The area that now makes up the southeastern United States has long been rich in clay deposits. For centuries prior to incursion by Euro-American settlers, this material was integral to the output of Indigenous peoples, from the Woodland and South Appalachian Mississippian cultures, who produced shell-tempered pottery, to the Catawba Indian Nation, who made pottery to sustain their communities, traditions that remain central today.
The beginnings of the alkaline-glazed stoneware industry can be traced to the Edgefield region in the early nineteenth century, when Abner Landrum happened upon local deposits of “chalk,” or kaolin, along the western border of South Carolina. Within a few years of his find, Landrum requested a sizable loan of two thousand dollars from the state to assist his efforts in building a pottery for the manufacture of Queensware, or porcelain. The timing was fortuitous: reliance on domestic production had recently been renewed, a repercussion of the War of 1812, and the dangers of lead glaze, commonly used on local earthenware, were becoming widely known. Despite the capital, Landrum did not succeed in producing the white-bodied ware he intended; however, by 1816 his experiments led to the development of an alkaline-glazed stoneware. What started as an economic venture—largely subsidized by the government— to develop a local, sustainable product for a rapidly expanding population became a massively profitable enterprise built on slave labor.
Landrum’s kiln and pottery were the first in the country to produce alkaline-glazed stoneware. They eventually became part of the village of Pottersville (also known as Landrumsville), located a little over a mile north of the Edgefield Court House, the center of the Old Edgefield District and the seat of all community activities in the rural county. Recent archaeological excavations have provided unambiguous details about the sophistication and scale of the pottery. Most significant was the size of the kiln: 105 feet in length, more than three times larger than most groundhog kilns then operating in the South. Landrum’s kiln and similar ones built later in Edgefield were most closely related in size and design to the industrial kilns first developed centuries earlier in Asia.
Old Edgefield District (as it was designated from 1785 to 1865) bordered the Savannah River on the west and covered a region that today comprises Aiken, Edgefield, Greenwood, McCormick, and Saluda Counties. At least twelve different pottery sites operated across the district between 1815 and the 1890s, the majority of which were formed by familial relationships, kinship networks, and strategic partnerships. Eighty percent of the owners were related by blood or marriage, and notably the vast majority held other professions within the tight-knit community, such as doctor, publisher, clergy, or planter. Many of the potteries were located on plantations and established as business ventures by entrepreneurs and investors, underscoring the economic alliances that reinforced the upwardly mobile professional class.
The stoneware directly supported the needs of the region’s plantations, which expanded and proliferated as the population grew. By the midnineteenth century, agriculture, and specifically the cultivation of short-staple cotton, was the predominant source of wealth, all controlled by the thriving planter class. For much of the century, the district was second only to Charleston in capital and in property values.
As the unequivocal basis for this wealth, the enslaved population ballooned proportionally. During the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the number of enslaved people in Edgefield expanded nearly threefold, while the white population decreased after its earlier growth in the previous decades; by 1830 African Americans constituted the majority in the district. Africans continued to be forcibly brought to the area throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, and even as late as 1858 on the illegal slave ship Wanderer. Pottery production likewise reached an industrial scale, with the corresponding capital and resources required to sustain it. The manufacture of stoneware relied on slave labor at every level, and it responded to the needs of the area’s expanding population. The utilitarian ware met the specific requirements of preparing and storing large quantities of food, a need unique to the region’s homesteads and plantations.
While the majority of the wares—bowls, churns, pitchers, cups, crocks, jars, jugs— were common, pedestrian forms ubiquitous in southern kitchens, some potters were also producing monumental food-storage jars and watercoolers with capacities of up to forty gallons. Vessels of this size were not made elsewhere, even in the South. The majority of the most sizable jars made by David Drake—the famed enslaved potter and poet—by far the largest objects made in Edgefield, date between 1857 and 1860, the years just preceding the Civil War, tangible proof that enslavement in the region had climbed to its zenith in that period.
Slavery in America has long been understood as agricultural, reinforced by stereotypes of the plantation system, and southern potteries were assumed to be small, self-sustaining enterprises. Industrialization brings to mind large-scale factories and highly mechanized manufacturing. While the overwhelming majority of this country’s enslaved people labored in the cultivation and distribution of cash crops, they were also the backbone of nineteenth-century industrial endeavors, including mining, lumbering, turpentine extraction, transportation, crop processing, metalworking, and stoneware manufacturing. Such was the case in Edgefield, where highly skilled enslaved people were responsible for every aspect of manufacturing large quantities of stoneware for a localized economy. Today, former pottery sites containing hundreds of thousands of fragments—some of which bear partial verses and dates—attest to the massive scale of production, corroborating the industrial nature of the potteries.
The large-scale production of goods required reliable means of distribution and sale, tasks also performed by those working at the potteries. Edgefield was well positioned for distribution to extended markets by wagon roads, waterways, and railways. An announcement in the Edgefield Advertiser from 1840 confirms that stoneware was brought as far east as Charleston and plantations in the Lowcoun- try, distances of up to 150 miles. The proximity of Hamburg, an important commercial center in South Carolina, to Augusta, Georgia, across the river, enabled expansion west and south into the latter state. The Charleston-Hamburg Railroad was one of the first inland railroad systems in the country and the world’s longest railroad when it opened in 1833. Created to support the flourishing cotton industry, it also benefited the nascent stoneware industry in Edgefield by enabling greater and more efficient distribution of its wares.
During the Civil War and following emancipation, many of the potteries closed or were significantly scaled back due to the loss of forced labor and the diminishment of the agrarian plantation economy. While the majority of production tapered off, some factories adapted to making other products, such as bricks, conductors, or wares to support the Confederacy. In some cases, formerly enslaved potters entered into agreements with pottery owners, in effect renting space and employing their skills to support their livelihoods. Others left the area and headed west to establish their own potteries. Most notable is John Chandler, a freedman who moved to Guadalupe County, Texas, and worked at the Durham-Chandler-Wilson pottery. The pottery was one of three operated by the Wilsons, founders of H. Wilson and Company outside San Antonio, Texas, widely recognized as the first African American business in the state.
Although the consumption of Edgefield stoneware fell precipitously by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the vessels remained in use, perhaps out of necessity or practicality. Given their broad application in everyday tasks, it’s probable that the majority of the wares have not survived, a common fate for objects that served a useful life. Despite the durability of alkaline-glazed stoneware, utilitarian crockery would have been susceptible to wear and breakage, and there would have been an abundant supply of replacements. Some objects are likely extant because of their rare decoration, including storage vessels with applied figural designs or with incised dates and verses by David Drake. The largest vessels—some of which weigh over eighty pounds—survived because they were handled and moved far less. The decrease in consumption and production was soon followed by rising interest in collecting the Edgefield stoneware that did survive. The earliest type to be collected both in South Carolina and elsewhere was the face vessel, the intimate, highly sculptural figural form with hand-modeled facial features often made with kaolin. Created at several Edgefield potteries, the face vessels were part of an artistic practice unique to the region that developed adjacent to the larger stoneware industry and reflected spiritual traditions from Africa adapted to a local context. The vessels were not made for utilitarian purposes or sold, but primarily created by and for enslaved potters for use within the community. Their status as ritualistic objects would have precluded them from entering the local economy, and there is scant contemporaneous documentation about their function and use.
It’s possible some face vessels were brought north by enslaved people via the Underground Railroad: a number have early histories that can be traced back to eastern Pennsylvania, a crossroads for many people escaping the South. Freed African Americans later left the Edgefield area in significant numbers during Reconstruction due to the horrific violence toward newly emancipated Black people and could have also carried these objects north with them. A handful also have direct connections to Union and Confederate soldiers, and some may have been exchanged between soldiers and the potters.
In 1882 a face vessel was featured prominently in Aiken-based photographer James A. Palmer’s Aiken and Vicinity series, a collection of stereographs created for middle- and upper-class white consumers. These two startling, racist images depict a young Black boy and a Black girl in similar staged settings, seated at a table with a face vessel holding a sunflower (Fig. 10). The tableau closely mirrors the January 28, 1882, cover of Harper’s Weekly, which featured an offensive caricature of Irish-born aesthete and playwright Oscar Wilde as a monkey, published to coincide with the start of his North American lecture tour. Wilde’s sold-out tour sparked equal parts fascination and ridicule; while some Americans embraced the cultured, flamboyant poet, he was also met with disgust.
Palmer’s stereographic series was printed in multiples and widely distributed, and these two images—the earliest known reproductions of Edgefield face vessels—would have introduced the form to a larger public. It appears they were also roughly contemporaneous with the use of “monkey” as a racist term associated with the face vessels. While “monkey jug” can refer to a vessel with a horizontal stirrup handle between two spouts (one for drinking, the other an airhole), a design for keeping the contents cool, the majority of Edgefield face vessels have a small loop handle and only one spout. The term seems to have been applied only to jugs made by Black potters, rather than all vessels of this design with modeled faces, meaning its associations were racial and therefore derogatory.
By the late nineteenth century, many face vessels had already been removed from their original context and entered the holdings of white collectors. They may have been purchased by visitors to Aiken, a county established in 1871 during Reconstruction that was previously part of the Old Edgefield District. Many affluent northerners wintered in Aiken, and there was at least one shop in the area that sold “Monkey head jugs.” Easily transportable and aesthetically distinctive, the objects may have served as a memento or curio. A number of museums acquired Edgefield face vessels during the first quarter of the twentieth century, most through donations by collectors, a remarkable trajectory for objects made for private use by enslaved people only two generations earlier.
The first stoneware objects from Edgefield’s potteries to enter a public collection were two face vessels given to the Charleston Museum in 1902 by Benjamin Hammett Teague, a dentist, collector, and Civil War veteran from Aiken; he would donate another to the institution in 1920 (Figs. 8a, 8b). Perhaps one of the earliest collectors of Edgefield face vessels, Teague had in “about 1880 half a dozen ‘monkey’ jars made by negroes at the Miles’ pottery.” The earliest documented acquisitions of face vessels outside South Carolina were in the Northeast, more specifically the greater mid-Atlantic re- gion: 1904 and 1917, Philadelphia Museum of Art; 1922, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 1922, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; and 1937, New-York Historical Society, all objects with earlier histories in private collections. Others have descended—and still remain—in personal collections. The fact that at least a dozen examples had entered prominent collections by the 1930s attests to their magnetism and mobility. Of all the stoneware produced in Edgefield, the face vessels remain the least documented and understood, although there are several efforts underway to catalogue the almost two hundred extant examples (Fig. 7), a crucial step toward building a body of knowledge on these objects.
This article is excerpted and adapted from Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina—edited by Adrienne Spinozzi, and with essays by Spinozzi, Vincent Brown, Michael J. Bramwell, Ethan W. Lasser, and Jason R. Young—the catalogue to an exhibition of the same title, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from September 9 to February 5, 2023. All notes and references for this article can be found in the catalogue, published by the Met and distributed by Yale University Press.
ADRIENNE SPINOZZI is associate curator in the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is the co-curator of Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina with ETHAN W. LASSER, John Moors Cabot Chair of the Art of the Americas Department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and JASON R. YOUNG, associate professor of history at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.