The Picture

IMG_0258I have a picture of me holding a jar from a few years ago. I use this as a profile picture on this blog and a few other places. The significance of the picture is not me, it is the jar.  I “picked” this piece from a family in central Georgia. Picked is in quotes because I didn’t buy it from them as a picker might have done. I simply helped arrange for them to put it in an auction. I knew it was very valuable.

This family did not know what the jar was. They called it their “Davey Crocket” jar because it had “Dave” written on its side. Crocket? Crockery? Davey? Dave?

An elderly couple owned it. It was a son or grandson who contacted me. When that couple were children, the jar was given to their family by a man whom the family had taken in. The jar, not thought to be worth much, was all this homeless man had to pay them for their generosity. The jar became a curiosity.

I sometimes get calls or emails from people who think they may have something after watching an episode of Antique Roadshow or its like. Usually, it’s no, or it’s just junk, or it’s not nearly worth what you think it’s worth. When I was first contacted about the Davey Crocket jar I was my usual unimpressed. I just asked them to send me a picture. When I saw the picture that changed.
jug1 copyThis was a jar signed and dated by Dave. I haven’t talked about Dave here yet, but I will at some point. For now know that Dave was a slave potter in Edgefield, South Carolina. Anyway, there are only a few signed Dave’s known to exist.  These pieces, based on, aesthetics, condition, and signature variations, can bring as much or more than $40,000. But this Dave–This Dave was also decorated like a Collin Rhodes piece. At some point I’ll talk about decorations and Rhodes, et al. Just know for now that decorated stoneware is a distinct variety of valuable stoneware from Edgefield. The decoration is the slip motif or swags around the jar’s shoulders thought to have been applied by slave women.

It is the only one of its kind as far as I know, though I don’t know everything. The various decorated jars are the same time period as Dave, but not thought to made by Dave. A decorated AND signed and dated Dave? Wow. Historically it’s proof that Dave was involved in a different category of Southern pottery that no one was a ware of.

One of a kind items like this are hard to gauge the value of, because of their unique oneness. No other pieces like them that have been sold. This jar went to an auction and sold for a lot of money, but much lower than I anticipated.

The family asked me what I wanted for driving all the way down and telling them about their Dave. I said take a picture of me holding the jar. That was all I wanted. (In complete disclosure, I did get a percentage of the auctioneer’s normal fees later.) It makes me smile to think about this, because for almost 175 years that jar had probably been treated no better than a mop bucket. Now I wanted to hold their fragile lottery ticket for a picture. Were they a little afraid I might drop it?




What is Glaze?

What is glaze? Glaze is what keeps the dirt waterproof. It melts at a slightly lower temperature than the clay and seals the vessel so it doesn’t leak. There are all kinds of glazes, but Southern pottery is primarily and almost exclusively the only alkaline-glazed pottery from the 19th and 20th centuries. This made Southern pottery very distinctive from the rest of the country and much of the world. Not only did the South give us jazz, blues, slow accents, and great literature. It gave us green pots. You may or may not have thought about Southern pottery as being an art form, but it is. Quite so.

So why alkaline glaze?

In the early 19th century there was a chronic need for pottery for utilitarian use in the plantations. The plantations in the South were centers of local commerce. They were usually based around agriculture, but they also delved into non-agrarian activities like light manufacturing. Many people lived and worked in the plantations, and of course they all needed to be fed and housed. Before the days of refrigeration, stoneware jugs and jars were used for food storage.  Salted meats. Grains. Molasses. (No, white-lightening was not the reason for Southern jugs.)

Cheever Meaders
Alkaline glaze, North Georgia Churn, late 19th early 20th century

Buying pottery and shipping it in from the North or from Europe was prohibitively expensive. Since salt was also rare and expensive in the South, making their own salt-glazed pottery was out of the question, too. (I’ll do a later post on the topic of the different types of glazes.)

Enter a well-educated man and plantation owner in the Edgefield district of South Carolina.  His name was Dr. Abner Landrum. He knew about the Chinese making alkaline-glazed pottery a few centuries before and had thought why not here?

The South had all the ingredients. Lots or porcelain-quality clay and kaolin from the nearby fall-line that ran through the middle of the state, and there was plenty of wood to burn for ash, which was the basic ingredient for the ash or alkaline glaze.

Landum began experimenting in the production of alkaline-glazed pottery in the early 1800’s. Because of his success, by the mid 19th century it had spread throughout much of the rest of the South. The settlers who migrated from South Carolina took the distinctively glazed pottery making art with them to North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and as far West as Texas.

Each new region developed their own distinctive styles for alkaline-glazed pottery. This is why people collect Southern pottery. Because, it is holding local history in your hands.