to the 18th century, where Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf of Saxony is leading the Moravians, he successfully deploys the first missionaries. In 1741, the Moravians were successful in creating a permanent settlement in Pennsylvania named Bethlehem. After they established a few other small settlements in the North East in New York and New Jersey, Bishop Augustus Spangenberg purchased 100,000 acres in North Carolina. The land that was purchased contained Bethabara, Bethania, and Salem. In the present day, this land is Winston-Salem and Old Salem.
The Moravian Church holds the emphasis of a community that is centered in Christ, simplicity in the way they live, and the teachings of Jesus as the most prominent aspects of their religion. Moravians typically prioritize outreach and service to the community and world around them as a primary way of serving. Due to their extensive worldwide history, they consider themselves to be a global sect of Christianity and involve themselves heavily with the Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches. Due to the extensive missionary work that was done in the 18th century, the majority of the members reside in Africa. One of the most interesting dichotomies we see in the history of the Moravians is their constant push for equality and unity. In Salem, there are records of slaves being owned by the Moravians. The community’s first few slaves lived with and were members of the Moravian church. They were even buried in the same cemetery as their white counterparts, named God’s Acre. As they began to acquire more slaves, they began to be slowly separated from the white Moravian community in their own side of Salem.
On the other hand, Quakers are a Christian sub-group that began in England in the 1650s under the formal name of the Religious Society of Friends. Today there are approximately 210,000 Quakers worldwide. The student guide we have created teaches the bare bones of the Quaker religion including that they were abolitionists, prayed in solitude, valued the inner experience of spirituality, and viewed the religious truth as inside everyone was not required to be found by a priest. Additionally, the Quakers do not consider any text to be the “word of God'' and read the Bible as a source of inspiration to guide their lives, along with other books. They do not celebrate Easter or Christmas. Most importantly, the Quakers were abolishionists and during a time where slavery was very common, they were the minority in the South.
The Underground Railroad:
Alethea and Vestal Coffin’s abolishionist views on slavery led them to actively participate in the Underground Railroad while living in the New Garden Area of Guilford County. In 1819, the Coffins began their work on the Underground Railroad and their farm would become one of the primary stops. This was, perhaps, one of the most important parts of the fish bottle’s story. The Underground Railroad was the nation-wide spread of American citizens, both white and African American, who offered to shelter and help escaped slaves from the South move slowly to gain freedom in the North. The Quakers are known for being the first organized group to help with the Underground Railroad. After working for nearly 40 years, the Railroad stopped its operations in 1863 because of the Civil War.
In addition to raising their five young children, Alethea Coffin would counsel, feed, and hide escaped slaves at the Coffin’s farm before sending them to their next destination on their attempted journey from the South to the North. While heading one of the most significant stops on the Underground Railroad, Vestal and his cousin, Levi, organized a school for slaves that was held on Sunday afternoons. With the permission of the slave’s master, Vestal would teach them how to read using the Bible and also worked on teaching them aspects of Christainity. Vestal Coffin served as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad until his death in 1826 and after his death, his sons, Alfred and Addison, carried on his work.
Additionally, Vestal Coffin’s cousin, Levi Coffin, played one of the most important roles in the Underground Railroad. He was born on October 28, 1798 and was also Quaker. He is known as the unofficial “president” of the Underground Railroad. Levi Coffin married Catherine White in Guilford County, NC in 1824. Levi Coffin and his wife, Catherine, relocated to Indiana after getting married and worked on the Underground Railroad there in 1826. Although we typically think about the underground railroad as a direct Southeast to the Northeast route, the Coffin family helped act as a safe haven for slaves on their journeys to escape in Canada. Indiana is located right across from Kentucky, which was a slave state in the South, with only the Ohio River between them. This geographical setup made it an ideal place for slaves to attempt to escape from the South.
The Coffin family assisted in helping over 2,000 slaves reach safety and they did not have a single failed attempt. Their house was named the “Union Station” of the Railroad because of its’ importance. One of the slaves that escaped slavery and stayed with the Coffins on the way was “Eliza.” Eliza’s story is told in the famous Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Levi Coffin and his wife were so successful that there are highway markers in North Carolina in their hometown of Guilford County about his accomplishments (see appendix D). Additionally, Levi Coffin spent the last years of his life writing an autobiography, Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, that was published in 1876. In his autobiography, he describes what it was like to work on the Underground Railroad as, “he roads were always in running order, the connections were good, the conductors active and zealous, and there was no lack of passengers. Seldom a week passed without our receiving passengers by the mysterious road…”
The house that they resided in is now a National Historic Landmark and has been open to the public since 1970. If you follow this link, there are some great pictures of the Coffin house. When looking at the pictures, you will notice a lack of extensive decoration and detailing which was common of Quaker homes. In these pictures, you can see the places that were used to hide the slaves before they would move on to their next location on the railroad. Additionally, this is an interesting article that provides some great pictures of the home and the architectural plans that show where the escaped slaves would be able to hide to show your students.
After Vestal’s death, Alethea Coffin ceased her efforts with the Underground Railroad. While Vestal was still alive, the Coffins purchased a farm in Indiana for $100, after borrowing money from Alethea’s brother-in-law. After his death, Alethea and her fish bottle traveled by covered wagon to Indiana across the Blue Ridge Mountains. She did not stay there long and soon after, came back to North Carolina to act as the New Garden Boarding School (present-day Guilford College) matron in 1849. Alethea continued to act as a civil servant and would take in young homeless boys and shelter them. In 1852, she moved back to Indiana to serve as the Assistant Matron of Earlham College. Although there is no concrete evidence, there is reason to believe that she continued her work on the Underground Railroad during this time period. At the age of 92 in 1889, Alethea Coffin handed her fish bottle down to her grandson, Trenmor Coffin. The note attached reads, “My dear old companion we have been together 86 years I now bid thee a final farewell I give it to my grandson Trenmor Coffin in my 92nd year may it remain as long in his family as it has with me 8th mo 30th 1889 Alethea Coffin.” Shortly after, in 1991, Alethia was laid to rest in the New Garden Friends Meeting cemetery. She was buried in her wedding gown, despite being a widow for 65 years. She had asked this of one of her children before she had passed away. She lays next to her husband.
After Trenmor’s ownership of the bottle, it was passed down through her family until it was discovered in a shed in a box after being backed away in 2004. It was then that the bottle made its’ way to Reno, NV to be appraised and soon purchased at auction by a member of the Old Salem community, Anne P. and Thomas A. Gray Purchase Fund in memory of John Bivins Jr., and now resides where its journey began hundreds of years ago. Despite being stored for years in a shed and almost forgotten about, this fish bottle serves as a reminder of the history of the Coffin family and the incredible work they did during their lives. We hope that learning about the fish bottle and its hidden history has inspired you to appreciate the objects around you and provoke you to take a moment and appreciate their unknown histories even more. Every object has a story just as fascinating as the fish bottle, only it has not been discovered yet.
Working Through the Student AudioVisual StoryMap
The story map that we have created for the students is a first-person story of the fish bottle’s experience throughout its life. The fish bottle travels from the beginning of its life to the end while telling the story of the places, people, and experiences that it witnessed along the way. The story map begins in Reno, Nevada where the bottle was brought to be appraised in 2004. The fish bottle then explains that it has an entire life before this moment that the audience (your students) does not know. The fish first tells the story of his creation in the pottery shop by Rudolph Christ and John Holland. The fish goes on to discuss the other pottery pieces that it saw in the shop and the moment where Alethea Fluke Coffin’s father purchased it. After returning to the home of the young girl, the fish bottle is then discussed what it was like to be in a Quaker family. The Quaker beliefs surrounding slavery are used as a transition to disucss the Underground Railroad from the observational persepctive of the fish bottle. The fish bottle recalls what it was like to watch the escaped slaves come and go from its home with Alethea. After discussing the Underground Railroad, the fish bottle tells of its experience on the covered wagon on the way to Indiana through the blue ridge mountains. After the covered wagon ride, the fish bottle recalls the experiences of coming back to North Carolina with Alethea after her husband’s death. The fish talks about its experience living at the New Garden Boarding School and when Alethea would take in young homeless boys to shelter. After this, the fish explains how it was given to Alethea’s young grandson before she died. The fish bottle recalls being in the box before being rediscovered by the same family years later in 2004.
Within the story map that the students have access to, we have provided them with questions in hopes that it will facilitate discussion for them surrounding the life of the fish bottle and the underground railroad. Our hope is that the extra resources and deeper contextualization that we have provided for you will allow you to better facilitate those discussions and encourage the students to think deeply about Antebellum slavery, Old Salem, and the underground railroad. We want to encourage the students to think about those individuals in slavery and those who were trying to escape and put themselves in their shoes. Can they imagine escaping from their enslavers? What do they think it would have felt like to be an escaped slave attempting to make their way to freedom? Can they imagine holding this fish bottle as a good luck charm, as many slaves did? We hope that the included discussion questions can either assist in your leading of the group discussion or inspire the students to facilitate their own conversations about the fish bottle and it’s journey. We also hope that these questions can begin a more empathy-focused conversation surrounding the teaching and learning of slavery in the South, by inspiring the students to think harder and deeper about what the expeirence would have been like, rather than from an only factual-based historical view.
Object biography by Kennon Later, Lauren Marquardt, and Isabelle Ricke, Fall 2020
“About the Moravian Church in America.” The Moravian Church. Accessed 22 April 2020.
“A Brief History of the Moravian Church.” The Moravian Church. Accessed 22 April 2020.
Alethea Coffin.” Find A Grave. Accessed 21 April 2020. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/18582542.
“All Records for Alethea Coffin.” Ancestry Library. Accessed 21 April 2020.
Bivins, John Jr. The Moravian Potters in North Carolina. (Winston-Salem).
Brown, Joanna. “Tradition and Adaptation in Moravian Press-Molded Earthenware.” Chipstone:
Ceramics in America, (2009). 105-138. “http://www.chipstone.org/article.php/456/Ceramics-in-America-2009/Tradition-and-Adaptation-in-Moravian-Press-Molded-Earthenware.
Brown, Johanna Metzgar. “Christ, Rudolph.” The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Folk Art 23,
Coffin Levi Reminiscences of Levi Coffin. Cincinnati, 1876. Accessed 21 April 2020.
“Fish Bottle.” Old Salem. Accessed on 30 March 2020.
Hahn, Joanna E. “Levi Coffin House.” Accessed 10 April 2020. https://www.waynet.org/levicoffin/.
Note: This source was used to access the sites at the bottom of the page and the information
used from this website has been thoroughly checked with other websites.
Hooke, S. H. “Fish Symbolism.” Folklore, vol. 72, no. 3, 1961, pp. 535–538. JSTOR,
www.jstor.org/stable/1258581. Accessed 5 May 2020.
Hoskins, Mary Katherine. “Coffin, Levi.” NCpedia. Published on 1 January 1979. Accessed 26 March
2020. Originally from Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, University of North Carolina Press. https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/coffin-levi.
“In Essentials, Unity: Understanding the Essential Things.” The Moravian Church. Accessed 22 April
“Levi Coffin: Marker J-46.” NC Markers. Accessed 22 April 2020.
Siebert, Wilbur H. The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom: A Comprehensive History. New
York: Dover Publications, 2006. Accessed by https://www.gutenberg.org/files/49038/49038-h/49038-h.htm#Frontispiece.
Stradling, Garrison J. Interview with Guest. Antique Roadshow. 2004.
“Underground Railroad.” History. Published 29 October 2020. Accessed 21 April 2020.
“Quakers.” BBC. Updated on 3 August 2009. Accessed on 20 March 2020.
Willard, Linda. Alethea Flukes Coffin. Letter. From Jamestown Friends Meeting. Accessed 15 April
“Winter Fair Masters Class History Seminar: John Holland - Salem’s Third Master Potter.” Old Salem.
These resources should serve as supplemental teaching materials for the Underground Railroad and for the Levi and Catherine Coffin house.
We have not gone into great detail about the Underground Railroad in the student story map; however, we have provided a very brief amount of information that we hope will provoke conversation.
The Underground Railroad
Levi Coffin and the Coffin House
The Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad was a network of people who offered shelter and aid to people who escaped enslavement. The primary goal of railroad "conductors" was to help fugitives move North.
Alethea and Vestal Coffin played an important role in this history. In fact, they are seen as the first known conductors, along with Vestal's cousin Levi Coffin.