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Written by Justin Wear, Historical Interpreter

The inscription LM JUNE 18, 1861, can be found on a large clay jar in Telfair’s collection. This indicates the owner of the pottery factory, in this case Lewis Miles, and the date of manufacture. However, underneath a name is incised on the jar – Dave. David “Dave” Drake was an enslaved African American who crafted massive, alkaline-glazed stoneware in 19th-century Edgefield, South Carolina, a district known for its ceramics industry.[1] Though this jar has just a small inscription, other examples of Drake’s pottery found throughout the southeast include short, thematic poems about the function of the vessels, humorous sayings, holidays, or spiritual matters.[2] These jars were used mainly for storing various types of foods, which Drake would sometimes mention in the inscription.


Image 1. David Drake (c. 1801 – 1870s); Jar, 1861; alkaline glazed stoneware; Telfair Museums; Museum purchase with funds provided by the Gari Melchers Collectors’ Society, 2018.7.


Image 2. Robert Mills (1781-1855); Edgefield District, South Carolina, 1825; 1 ms. map; 59 x 77 cm.; Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, G3913.E2 1817 .M5.

The signatures and inscriptions on these jars are notable because they appear to signify David Drake’s sense of pride in his craftmanship and personal autonomy through design and purpose, especially given that labor in this industry and region was largely involuntary among those of African descent.[3] A question that remains about these poems is the possible motivations for writing them. Were they possibly for the white patrons that were buying his work? Could they be for the enslaved servants who were interacting with them daily? Or was this just his way of expressing himself? Unfortunately, we will never know, but it leads to several interesting, and open-ended questions.


Image 3. David Drake (c. 1801 – 1870s); Jar, 1858; alkaline glazed stoneware; The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Purchase, Ronald S. Kane Bequest, in memory of Berry B. Tracy, 2020, 2020.7.

While Drake was one of the more famous artisans from Edgefield, he was one of hundreds of enslaved craftspeople in the area.[4] A good amount of research has been completed on David Drake, but there is still much to explore on other enslaved potters and their contributions to material culture in the Lowcountry. Hopefully, with more documentation and archaeology, we can gain a better understanding of the lives of Drake’s contemporaries who could not have their voices heard.

Sources: 

[1] Orville V Butler,” Edgefield, South Carolina: Home to Dave the Potter,” in I Made This Jar–: The Life and Works of the Enslaved African American Potter, Dave, ed. Jill Beute Koverman (Columbia, SC: McKissick Museum, University of South Carolina, 1998), 39–52, 39.
[2] Jill Beute Koverman, “The Ceramic Works of David Drake, Aka, Dave the Potter or Dave the Slave of Edgefield, South Carolina,” American Ceramic Circle Journal 13 (2005): 83–98, 95-96.
[3] Corbett Toussaint, “Edgefield District Stoneware: The Potter’s Legacy: The MESDA Journal,” Mesda Journal, 2021, https://www.mesdajournal.org/2021/edgefield-district-stoneware-the-potters-legacy/#APPA.
[4] Ibid.

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