Thursday, May 31, 2012

Edgefield District Pottery: Origins of Southern Stoneware


The Augusta Chronicle reported on 19 February 2004, "Edgefield District jugs, jars are becoming prized pottery" -- Cool to the touch and sturdy even after more than a century of use and disuse, the antebellum jugs and jars made in South Carolina's Edgefield District have become revered as prized collectibles.

Glazed a distinctive green or brown, many with the fingerprints and signature marks of their makers etched in their faces, original Edgefield pots are selling in the thousands of dollars at art auctions and on eBay.

"The people who made these things would be amazed at what they are valued at," said Stephen Ferrell, a potter and ceramics historian who runs Old Edgefield Pottery in Edgefield, S.C.

Once used for storing meats, meal or molasses and made by plantation workers, both freemen and slave artisans, Edgefield pots sold for about 10 cents a gallon, Mr. Ferrell said.

Just three weeks ago, a pot linked to Dave, a literate slave whose technique and tendency to write poetry on his wares made him a superstar of Edgefield pottery, sold for $30,000 at auction.

Other pieces, including one acquired for $185,000 by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, are selling for even more.


The price spike is part history and part economics, Mr. Ferrell said.

Intended for everyday use, in a time before the Mason jar revolutionized food storage, the pots produced from about 1810-1920 in the Edgefield District - which includes present-day Edgefield, Trenton, Saluda, McCormick and Aiken - were widely touted as some of the best ware in the nation.

Their characteristic alkaline glaze, a mix of Chinese technique, made them not only durable and safe but also attractive, Mr. Ferrell explained.

"You didn't have to have pretty designs to make them functional, but they did," Mr. Ferrell said. "They are beautiful from an art perspective. They've been made so beautifully that they've surpassed that (functional) use."

Their unique style and the plantation economy that the potteries grew out of made pots more than just containers.

"Slaves made many things: tables, chairs ... but with this, this is something that they marked," Mr. Ferrell said. "It's the story behind them, the people that made them" that make the pieces so coveted by collectors.


Otis Williams, of Evans, began collecting Edgefield pottery about 15 years ago.

"I started collecting because I was interested in the history of the South during that period," Mr. Williams said. "From my point of view, it is very important to preserve the history that we have."

Mr. Williams said that he wanted to know how people lived and that the pots presented an answer to that.

"Why would a person want an old pot? You have a piece of history that came from the earth, made by hand and was essential to survival in that era," he said. "You got to eat."

With more than 1 million pieces produced during the heyday of the Edgefield potteries, that importance is underscored.


Still, very few of the Edgefield pots remain intact.

"Part of them got broken in the usual way, or people just threw them away," Mr. Ferrell said.

So, along with being beautiful and old, Edgefield pottery is rare, which makes it a perfect fit for a market that values those three traits.

Private collectors aren't the only ones taking notice. Rumors that a national slave museum will be constructed and a growing appreciation of Southern culture have led many museums to buy Edgefield pieces.

Along with works at the High Museum, Edgefield pottery is displayed in museums from the McKissick Museum in Columbia to the Smithsonian Institution.

"Major museums and collections buying Edgefield pottery is kind of a 'go' for other collectors," Mr. Ferrell said. That "market approval" has led to increasing prices, he added.


"It's developing at such a rate, where I used to feel fairly confident saying this is a $5,000 vase, it sells for much higher," he said.

Mr. Williams, who has about 45 pieces in his collection, recalls buying his first Dave piece for about $250; it's now worth about four times as much.

From watching the trend, he isn't sure he could even afford the pieces of his collection today. Each time he goes to auction, he said, he is priced out.


"It's very difficult to put a price on history," Mr. Williams said. "And it is very difficult to find a quality Edgefield pot. That's why the bidders go through the roof."

It's also why more people are getting in to the hunt, Mr. Ferrell said.

"More and more daily, I hear of people in South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia starting to collect Edgefield pottery. People from blue-collar workers to dentists to doctors and lawyers to people in the accounting world that think it's an investment," he said.


Even celebrities such as Bill Cosby and Cicely Tyson are said to be collecting.

"When you have people like that in the market, they are all going to want articles that are genuine, " Mr. Ferrell said. (source: The Augusta Chronicle)

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