As February is Black History Month in the United States, our Assistant Curator Ani Lacy has been busy exploring our collection for interesting items and stories to share…
American history is filled with the material culture and creations of Black America. In modern times we often see this reflected in the language we use, many common vernacular phrases like “whew, chile,” and “slay” becoming popular among the internet generation. In our collection of objects, we have another interesting way in which African American culture has impacted the fabric of America, in this post I will talk specifically about the legacy of African Americans in ceramics.
We have in our collection two Face Jugs that may have been made around the mid-19th century by enslaved African American potters. We can only say these pots may have been made by enslaved potters because although they started the tradition of face jugs, American potters from other ethnic heritages picked up the practice and they were made well into the 20th century as far north as Ohio in the Midwest and New York in the Northeast.
They are also commonly known as Grotesque Face Jugs, or in archaeology they are classified as a type of Colonoware called Afro-Carolinian face vessels. African American oral history tells us that these jugs were made to ward off evil spirits, being so ugly that they could scare the devil away. , Later they were used to store items like liquor that you wouldn’t want children to get too curious about.
The examples in our collection have not been precisely dated, but they appear closer in style to mid-18th century pots than to 17th century ones. The vessel pictured here appears to be hand constructed from slabs and has attached features that are indicate the jug is the face of a Black person. The mouth is shown as open with prominent lips and nose and the chin is attached in a very distinctive way that may be a signature style of this maker. The hair is textured and is covered in a brown glaze while the face is covered in white slip and then glazed to give a slight gloss.
As we continue to review our collection, we hope to bring to light more objects that represent the diverse culture and legacy of the United States. Not just in pottery but in highlighting the contribution all Americans have made to our collective history and culture.
Happy Black History Month from the American Museum & Gardens in Bath!
Assistant Curator, American Museum & Gardens