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Face Mug

Place Made:
Edgefield County South Carolina United States of America
Date Made:
stoneware –alkaline-glazed
HOA: 4 1/4″; WOA: 5 1/4″
Accession Number:
Initially made by slaves and later by free African-Americans, South Carolina’s early Edgefield district face vessels are wheel-thrown from stoneware clay and fired with alkaline glazes that range in color from sandy brown to olive green. The most distinctive feature of these objects is their highly expressive, applied faces, which typically include wide-open eyes; mouths with bared teeth; and idiosyncratic ears, noses, and eyebrows.The vessels likely served a ritualistic purpose in the African-American communities of the South.

This stoneware mug with a light green alkaline glaze has a flaring, short rim. Alkaline glaze is a mix of clay and ash or lime that acted as a flux.The strap handle was made by pulling or extruding a strip of clay, placing one end of the strip against the vessel, then looping it out to make the handle shape. The mug has large, protruding, uneven ears applied to the sides of the cup, and a nose, eyes, and mouth applied opposite the handle. The eyes and teeth are of a whiter clay.

As with this mug, on the earlier forms the eyes and teeth were made from white kaolin clay, and were often left unglazed, creating a distinct color difference between the browns and greens of the alkaline glaze and the bright white of the kaolin clay.

MAKER: 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 included here, are known.

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

Credit Line:
The William C. and Susan S. Mariner Collection