Saving Face: The Legacy - and Mystery - of Face Jugs Endures

Jul 12, 2012

As a student of Material Culture, contributor Gianofer Fields spends a lot of her time studying objects. However, in this installment of "It’s a Material World," it seems the object has its own agenda, albeit a somewhat ambiguous one.

Face Jug, Miles Mill Pottery, Edgefield, SC, 1862-70. Chipstone Foundation.
Credit Gavin Ashworth

The face jugs of 19th-century South Carolina are some of the most mysterious pieces of functional decorative art in American history. The exact purpose of the jugs, created by enslaved African-American potters, is still being debated by art historians. But there's no question about their artistic value.

The size and shape of these clay vessels vary. They can be the size of a gallon of milk or as small as a perfume bottle. Some have large holes and one handle. Others have small holes and two handles. The differences are endless but the one thing all the face jugs have in common is, well, a face. And like people, no two faces are the same. The eyes and teeth, made out of white clay, are the most striking features. They are full, expressive, and menacing. The faces demand that you treat them with respect - and challenge you to figure out their meaning.

Several of the vessels are currently on exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum, so for a little context into this enduring mystery, Fields turned to Claudia Mooney, curator for the Chipstone Foundation. Mooney says understanding the use and purpose of each unique jug is not as plain as the look on its face.

Fields produces and curates the series, "It's A Material World." That project is funded by the Chipstone Foundation, a decorative arts foundation whose mission is preserving and interpreting their collection, as well as stimulating research and education in the decorative arts.