Face Jugs

Its tall, rounded shape was pale gray, and two handles curved away from its narrow spout. On the front was a face – my face, though distorted by the jug’s proportions. My chin jutted out from the surface, as did my nose, my ears, and the sweep of my brow bones. Thick squiggles of clay stood in for hair. My eyes were closed, and my mouth smiled serenely, as if I were keeping a secret.

A Discovery of Witches, Chapter 39


Face Jugs have a long history, dating back to Greek masks, such as the one pictured here with the inscription ‘kavos,’ or beautiful. Arguments vacillate between polygenesis or diffusion as to how the popular type spread. Given their almost universal existence, some form of polygenesis which reflects a human desire to create images of the self is most likely. Sophie’s jug portrait of Diana references the contemporary 20th century trend of face jugs, or face vessels, produced by white artisans in the American South.

Janiform Aryballos
Janiform Aryballos with African and Greek Female Faces, Greece, 520-510BC. Louvre.

The American tradition of face jugs originated in the 18th century with slave-created vessels. The type possibly originated from West African vessel types used for mixing herbs. Throughout the 18th century, African American slaves used the jugs in a range of activities, including nightly prayers and for music, as the jugs could be used for softening the noise of gatherings.

19th Century Face Jugs. National Museum of American History (CE.65.1068).

Some of the most famous American types were made by the Pottersville area and Edgefield (South Carolina) Pottery company. At Pottersville, slaves worked up to twelve hour shifts and could make twenty-five six-gallon vessels each in this time. The Landrum Family was instrumental in creating the Edgefield pottery district, the first of its kind in the South. Edgefield Pottery was known for its distinctive alkaline-based glaze; the glaze was ash-based with borax and potash, used for colouring the vessels. The vessels were predominantly made for export and were found throughout the South.

Importantly, art historians can identify makers through signs such as X and +. The signs reference slave-makers or journeymen employed by the factory, not the Landrums or capacity marks. JW Joseph has argued that the X’s functioned as ‘an old symbol in a new context, one that served as an emblem of their new identities’ and could communicate identity amongst slaves across the US. Moreover, the X contains cosmological significance in ritual contexts in Africa, increasing the likelihood as bearers of meaning and identity for slave-makers.

Unknown, Face Vessel. Mid-1800s. Edgefield, South Carolina. Nation Museum of American History (CE.324314)

The American face jug was revived largely by white potters in the 60s and 70s. However, one of the most important contemporary potters Jim McDowell, known as The Black Potter, recounts on his website his family’s oral history about the jugs. There, he recounts how his great-grandfather (who lived through slavery) told the story of the pots made to memorialise individuals since slaves were not allowed to have tombstones, which traditionally memorialise those buried nearby. McDowell also recounts how his great-great-great-great aunt, a slave potter in Jamaica, connected face jugs to ancestor veneration in Africa. Slaves who were brought to the Americas and forced to work in the pottery factories continued the tradition, making their own vessels to commemorate their ancestors. Combined with traditions of voodoo and Christianity, face jugs became a popular object placed at a person’s tomb; the jugs were designed to be ugly enough to scare away the devil so the person’s soul would go to heaven.


Bibliography & Further Sources:

Jamie M. Arjona. “Jug Factories and Fictions: A Mixed Methods Analysis of African-American Stoneware Traditions in Antebellum South Carolina.” Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology and Heritage 6.3 (2017), 174-195.

John A. Burrison. Global Clay: Themes in World Ceramic Traditions. Indiana University Press, 2017.

JW Joseph. “‘All of Cross’ – African Potters, Marks, and Meanings in the Folk Pottery of the Edgefield District, South Carolina.” Historical Archaeology 45.2 (2011), 134-155.

Theodore C. Landsmark. “Comments on African American Contributions to American Material Life.” Winterthur Portfolio: A Journal of American Material Culture 33.4 (1998), 261-282.



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