That jug in your cabinet with a funky-looking face sure looks like it has something to say. But the story might surprise you.
While the origins date back many centuries, the pieces made in the United States during the 1800s have special significance. Imagine someone making these vessels during such a troubled time in US history.
Discover the story behind face jugs and how they became folk art for specific people.
Let’s take a look!
What Are Face Jugs?
Face jugs, or face vessels, are precisely what you think they might be. They’re pieces of pottery with very discernable eyes, a mouth, and a nose. They can have various forms, including drinking mugs, vases, and water vessels.
The tradition of making face jugs in England dates back to the 1200s. But artifacts from ancient Greece indicate the art form began much earlier than the 13th century.
Later, in the 16th century, potters in Germany began making salt-glazed stoneware called Bartmann Jugs. They featured images of bearded men on the lower neck of the round-bottom vessels.
While early versions of the jugs had relatively normal-looking faces, the facial features became much more prominent over time. Large, googly eyes and mouths in funny formations weren’t unusual.
Historical records indicate face jugs were common in states such as North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Unsurprisingly, enslaved Africans brought to the US were already making something similar to these vessels.
Why Did Enslaved African People Make Face Jugs?
Nkisi figurines were containers made in Africa considered to hold the deceased souls of ancestors. When slavery began, the Africans taken to America brought their traditions with them.
The face jugs made by enslaved people were possibly grave markers. The wild-looking facial expressions were thought to ward off evil spirits.
A potter in South Carolina with ancestral roots to enslaved people said, “the idea was that the face jug would be ugly enough to scare the devil away from your grave so your soul could go to heaven.”
Some vessels likely held water for the enslaved people to drink while out in the fields. Most enslavers surely didn’t provide any way for their workers to hydrate themselves.
Scholars believe some of these face jugs were a form of self-identification. They were perhaps a way to deal with their physical displacement and loss of visual worth. Whether the jars held drinking water or spirits, they were a meaningful part of the African-American culture.
Who Are Some Well-Known Face Jug Artists?
Considered to be folk art, especially among African-Americans, face jugs are still popular among pottery artists. Let’s take a look at a few people keeping the tradition alive.
As a descendant of enslaved people, Ben Watford carries on the tradition of his ancestors. Residing in New Bern, North Carolina, Ben is a 90-year-old potter specializing in face jugs. He has hundreds of vessels with various facial expressions, each having a story to share.
In addition to making pottery, Watford is also active in an organization he started called Craven County Community Bail Fund. He’s not so much an activist as he is a concerned citizen. Helping people is important to Watford.
And he believes continuing to make face jugs helps his community learn about the history of African-Americans. Additionally, he made urns with faces for his wife, who died in 2021, and himself. It seems a fitting resting place for someone so dedicated to the art of his ancestors.
As a fifth-generation potter, Wayne Hewell keeps his family’s 100-year-old business alive in a creative way. From Gillsville, Georgia, Wayne specializes in humorous face jugs. Grimacing faces with crooked teeth are a common sight in Hewell’s pottery studio.
Sourcing wild Georgia clay and using tobacco spit or alkaline glazes, the resulting colors of Wayne’s vessels are black, brown, or green. He also has a unique technique called swirlware, combining two different clay bodies. The finished face jug has a neat striped effect.
Carrying on the craft of his German ancestors, Michael Gates creates pottery in North Carolina that’s very different from his family’s style. While his great-grandfather specialized in making vessels for practical purposes, Michael’s style is more art-based.
You won’t see just human-type faces in Gates’ jugs. Instead, you’re more likely to see owls, coyotes, bears, or some form you can’t quite identify. But it has a face all the same. Most of Michael’s pieces couldn’t hold liquid or any other substance. But they’d look great on a display shelf!
Where Can I See Face Jug Art?
A common place to see face jugs on display and for sale are Renaissance faires. But if you want to see some authentic artifacts, we found a few museums with historical pieces in their collection.
South Carolina State Museum
In 2022, this museum acquired a face jug made by an unknown enslaved craftsperson around 1860. The area around Edgefield, South Carolina, was a popular place to produce alkaline-glazed stoneware in the 1800s.
The jug on display has a protruding tongue, a unique feature of face vessels from that time. It’s also relatively small, which surprises some visitors.
According to the museum’s public relations manager, David Dickson, “The No. 1 thing when people notice this face jug is, it’s very small. People expect it to be this huge thing, but it’s actually pretty small, which is cool.”
Located at 301 Gervais Street in Columbia, South Carolina, the museum is open every day except Mondays. General admission tickets are $8.95, with discounts for seniors and children.
Philadelphia Museum of Art
A vessel with a very distinctive devil face is on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. American potter, Davis Brown, created this jug between 1923 and 1936 to display in the window of an Asheville, North Carolina, hardware store.
The jug created controversy when women from a local church took offense to the image of Satan prominently displayed on the storefront. Acquired in 1998, the devilish vessel is on display in Gallery 209 on the museum’s second floor.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is one of the country’s oldest public art galleries. Their address is 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, open Thursday through Monday each week. General admission is $25, which gives you access for two days.
Traveling Exhibit: Hear Me Now
Hear Me Now is an incredible collection owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It contains a large number of Edgefield pottery pieces, including several face jugs.
The exhibit is currently showing at the Met through February 2023. From there, it moves on to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and other museums. If you get the chance, we highly recommend viewing this collection.
From the Muse: If you can’t make it to an exhibit in person, this video by the Met provides an in-depth look at the pieces, history, and significance.
Listening to the History of Face Jugs
We think face jugs are cool folk art with a unique history. And we’re glad the tradition continues with many potters around the country. It’s hard not to look at these vessels without feeling like they’re trying to tell their story. If only those faces could really talk. Imagine what they’d say!
Do you own any face jugs? Let us know about them in the comments below.
Outside Folk Gallery
You can explore folk, street, and outsider art in our personal collection at Outside Folk Art. We’re celebrating these creatives and giving voice to rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artisans.
We’ll also be offering pop-up shows and collaborations with small museums, so be sure to follow us to discover the where and when!