Thursday, December 10, 2009

"Millions In It!"

Folk art often has its roots in the popular culture of its time, and as often as not the folk artist surpasses his or her source material in aesthetic power. Such is the case with the Fenimore Art Museum's unforgettable shop figure “Colonel Sellers” a sculptural marvel created by an unknown artist sometime after the 1870s.

The character of Colonel Sellers has an interesting history. He was a minor comic character in Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s 1873 novel The Gilded Age. The novel satirized the lust for wealth, primarily from land speculation. Colonel Sellers lived in poverty but with big dreams of striking it rich in patent medicines, corn speculation, or hog farming. He figured if the corn speculation didn’t work out, he could feed the corn to the hogs. It wasn’t hard to figure out that the Colonel was not destined for riches, and yet he was appealing in his undaunted optimism.

It was the play that far outstripped the novel in popularity, largely because of Colonel Sellers. The first theatrical performances had the Colonel in the background as intended, but he was so well played by actor John T. Raymond that Twain and Warner rewrote the play with Sellers as the main character. It was even renamed “Colonel Sellers.”

Raymond played the character of Colonel Sellers onstage more than a thousand times. He posed as the character in a popular cabinet card (above left), and this pose was copied by the artist J.S. Hartley as a statuette. Somewhere along the line, our unidentified shop figure carver saw either the photo or the statuette or an engraving of one of the other. I’m guessing it was the cabinet card, as the carver mimicked the light tan pants and dark coat. He carved a likeness in wood, 58” tall, and identified the character on the base (above right) along with his signature phrase, “Millions in it!”

But it’s the style of our carving that’s so captivating. Sharp, clean lines. A vigorous posture and gesture. This figure definitely would have caught the attention of passersby, especially on the streets of Sellersville, Pennsylvania (about a half hour north of Philadelphia), where it was reportedly found. How could you not buy patent medicines from this man?


  1. We got it from the collection of Jean and Howard Lipman, who noted the Sellersville history when they acquired it in 1940s.


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