UGLY JUGS American Face Vessels OBJECT NAME: Face VesselsMATERIAL: Alkaline-glazed StonewareMAKER: Attributed to Black Slave PottersLOCATION OF MANUFACTURE: Edgefield District, South CarolinaDATE OF MANUFACTURE: Mid-19th CenturyMARKS: NoneDIMENSIONS: 5" High X 3" WideACQUISITION INFORMATION: From the Estate of Mary Elizabeth Sinnott DESCRIPTION: Two small stoneware jugs modeled in the shape of human faces. The jugs are covered with a mottled, dark green alkaline glaze. Unglazed kaolin is used to form eyes and teeth. HISTORY: This distinctive type of ceramic face vessel first appeared in the American South in the mid-1800s. Jugs such as these are attributed to a small number of Black slaves working as potters in the Edgefield District of South Carolina. None of these skilled potters have been identified by name and their inspiration for making face vessels is unknown. Scholars speculate that the vessels may have had religious or burial significance, or that they reflect the complex responses of people attempting to live and maintain their personal identities under harsh conditions.
Face Vessels, Stoneware, United States, 19th and 20th century, Makers unknown. From the Eleanor and Mabel Van Alstyne Collection of American Folk Art
Some of the most interesting and sought after vessels are those by Dave Pottery – a literate slave trained to set type for Dr. Abner Landrum's Pottersville newspaper. Dave commonly signed and dated his ware, and less often wrote simple verses on his sometimes massive twenty and thirty gallon jars and jugs. Some speak of food, religion, shoes, lions, volcanoes, and money.
Also of African origin are pots termed "face vessels" – usually jugs but sometimes cups, crocks or pitchers with a face molded into the object using white kaolin clay for eyes and teeth. These small objects are powerful expressions reminiscent of African sculpture.
Depicting a face or human figure on jugs and jars is neither new nor rare. For centuries, anthropomorphic pottery has been made in England, Germany, Peru, Japan, Africa, Egypt and Mexico. Their uses have ranged from ritualistic and funerary to honoring nobility. In the United States, face jugs and vessels were made in the North beginning around 1810. However, the southern United States has been the world's most prolific region for face vessels.
The purpose of the earliest Southern jugs, aside from their utilitarian use of holding liquid, remains a mystery. Whether the pieces were intended as representations of actual people or not does not diminish the artistry and beautifully sculpted and often abstract features that bind Southern face jugs as a folk art or their popularity among collectors.
Between 1810 and 1865, an abundance of functional pottery was produced in the remote Edgefield Potteries in South Carolina and sold to neighboring counties and states. Edgefield Potteries was worked in part by artisan slaves who turned the pots, pushed the wheels, carried the pottery and loaded the kilns. In their free time, some of the artisans made pottery of their own choice.
Many of them chose to make jugs and pots now known as Face Vessels. These were often stoneware jugs modeled in the shape of human faces. They were most often alkaline glazed stoneware in simple, earthy tones. Though there are many gaps in historical data regarding the making, use and meaning of the face vessel pottery, there is no doubt that the vessels were original, functional artistic expressions of the African slave culture of the time.
This all adds to the mystery of possible deeper meaning of the Face Vessels in the slave culture. Few of the skilled potters who made Face Vessels have been identified by name and their inspiration for making face vessels is really unknown. Researchers speculate that the vessels may have had religious or burial significance, or that they reflect the complex responses of people attempting to live and maintain their personal identities under cruel and often difficult conditions.
Face Vessels have been found along the routes of the Underground Railroad and on gravesites, both indicating how highly they were valued and how closely connected they were with the enslaved African American’s own culture.
Sources • http://www.chipstone.net/SpecialProjects/Toussaint/20toussaint.html • http://www.jonespottery.com/face-jugs/ • http://www.princetonol.com/groups/iad/lessons/middle/robin-face.htm • http://www.smithsonianlegacies.si.edu/objectdescription.cfm?ID=209