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Face Jug

Place Made:
Edgefield County South Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
stoneware –alkaline-glazed
HOA 5-7/8″; WOA 4-5/16″ ear to ear; DIA 1-1/4″
Accession Number:
Among the most recognizable of Southern pottery forms is the Edgefield face vessel. Beginning in the 1850s, these alkaline-glazed stoneware objects were reportedly made by African American potters who worked in the Edgefield District’s vast network of potteries. In contrast to the standard production items of the time—utilitarian jars, jugs, and churns—face vessels are relatively scarce. More than a hundred small face jugs have been recorded, but only ten face cups, an example of which is exhibited at MESDA, are known.

The brown alkaline glaze on this face jug involved a mix of clay and ash or lime that acted as a flux. Alkaline glazing is still used by contemporary potters. Wheel thrown and having a pulled handle, the front side of the jug is flattened where the facial features were applied. The features include ears, pronounced brows, almond shaped eyes with pierced pupils, followed by an exaggerated nose with pierced nostrils. The pronounced rolled lips have individually shaped teeth that have been inserted into place; five teeth on the bottom; five teeth are suppose to be on the top, but only two full teeth remain – portions of two teeth remain, and one is missing completely. The teeth and eyes are unglazed and made of a white, likely kaolin, clay. The neck is squared-off at the top and it has a pulled handle. As with this jar, on the earlier forms the eyes and teeth are made from white kaolin clay and are often left unglazed creating a distinct color difference between the browns and greens of the alkaline glaze and the bright white kaolin clay.

The history of the production and use of these objects is still shrouded in mystery and controversy. They were finely turned on the potter’s wheel and their facial features were hand sculpted and applied. Ceramic scholars have put forth several working theories as to their original purpose. Perhaps the most widely accepted is that these vessels are remnants of African religious or spiritual rituals for the practice of conjuring. Of particular significance is the use of kaolin for the eyes and teeth. This fine white clay is celebrated in many African cultures for its magical qualities. In the late nineteenth century, the face jug became a whimsical addition for many Southern white potters working in Georgia and North and South Carolina, and no longer retained its original meaning.

Mooney, Claudia, April Hynes, and Mark Newell. “African-American Face Vessels: History and Ritual in 19th-Century Edgefield.” CERAMICS IN AMERICA (2013) 2-37.

This face jug has been linked with examples found archaeologically at enslaved pottery sites in Edgefield County, South Carolina. Excavations suggest that these enslaved communities of potters created objects for their own use. These ranged from utilitarian wares to fanciful objects like this face jug.

Mark M. Newell and Peter Lenzo, “Making Faces: Archeological Evidence of African-American Face Jug Production” CERAMICS IN AMERICA, 2006, pp. 122-138.

Credit Line:
MESDA Purchase Fund