My dad made one in art school and sure enough I was scared of it
November 14, 2010 3:19 PM   Subscribe

Face jugs are a widely recognized indigenous Southern American style of folk pottery. (Although of course ceramics have been decorated with faces for nearly as long as people have made jugs vaguely in the same shape as heads.) American face jugs are said to have been made deliberately frightening so that they would keep little children away, allowing parents to keep the corn liquor safe in the jug, but there may have been other reasons. The tradition dates at least from the 19th century, and appears to have originated in the work of enslaved African-American potters.

Via the world's ugliest jug, because I had to find out why in God's name such a thing was made.
posted by Countess Elena (20 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Nice. I just saw a piece on this on PBS' History Detectives.
posted by hanoixan at 3:27 PM on November 14, 2010

History Detectives did an episode on a face jug recently. (link includes a "watch this episode" link on the page.)
posted by hippybear at 3:28 PM on November 14, 2010

If when you say "world's ugliest jug," you mean "world's most awesome jug," then I completely agree.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 3:31 PM on November 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Great post! I have relatives in South Carolina, and used to spend summers there as a child. I'd seen these jugs here and there, over the years, but never really knew anything about them. Thanks, Countess Elena!

Oh, and don't you wonder if any of the old jug bands ever featured a face jug? That would've been way cool.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:32 PM on November 14, 2010

Toby Jugs (which is what I thought your link was about actually :)
posted by The Lady is a designer at 3:35 PM on November 14, 2010

From your next-to-last link:

"When I started making face jugs about 15 years ago I heard about Slave Potter Dave from Edgefield,South Carolina, who could read and write and I was drawn to his story. Dave was owned by publishers of a newspaper. In the face of adversity and under the risk of severe punishment, this slave potter created jugs with rebellious sayings on them. Although there are no accounts that he ever made face jugs, I wanted to honor this courageous man and keep the tradition and spirit of Slave Potter Dave alive by writing messages on my jugs as Dave had done."

Is it possible that we haven't had a Dave post? If not, thank you for calling attention to him and his work. Thanks for this post, Countess!
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:42 PM on November 14, 2010

On Etsy.
posted by cjorgensen at 4:01 PM on November 14, 2010

Carolina boy here (North, but just). Several generations on each side (yes, my ancestors were slaveholders).

My paternal grandmother had a collection of these jugs (some crafted by her own 'man' -- yes, she paid him), and used them to store everything from hooch to her own elderberry wine to sweet tea.

As children, we were indeed warned to stay away from the 'big jugs' because they were heavy and we might drop them or spill the contents, but I don't remember ever being encouraged to be 'afraid' of them. On the contrary, I was always fascinated by them. After all, this was the same woman who served us kids our Christmas eggnog in Santa Claus mugs much like these.

Thanks for the post!
posted by trip and a half at 5:12 PM on November 14, 2010

Hey! An uncle was interviewed for that History Detectives episode, and I was disappointed that they didn't use it for the show--but it turns out they posted it on the show's website, and I never would've thought to look there if not for this thread! Thanks guys!
posted by mittens at 5:22 PM on November 14, 2010

One of these turned up on the Antiques Roadshow a few years back. Pretty memorable, because the thing looked like...well...junk.
posted by stargell at 5:27 PM on November 14, 2010

Oh, and for those interested in 'outsider art' in the Carolinas, the film Junebug is a must-see. A wonderfully-crafted little gem that simply rings authenticity, about both southern folk art and contemporary life in the small town South.
posted by trip and a half at 5:35 PM on November 14, 2010

I'll be -- I didn't realize there was just a show on PBS about this. Glad it's timely! I was seriously just fascinated by that particular jug. I laughed until it literally hurt -- which is how I found out I was getting laryngitis, but there's worse things -- at the idea of actually selecting, purchasing and giving that jug. The comments alerted me to the fact that it was folk art, and so I had to go and find out more. Love Southern outsider art.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:37 PM on November 14, 2010

Clayton Bailey's ceramic wonders include some face jugs and other fun stuff.
posted by hortense at 11:01 PM on November 14, 2010

For more of those old-school (approximately 1000 years old) face jugs, google Moche portrait vessel! I've been fascinated by the Moche civilization for years now — they made some of the most beautiful pottery and jewelry I've seen. I like ugly face jugs too though.
posted by dreamyshade at 12:00 AM on November 15, 2010

I think I have a Toby Jug from my parents house. It's just the head with a handle on the side (man, that sounds weird). I always thought of it as something we kept forgetting to put out for the garage sale. Now I know.

Interesting post - thanks.
posted by sundrop at 6:34 AM on November 15, 2010

Ahh face jugs, a topic near and dear to my own heart. I had most of a thesis written on this stuff before I got tired of grad school and shoved it, but I can expound for hours on cultural memory, the link between voudon and traditional African medicine and other topics no one cares about. However, I won't today, so here's my short list of face jug artists you should check out:

Burlon Craig: he's given much credit for being the last living link between the past of folk pottery and it's renewed interest, and he deserves it all. also taught Walter Fleming, whose left-hand swirl is one of the best today.
Lanier Meaders: When he decided to pick up where his father left off in the 60's he became the prince to Burlon's king. Arguably he was the more able artist. His faces are weird, varied and individual.
The Brown clan (Javan, Davis, Charlie, Jerry and a passel of cousins and uncles): A dynasty in its on right. They worked with everyone who was anyone and Charlie's still throwing in Arden, NC and Jerry in Alabama.
Sid Luck: taught high school chemistry until he decided to pick up the family business and be a potter, his face jugs are nice, but his apprentices are all over Seagrove. Super nice fella too.
Billy Henson: Maybe the last of the true self-taught folk artists. Made his own studio after reading Foxfire 8 and made amazing work. Sadly gone, but his neighbors the Greens still make some neat stuff.
The Hewitt clan in N. Georgia: Amazing sculptures and face jugs. Every time I see them at Hickory, NC for the festival they've got some new huge item that I just have to stand back and soak in for a while. They don't make the traditional style face jugs much anymore, but their sculptures are amazing and have influences younger artists like Marvin Bailey.
Michele Baines: Normally I'm not a fan of the Ferrell Edgefield school because their work is all too derivative, but Michele has an artists bent and twists historical devices back on themselves to create some really interesting pots. also the man's a kiln building machine and I respect his use of science.
Peter Lenzo: Dear god, he's a madman genius and I'm not just saying that because he's my dear friend. He has advanced the art side of face jugs more than anyone else in the past 20 years. If his jugs don't scare you into thinking, you've got no brain left.

Credit due to Randy Mack, my mentor and advisor whose work on Southeastern folk pottery got me interested in this stuff, and to Paul Matheny at the SC State Museum for letting me play with some neat pots in the archives. There's also this weird Ben Truesomethingorother guy who makes pots, but the less said about him, the better...
posted by 1f2frfbf at 6:39 AM on November 15, 2010 [6 favorites]

My mother-in-law, who moved to NC from Cleveland when she and my FIL retired, makes these things. They are creepy good fun. I wish I had some pix to share, but alas, no.
posted by Mental Wimp at 8:14 AM on November 15, 2010

When I started making face jugs about 15 years ago I heard about Slave Potter Dave from Edgefield, South Carolina, who could read and write and I was drawn to his story.

I first became aware of Dave the Slave when one of his jugs was featured on Antiques Roadshow. I'd link to the site dedicated to & named after him but Google tells me it's a bad place to go because of malware hosted there. Weird.
posted by scalefree at 9:57 AM on November 15, 2010

hippybear: I just watched your link and lo, I helped work with that jug a few years ago. It's got an interesting tale and it is very important in a number of academic and social ways. Everyone should watch it (even if it doesn't mention me).

This seems as good time as any to mention the typical "white" explanations for face jugs (ie. anything involving liquor, or as an old time "Mr. Yuk") are pretty suspect. Think about how many places you see warning labels versus how many early face jugs there are. If it was a common and well-known symbol for "adults only!," they'd be all over the place. The tale that it was a grave decoration is probably much closer to the truth. In traditional West African medicine, one not only would take the tincture from the bowl, one would pass the ill onto the bowl and destroy the vessel. The relative rarity of face jugs seems to support some type of ceremonial use. It was common in slave cemeteries for the grave to be covered with items owned by the deceased and broken to keep the spirit at bay. Given the rarity of intact face vessels one could draw the conclusion that they were used similarly. The face jug presented in the History Detectives link is relatively intact, and was found in a slave settlement which turned out to have had its own kiln for the production of pottery and many shards of very very simliar jugs were found there. It seems it was produced for the slaves, well away from the eyes of their masters and very few records of the day mention face vessels at all, suggesting they were items kept hidden away from white eyes. This particular jug was probably wasted after the eye surround popped off and never used for its intended purpose. It was found years later when the field was plowed for crops and totally separated from it's original purpose and environment. Now, this one jug doesn't settle any particular arguments, but it certainly gives credence to several, and I'm not suggesting the "Mr. Yuk" theory (as I call it) is implausible, but there's a lot of mystery and cross-culture pollination to these little chunks of stoneware and kaolin and it's all quite interesting. I can suggest several books on the matter, but my favorite is John Vlatch's African American Tradition Folk Arts, which contains many great photos and posits a theory of "cultural memory" that is quite out there, and the 2006 issue of Ceramics in America that dealt with the hows and whys of producing a jug markedly similar to this one.

flapjax: I know of at least one modern band that did, since I supplied said jug personally.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 12:45 PM on November 15, 2010

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