Saturday, February 11, 2012

Prison Art in the Late 19th Century

Prisons across the United States were reformed in the mid to late 19th century, with activists fighting for the humane treatment of inmates. As a result, many prisons developed new programs to encourage creativity; these programs included training in sewing, knitting, and art and painting. Some prisons chose to encourage inmates to contribute toward the cost of their imprisonment by enacting programs of manual labor. Prisoners worked on state-owned pig and dairy farms, in manufacturing plants, as janitors, and constructing furniture or other household items. Initially, the crafts and pieces created by inmates were sold to the general public. As the pieces had been made free via prison labor, the prisons greatly profited from the sale of goods produced within their factories. Eventually, prison-made goods were used only within the prison itself or other state organizations.

            Auburn Prison in New York is credited with beginning a woodworking program that many other prisons imitated from the middle of the 1830s onward (see the Auburn Prison art blog post here). Inmates were able to utilize water-powered sawmills and tools to create a wide variety of furniture pieces, ranging in sizes from small checkerboard game sets to large tables and chairs. The Southern Illinois Penitentiary (now known as the Menard Correctional Center) in Menard, Illinois, also had a furniture manufactory for inmates to participate in construction activities. Built on the banks of the Mississippi River, it is likely that inmates at the Southern Illinois Penitentiary also used the nearby water source to power the tools and sawmills necessary to complete their furniture tasks. Marquetry and parquetry, also known as ‘male quilting,’ were popular forms of artistic expression for inmates in prisons with woodworking shops. Parquetry is a veneering process in which small pieces of wood or other materials are arranged in geometric designs; marquetry is the same technique, but combined to create figural or natural scenes instead of shapes.

            This hall tree, measuring 80 ½” high, 35 ½” wide and 15” deep was recently sold at Garth’s Auction House in Delaware, Ohio and is now in a private collection. The hall tree was made at the Southern Illinois Penitentiary in the late 19th or early 20th century, and is constructed from walnut with wood and mother-of-pearl parquetry inlay design. The design on the piece is symmetrical, with motifs include starbursts, symbols that resemble compasses, and leafy designs – all rendered masterfully, and geometrically, by a former inmate. While no information exists on whether the piece was initially sold to the general public in southern Illinois or used in a state office setting, the piece is a striking example of beautiful folk art furniture by an often forgotten subset of our population.

by Jessica Mayercin, American folk art course, Cooperstown Graduate Program


  1. Great post. A parallel phenomenon that has received scant research is the artistic production of patients at institutions for the mentally ill in America during the nineteenth century. The collecting of patient works in European hospitals during the second half of the nineteenth century developed into what became known as, first, Art Brut and, now, Outsider Art. The same things was happening in America. In fact, they were even selling the work, just like at the prisons. If anyone has any information on this phenomenon please contact me at:

  2. Thanks for posting this, Paul!

  3. You're very welocome. Thanks for writing it!


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