Dave the Potter


Pot by Dave the Potter, with his mark, "Lm,"
dated "Feb/15.1858"
Courtesy of Mr. Rick Green
Photographed by Bob Botsch
 
 
 

Modern interest in Edgefield pottery can be traced to the 1919 acquisition by the Charleston Museum of a jar enigmatically signed "Dave."  Subsequent research to discover the identity of this then-unknown potter has led to an enhanced understanding of the entire alkaline-glazed stoneware tradition centered in the Old Edgefield District, which encompassed present day Edgefield, Greenwood, McCormick, Saluda, and Aiken counties in South Carolina. It is interesting to note, however, that eighty years of biographical investigation has resulted in the uncovering of relatively little in the way of hard fact about this country's foremost enslaved potter.  Nevertheless, a perusal of census records and property tax inventories has yielded some basic information from which one can reconstruct the essential outline of Dave's life.

The best current estimate is that Dave was born around 1800.  Much of theinformation that historians have been able to assemble on Dave has come from examining the records of the families that ran the principal pottery works in the region.  Over time he was bought and sold by the Drake, Gibbs, Miles, and Landrum families.  Dave, for example, was the property of Harry Drake until the
latter's death in 1832.  After emancipation in the 1860s, Dave took the last name of Drake, perhaps in commemorative remembrance of the man who presumably taught him to be a potter.

There is some conjecture concerning why Dave never left the Edgefield District, even though some members of the Drake and Gibbs families moved west to Louisiana, taking some of Dave's relatives with them.  Presumably Dave was too valuable a resource for his employers where he was.  As a skilled potter, he had a place. Despite the paucity of written records about Dave's whereabouts and welfare, the visual record offers some compelling, compensatory information. There are thirty years of verified work, from 1834 to 1864; and the jars and jugs produced during this period provide more than just Dave's signature and their date of production.

Size and text make the "Dave pots" the most important specimens of  Edgefield pottery, which is characterized primarily by utilitarian vessels produced for agrarian plantation life.  Many of Dave's vessels are of a remarkable size, with capacities sometimes ranging from twenty-five to forty gallons.  Dave must have been a man of great strength since it is theorized that he probably had to manipulate up to fifty pounds of clay while kicking a foot or treadle wheel.  There is also hearsay evidence that Dave had only one leg, which, if true, makes his production of such large vessels even more extraordinary. Each large piece was made by joining separately constructed sections.  The base was turned on the wheel while the upper parts, the shoulder and mouth, were applied to the base in coils and then seamlessly attached by smoothing the clay together. The last step before firing was the application of a drippy, ash-based alkaline glaze that is now synonymous with Edgefield pottery.  This glaze made of timber ash and lime was developed as a safe, inexpensive alternative to the once-popular lead glaze found to be dangerous as early as the eighteenth century. The lime, in particular, is responsible for the khaki color that is so characteristic of much of Edgefield pottery.

Besides their extraordinary size, Dave's pots are unusual for their inscribed texts. In 1840, Dave began signing his work, not by merely stamping his initials on the base as was the custom but by boldly writing "Dave" on the shoulder of most vessels. It is theorized that Dave may have learned to read and write while working as a typesetter for one of his owners, Abner Landrum, who published a newspaper entitled The Edgefield Hive.

Regardless of the source of his literacy, Dave is known to have signed and dated over 100 jars, and on some he wrote verse.  This was a remarkable gesture. At a time when the education of slaves was forbidden, Dave was publicly demonstrating his ability to read and write.

His self-assertion did not go without notice.  There was, indeed, a seventeen-year period of poetic silence on Dave's part, and some scholars theorize that a suppressed slave uprising in Augusta, Georgia in 1841 may have been the cause.  Because of the discovery of a plan to raid the Augusta arsenal and burn the city, the slave population in the region suffered through a period of repression, and Dave may have thought it best not to call attention to himself for a time.

Much of Dave's verse offers insight into the conditions of his life. For example, the lines "I wonder where is all my relations/Friendship to all and every nation" may be, in part, a reference to the constant threat that slaves could be sold and separated from their families. As noted earlier, Dave himself experienced the consequences of this lamentable practice.

Another rhyming couplet, "the forth of July is surely come/to blow the fife and beat the drum," is perhaps a reference to the fact that slaves were prohibited from beating drums because the white population feared the African use of percussion instruments as communication devices, as the potential means of linking widely scattered plantation populations.

Some verses may have reflected Dave's personal strategies for survival. One of his most famous couplets, "Dave belongs to Mr. Miles/ where the oven bakes and the pot biles," may be seen not only as an acknowledgment of his condition as someone's property but also as an assertion that he is a literate artisan and, therefore, a man of worth. At this time in his life, Dave was owned by Lewis Miles and lived near Graniteville. All told, Dave had perhaps five owners before Emancipation when he took the last name "Drake."

The passage of time has affirmed Dave's status as a master craftsman whose work is unique in the history of American ceramics. Some experts theorize that during his working career, Dave may have made more than 40,000 pieces, including countless mammoth vessels with slab or ear handles and rolled rims. The relatively few verified examples are today worth a considerable amount of  money.  Indeed, in a recent sale, Dave pots were sold for between forty and fifty thousand dollars each.
 
 

Sources:

For more complete information on this topic, one should refer to I Made This Jar: The Life and Works of the Enslaved African-American Potter, Dave (McKissick Museum, University of South Carolina: 1998). Edited by Jill Beaute Koverman, this informative catalog was written to accompany the first major exhibition solely devoted to Dave's work. Curated by the McKissick Museum at USC-Columbia, the show is travelling, in turn, to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Museum of African-American History in Detroit, and the Winterthur Museum in Wilmington, Delaware.

An excellent source of material on Edgefield pottery in general is Crossroads of Clay: The Southern Alkaline-Glazed Stoneware Tradition (McKissick Museum, University of South Carolina: 1990), edited by Catherine Wilson Horne.

Other examples of Dave's work, courtesy of Mr. Rick Green, photos by Bob Botsch


 

This last example is dated "Sept 18.1858"
and is signed "Dave" vertically below the date.

last updated 10/5/99
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The University of South Carolina-Aiken
e-mail carolb@aiken.sc.edu