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Bottle Whimsies

Bottle whimsy carved by Frederick DouglasThese detailed puzzle bottles preserve the memories of a Kansas folk artist.

Fredrick I. Douglas, born in Wabaunsee County, Kansas, lived his life as a gristmill operator and chauffeur. He also practiced a challenging form of folk art known as "bottle whimsy" or "puzzle bottles," in which he carved pieces of wood to represent memories.  As an untrained artist, Douglas created his art far from the traditional art scene. 

The craft of assembling sculptures in bottles--folk art in a bottle--has been around for hundreds of years.  It was most popular from the mid-19th century well into the 20th.  None of Douglas' descendants knew why he took up this hobby.  He most likely enjoyed the creative challenge because he also made jewelry and musical instruments.  Though not formally trained in the fine arts, Douglas created his simplistic but elaborately detailed sculptures by whittling pieces of wood into various parts of the final sculpture.  Then he assembled the creations inside a bottle using ice tongs, medical tools, and a small snake instrument.  He eventually became confident enough to enter his work in competitions at the Kansas State Fair, where he won awards in 1927.

Bottle whimsy carved in shape of Masonic symbolDouglas took up this craft late in life to preserve his heritage and record memorable occasions.  The topics he carved varied, but all possessed personal meaning.  One bottle is filled with tools symbolizing the plantation life endured by his father (bottom, right).  For Douglas' brothers, who worked for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, he created a pair of train sculptures inside bottles. Douglas' work reflected his own life as well.  He may have been a member of a Masonic Lodge because he honored the group with a bottle sculpture of its iconic symbol (center, left).  Religion is also part of Douglas' oeuvre, including a detailed figure representing Jesus (top, right). 

Bottle whimsy by Frederick DouglasMany of the pieces Douglas created remained with family members for years after his death in 1933.  Nearly 50 years later, the bottles containing sculptures of his father's memories about slavery were displayed in a Kansas Capitol exhibit commemorating the state's settlement by African Americans.  That same year, Douglas' granddaughter, Rhetta Hood, donated these bottle whimsies to the Kansas Museum of History.

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Entry: Bottle Whimsies

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: January 2011

Date Modified: July 2017

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.