The parlor of Quarry Farm has a fireplace decorated with antique ceramic tiles based on Aesop’s Fables. The tile framed fireplace is a striking feature of the house that is often commented on by visitors.
Much as he did with the bric-a-brac atop the mantel at their home in Hartford, Samuel Clemens would weave a tale for his daughters each night, inspired by the scenes on the tiles they chose. The girls would complain when a story was recycled or not up to their father’s usual standard. Although she had no children of her own, Susan Crane is also said to have used the tiles as storytelling prompts for the many visiting families she and her husband entertained.
Select a tile below to find out more about the fable it depicts. [The text for each story was taken from sources in the public domain.]
An old man was carrying a load of wood on his shoulders. After a while he was feeling faint, so he sat down by the side of the road. Putting aside his burden, he bitterly called out to Death, summoning Death with the words ‘O Death!’ Death immediately showed up and said to the man, ‘Why have you summoned me?’ The man said, ‘Oh, just to have you help me pick this burden up off the ground!’ The fable shows that everyone clings to life, even if they suffer from affliction and oppression.
A bear that had found his way into a garden where bees were kept began to turn over the hives and devour the honey. The bees settled in swarms about his head, and stung his eyes and nose so much, that, maddened with pain, he tore the skin from his head with his own claws. The weakest united may be strong to avenge.
A wolf once saw a lamb who had wandered away from the flock. He did not want to rush upon the lamb and seize him violently. Instead, he sought a reasonable complaint to justify his hatred. ‘You insulted me last year, when you were small’ said the wolf. The lamb replied, ‘How could I have insulted you last year? I’m not even a year old.’ The wolf continued, ‘Well, are you not cropping the grass of this field which belongs to me?’ The lamb said, ‘No, I haven’t eaten any grass; I have not even begun to graze.’ Finally the wolf exclaimed, ‘But didn’t you drink from the fountain which I drink from?’ The lamb answered, ‘It is my mother’s breast that gives me my drink.’ The wolf then seized the lamb and as he chewed he said, ‘You are not going to make this wolf go without his dinner, even if you are able to easily refute every one of my charges!’
The wild boar was standing beside a tree, sharpening his tusks. The fox asked him why he was sharpening his tusks now, when there was no immediate need for him to do so. The wild boar replied, ‘I have my reasons! This way, when danger threatens, I won’t have to take time to whet my tusks but will instead have them ready for use.’ The fable shows that we need to prepare ourselves before danger strikes.
A miller and his son were driving their donkey to a neighboring fair to sell him. They had not gone far when they met with a troop of women collected round a well, talking and laughing. “Look there,” cried one of them, “did you ever see such fellows, to be trudging along the road on foot when they might ride?’ The old man hearing this, quickly made his son mount the donkey, and continued to walk along merrily by his side. Presently they came up to a group of old men in earnest debate. “There,” said one of them, “it proves what I was a-saying. What respect is shown to old age in these days? Do you see that idle lad riding while his old father has to walk? Get down, you young scapegrace, and let the old man rest his weary limbs.” Upon this the old man made his son dismount, and got up himself. In this manner they had not proceeded far when they met a company of women and children: “Why, you lazy old fellow,” cried several tongues at once, “how can you ride upon the beast, while that poor little lad there can hardly keep pace by the side of you?’ The good-natured miller immediately took up his son behind him. They had now almost reached the town. “Pray, honest friend,” said a citizen, “is that donkey your own?’ “Yes,” replied the old man. “O, one would not have thought so,” said the other, “by the way you load him. Why, you two fellows are better able to carry the poor beast than he you.” “Anything to please you,” said the old man; “we can but try.” So, alighting with his son, they tied the legs of the donkey together and with the help of a pole endeavored to carry him on their shoulders over a bridge near the entrance to the town. This entertaining sight brought the people in crowds to laugh at it, till the donkey, not liking the noise nor the strange handling that he was subject to, broke the cords that bound him and, tumbling off the pole, fell into the river. Upon this, the old man, vexed and ashamed, made the best of his way home again, convinced that by endeavoring to please everybody he had pleased nobody, and lost his donkey in the bargain.
Once upon a time, when the Sun announced his intention to take a wife, the frogs lifted up their voices in clamor to the sky. Jupiter, disturbed by the noise of their croaking, inquired the cause of their complaint. One of them said, “The Sun, now while he is single, parches up the marsh, and compels us to die miserably in our arid homes. What will be our future condition if he should beget other suns?”
There were two frogs whose pond had dried up, so they went looking for a new place to live. When they came to a well, one of them thought that they should jump in immediately, but the other one said, ‘Wait: what if the water were to dry up here too; how would we be able to get back out again?’ The story teaches us not to approach a situation without thinking about it carefully first.
A dog seized some meat from the butcher shop and ran away with it until he came to a river. When the dog was crossing the river, he saw the reflection of the meat in the water, and it seemed much larger than the meat he was carrying. He dropped his own piece of meat in order to try to snatch at the reflection. When the reflection disappeared, the dog went to grab the meat he had dropped but he was not able to find it anywhere, since a passing raven had immediately snatched the meat and gobbled it up. The dog lamented his sorry condition and said, ‘Woe is me! I foolishly abandoned what I had in order to grab at a phantom, and thus I ended up losing both that phantom and what I had to begin with.’ This fable is about greedy people who grasp at more than they need.
The story shown on this tile has not been satisfactorily identified. It may depict the story of The Fox and the Stork (Perry Index 426); it may also depict Silas Weir Mitchell’s “The Wolf that wanted a Doctor,” which is not one of Aesop’s Fables.
A mouse asked a frog to help her get across the river. The frog tied the mouse’s front leg to her own back leg using a piece of string and they swam out to the middle of the stream. The frog then turned traitor and plunged down into the water, dragging the mouse along with her. The mouse’s dead body floated up to the surface and was drifting along when a kite flew by and noticed something he could snatch. When he grabbed the mouse he also carried off her friend the frog. Thus the treacherous frog who had betrayed the mouse’s life was likewise killed and eaten. For people who do harm to others and destroy themselves in the bargain.
A wolf swallowed a bone which got stuck in his throat. The pain was excruciating, so the wolf started looking for someone who could be induced to remove the accursed thing in exchange for a reward. The wolf asked each of the animals if they would help him and finally the crane was convinced by the wolf’s solemn promises. Trusting her long beak to the wolf’s gaping maw, the crane carried out the dangerous cure. Yet when the crane demanded the promised reward, the wolf simply said, ‘You ungrateful creature! You extracted your head unharmed from my mouth and still you ask for a reward?’ If you think a scoundrel will reward you for a job well done, you are making two mistakes: first, you are helping someone who doesn’t deserve it, and second, you will be lucky to escape unharmed.
A sow and a dog were arguing about their litters. The dog said that she had the easiest delivery of all the four-footed animals but the sow responded, ‘Be that as it may, the puppies you give birth to are blind!’ The fable shows that an enterprise is not to be judged in terms of its speed but its outcome.
This series of tiles was produced between 1875 and 1900 by Minton, Hollins, & Company, a Victorian ceramic company based in Stoke-upon-Trent, Staffordshire, England. There were twelve different tile designs in this series; the Quarry Farm fireplace has two of each tile, for a total of twenty-four in all.