Cultures and slavery in the American south: a Face Jug from Edgefield county

A conversation with Sarah Alvarez, Director of School Programs, Art Institute of Chicago, Beth Harris, and Steven Zucker in front of a Face Jug from Edgefield county, South Carolina, c. 1860, stoneware and alkaline glaze, 13.3 cm high (The Art Institute of Chicago 2006.84) A Seeing America video

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[0:00] [music]

Sarah Alvarez: [0:04] We’re in the galleries of the Art Institute of Chicago, looking at a face jug from around 1860 that comes from the Edgefield District of pottery making in South Carolina.

[0:15] Our purpose is to explore different ways of looking at works of art through the lens of our 21st century eyes, but also open up questions about how we understand them from their time of production.

[0:26] As we turn our attention to this, I want us to keep in mind a couple of questions. One, how do we connect with cultures and cultural objects that are maybe less familiar to us? We want to think about what it means for cultures to intersect. What happens when two cultures are introduced to one another? Are things shared? Do you create hybrids? Or is there a rejection or a resistance?

[0:48] Let’s start with a couple of questions that aren’t yet about this object. Tell me a little bit about some of the ways you think about culture.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:56] I suppose I think about culture in two different ways. One is the culture that is mine, that I feel attachment to, the culture that I grew up in, but there’s also the much wider culture in which we live.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [1:09] The jug reminds me of the distance I have from the culture in which this was made.

Sarah: [1:16] There are a number of ways that we can step back from that. One of them is to try as much as possible to simply describe what we see. Then we can begin to pose questions. What are some observations that we can make about what we see?

Dr. Zucker: [1:29] When I first looked at this jug, I saw the face. But as I spent some time looking at it, I saw that the features of the face were actually applied to an expertly made vessel that existed underneath, that showed a high degree of technical skill. And so we do have this amalgam of forms, something that is purely utilitarian, and then emerging above that this human face.

Sarah: [1:53] There is this uniform quality to the basic structure. You see that in the mouth at the top of the vessel. We know that these were thrown on a wheel. That technique would have allowed for that uniformity.

[2:05] Somewhat in contrast to that are these facial features that we know were applied after the jug was cut off the wheel. They reveal the artist’s hand. We see circles at the eye, but they’re not perfect circles. That suggests that they were done by hand.

Dr. Harris: [2:22] I noticed the mouth, the way that it’s open and seems so expressive.

Dr. Zucker: [2:28] Then there’s that brow line that gives the face a kind of pathos.

Sarah: [2:32] The overall surface is dark. Large sections are dark brown or possibly black. There are sections that seem to be underneath that that have a dark green tone to them. Within the eyes, we also see these patches of white that seem to be breaking through, as if some of the surface material on top has worn away over time.

Dr. Zucker: [2:52] There’s some real distinction in textures. Most of the vessel is covered with a clear glaze and is shiny and beautiful, but those eyes are matte and were clearly not glazed.

Sarah: [3:02] Face jugs of this type were produced beginning in the 1850s in a western region of South Carolina referred to as the Edgefield District. There were many pottery production sites in this region, and this was also an area in the 19th century where there were plantations and slave owners, and enslaved Africans worked in these potteries.

[3:24] Some of them were trained to produce the utilitarian stoneware vessels that were popular and made in mass numbers. In the Edgefield District, there was a community of enslaved people, many of whom came from different parts of what was, at the time, the Kingdom of Kongo.

[3:41] In 1858, a ship called the “Wanderer” arrived on the coast of Georgia, bringing over 400 new enslaved people to the region. Almost half were brought to the Edgefield District to work in the potteries. We know that anthropomorphic vessels were produced in many parts of the world, including parts of the United States at this time.

[4:00] But a particular form like that which we see here began to emerge in this time.

Dr. Harris: [4:05] We immediately have the questions, who made this? How long were they in the United States? What culture did they bring with them? What beliefs, what rituals?

Dr. Zucker: [4:16] And how were they transformed under the brutality of the system of slavery?

Sarah: [4:20] If we look at the scholarship, we see shifts in the questions that are being asked. More recently, scholars have emphasized that the community of enslaved people in this area of South Carolina came from many different areas of the Kingdom of Kongo and brought many variations and nuances in their own cultural traditions.

[4:40] Those cultural traditions survived the trauma of being brought across the Atlantic and into this new context, and adapted to new materials, new cultural influences, and began to shape new forms, new ideas.

[4:56] But there are still many questions about what those new shapes and new forms may have meant at the time and even in subsequent generations, as many of these objects were passed down within families and were still felt to be powerful and important.

Dr. Zucker: [5:11] And that’s one of the reasons that art can be such a valuable tool for the study of history. The object itself can be fascinating, but it opens up the world in which it was made and the myriad ways that it’s been interpreted and used through time.

[5:23] [music]

Cite this page as: Sarah Alvarez, Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Cultures and slavery in the American south: a Face Jug from Edgefield county," in Smarthistory, April 11, 2020, accessed July 21, 2024,