The history of the South’s unique style of folk pottery

Primarily concentrated in Georgia and the Carolinas, face jugs are a distinctive type of ceramics dating back to the mid-1800s
Ceramic face jug by Jim McDowell

Photography by Iain Bagwell

Emblazoned with features both grotesque and enigmatic, face jugs are a style of folk pottery primarily concentrated in Georgia and the Carolinas. Though these vessels have ties to many cultures, past and present, the tradition of face jugs in the American South traces back to Edgefield, South Carolina, where a labor force of enslaved Africans and the area’s clay-rich soils helped to form the town’s booming alkaline-glazed stoneware industry. The “ugly” art mirrored the ugly reality; scholars theorize that enslaved Africans made these vessels to cope with—and protest—their dire circumstances. White potters later appropriated the form, selling face jugs as tourist trinkets after the emergence of mass-produced pottery in the late 19th century.

• While no one knows exactly why face jugs were made, historians surmise they were a synthesis of several religious beliefs from regions that Africans passed through along the Middle Passage: ancestor worship from West Africa, Vodou from the Caribbean, and Christianity from the Americas.

• Beyond their practical use as vessels for storing water and food, face jugs are also believed to have served sacred purposes, including acting as grave markers and warding off evil spirits.

• Face jugs are crafted from red clay and often embellished with wide eyes and jagged teeth made from kaolin, a white clay native to both the American South and West Africa, where similar ceremonial objects can still be found.

Jim McDowell, known professionally as “the Black Potter,” continues his family’s artistic legacy at his studio in Weaverville, North Carolina. He often writes short phrases on his creations as an homage to David Drake (aka Dave the Potter), a literate, enslaved potter from Edgefield who initialed, dated, and sometimes wrote short poems on his jugs.

• Plan a trip to Sautee Nacoochee’s Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia to view ceramics from more than 200 Southern folk artists, including Georgia potter Lanier Meaders. From there, wind your way down the Folk Potters Trail of Northeast Georgia, which highlights the shops and studios of 15 folk artisans.

• Fifty regional face jugs, including 12 pieces by David Drake, will be on display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta from February to May 2024 as part of the exhibition Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina.


This article appears in the Fall 2023 issue of Southbound