Pottery vessels for storing, processing, and handling food and drink were indispensable in American life before the availability of inexpensive glass, metal, and plastic containers. This was especially true for the South, where the mild climate made food preservation even more critical. Most colonial pottery was earthenware, composed of a reddish-brown clay and glazed with lead in the British and German manner. However, by the time the interior of the South was becoming extensively settled in the early 19th century, stoneware-a harder, more durable product made from a purer, higher-firing clay-emerged as the dominant medium for traditional utilitarian ceramics.
Throughout the North and Upper South, stoneware was glazed in the European way by throwing salt in the kiln at the height of firing to form a transparent coating of glass over the gray or tan clay, and it was decorated with cobalt-oxide paint that produced a deep blue color when fired. Salt glazed stoneware was made sporadically in the Deep South, but rarely was it cobalt decorated. Instead it often displayed unintentional surface irregularities (brick drippings, melted fly ash blown from the fuel, puddled salt deposits, and fire-flashing) resulting largely from the regional rectangular kilns.
A second type of stoneware glaze, applied as a solution before firing, was unknown in the North but was widely used-especially in the second and third quarters of the 19th century-from the western Carolinas to east Texas. Using slaked wood ashes or lime to help melt the other ingredients (normally clay and sand), it produced colors in the green or brown range and sometimes a drippy texture. These distinctly regional alkaline glazes may have been developed in Edgefield District, S.C., about the second decade of the 19th century, possibly inspired by a published account of similar glazes in the Far East (the only other part of the world where they are well known). Some Edgefield potters in the 1840s and 1850s decorated their alkaline glazed stoneware with white and dark brown slips (liquid clays), a technique adapted from European earthenware.
A characteristic southern vessel type is the large, two-handled syrup jug, whose prevalence is linked to the importance of molasses as a liquid sweetening in the regional diet. Novelty jugs with stylized or grotesque human faces, although occasionally made elsewhere, are concentrated in the Southeast, where they are still produced by folk potters. Ceramic grave markers, wheel-turned or molded to serve as headstones or planters, although scattered through the Midwest, are more focused in the region bounded by southwestern Pennsylvania and east Texas, where they date mainly from the 1870s through the 1920s.
Certain aspects of the production technology are specific to the South. The most significant is the woodburning rectangular kiln with its arched ceiling, firebox at one end, and chimney at the other. It sometimes was surrounded by earth, giving rise to the term groundhog kiln. Northern kilns, by contrast, were round. Rectangular kilns were used to fire stoneware in Germany and France, and, although rare, a 17th-century example is known for England. The earliest discovered in the South at Yorktown, Va., dates from the 1720s.
The frequency of the place name "Jugtown" testifies to the tendency of southeastern potters to cluster in communities, most of which are located in the Piedmont plateau near suitable clay. Georgia's folk potters (who typically were also farmers) were concentrated in eight centers, the most extensive being Mossy Creek in White County where over 70 have worked. These pottery centers were dominated by key families who shaped localized ceramic styles. The Browns, who trace their ancestry to an English immigrant potter, have been potting in the South for more than eight generations. Individuals not born into pottery families often became potters after marrying into them, and members of different "clay clans" tended to marry one another, thus consolidating the pottery dynasties. With some notable exceptions, access to the craft was limited to white males. This family control and transmission of the craft (as opposed to the formal apprenticeship more common elsewhere) may be tied to the centrality of the kin group, dispersed settlement, and agrarian life characteristic of the region.
Prohibition and the shift away from self-sufficiency lowered demand for folk pottery and led to its decline in the 20th century. Rather than abandon clay work, some traditionally trained potters changed to the production of unglazed flowerpots and other "garden" pottery of colorful artistic and table wares oriented to a more affluent urban market. A fair number of these transitional potters or their offspring continue to make a good living at the trade today. A smaller number of potters, including Georgia's Lanier Meaders, North Carolina's Burlon Craig, Alabama's Norman Smith, and Mississippi's Gerald Stewart, remain faithful to the older tradition, carrying on an essentially 19th-century approach to pottery making. As the last stronghold of American folk pottery, as in other realms of culture, the South can be seen as a region of survivals where old ways die hard.
John A. Burrison
Georgia State University
From ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOUTHERN CULTURE, edited by William Ferris and Charles Reagan Wilson. Copyright 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.