Pottery played a large role in earlier days. Food was prepared, served and stored in pottery. Large vessels held meat to be cured, grains, molasses and other goods. Butter churns and various service pieces were in demand.
In Edgefield and Aiken counties of South Carolina there was a prolific production of pottery. Pieces from those counties are collectively known as Edgefield Pottery. A unique green-brown alkaline glaze was developed using timber ash and lime. Salt glazes were expensive and an early understanding of the dangers of lead prompted potter Dr. Abner Landrum to begin experimenting as early as 1820 with this glaze modeled after ancient Chinese glazes. is success lead to other potteries being established in the area.
Prior to the Civil War almost all of the labor was provided by slaves. There became what could be considered pottery plantations. An indication of just how much pottery was produced in this area comes from 1860 census figures. The records for Edgefield County show that there were 138 slave holders and the total number of slaves owned were 24,060. This is an astonishing number and was the 4th highest in South Carolina and the 6th highest in the nation.
The African influence on design and shape can be seen in many pieces.
One slave in particular, Dave, is well known for possibly making up to 40,000 pieces while being owned by several potters. He is known as “Dave the Potter” and also Dave Drake. It is believed that Dave took his surname after emancipation from one of his early owners, Harry Drake, a potter. Harry Drake was a religious man that allowed his slaves to read and write. While reading was not against the law in South Carolina writing was.
When Drake died in 1832, Dave, now about 32 years old, became the property of Dr. Landrum, the glaze developer. Dr. Landrum’s land had about 15 slave families and at one time was known as Landrumsville and eventually Pottersville. Dr. Landrum also had a newspaper for which Dave may have been a typesetter due to his literacy.
His ability to write and the fact that he wrote on some of his pieces have made his work very desirable. It must have taken a lot of courage for a slave to reveal that he could write on items that were sold to the public. And it is interesting that he was allowed to do so by his owner. The Charleston Museum began collecting his vessels as early as 1919 and auction figures have reached into the 100s of thousands of dollars.
Following are some of the verses that he inscribed:
“a pretty little Girl, on a virge
Volcaic mountain, how they burge”
“I wonder where is all my relations
Friendship to all and every nation”
“the forth of July is surely come
to blow the fife and beat the drum”
Dave is believed to have been a large and strong man who could handle up to 50 pounds of clay and created containers that could hold up to 40 gallons. These were made in several pieces and assembled. Even with assistance it would have been a difficult undertaking.
Another owner of note included Lewis Miles, again another potter. After the War the Lewis Miles Pottery continued. He had commercial kilns but allowed his workers to have a kiln for personal use.
It is in this and other personal kilns and on personal time that slaves and slave descendants are believed to have made “face jugs”. An interesting episode of PBS’s “History Detectives” examines one of these jugs and experts speculate that they may have been used as grave markers or filled with contents and left on graves for spiritual purposes. They have also been found buried at front or back doors suggesting a superstitious use.
The history of face jugs was taught at my daughter’s middle school where she made one in art class.
A trip to The Charleston Museum is always a pleasure to view their vast collections but this last time I focused on their Edgefield Pottery exhibit. Some of their “Dave pieces” were on display and some general Edgefield artifacts.
These table coasters caught my eye.
What a clever idea!
Today if you visit Edgefield you can stop in to the Old Edgefield Pottery or the Terry Ferrell Museum to learn more. Take home a modern day piece and start your own collection of Edgefield Pottery!