Published: October 23, 2006
For curator Joey Brackner, the story of Alabama pottery is the story of Alabama itself, the story of a pottery that reflects the prevailing cultural influences at work in the state of Alabama over the last 200 years. And while Southern pottery is often lumped together under a singular classification, Alabama has separated and identified itself with a celebration of its own unique pottery tradition in the exhibition “Alabama Folk Pottery,” now on view at the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA).
The genesis of the 72-object exhibit is as unique as the pottery on view. It was organized to showcase the collectors who allowed Brackner, the guest curator and director of the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture, generous access to their pots for inclusion in his scholarly book Alabama Folk Pottery. Based on the book, the exhibit is presented largely according to geography. Since little archaeological material about Alabama pots exists, Brackner relied heavily on the collectors and their information for his research. The result is a definitive advance in scholarship.
For the BMA itself, the show is also valued for the sheer aesthetic pleasure the pottery offers, and at the same time, it affords many the opportunity to see so many rare and historic Alabama pots in one setting.
Most of the pots on view are from private collections, with the exception of two pieces from the collection of the BMA, several others on loan from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Gadsden Museum in Gadsden, Ala.
Until 1817, when it became a separate territory, Alabama was part of Mississippi and it achieved statehood in December 1819. Settlement really only began after the Federal Indian Removal of the 1830s coupled with a gold rush in Alabama, although it was relatively sparse compared to that seen in Eastern states. A later immigration after the Civil War blurred many regional differences.
The Appalachian Mountains bisect the state in a southwest-to-northeast direction, accounting for the immigration patterns that had settlers from the northern and mid-Atlantic states entering from the Tennessee River Valley. Settlers from the Carolinas and Georgia entered south of the mountains. Simple geography and its rural character drove the cultural distinctions of the early days.
Jugtowns and pottersvilles sprung up all over the state near requisite sources of clay, water and fuel, usually along watercourses where clay deposits were plentiful. A natural division resulted in five general areas of pottery production, each with its own large “family” of potters. They were the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, east central Alabama, the northeast mountains, the Tuscaloosa area and the northwest counties of Marion and Lamare.
From early on, Alabama pottery has been largely a family affair. Marriage and intermarriage extended the family traditions across the South.
The colonial port of Mobile was originally French, then English and then part of west Florida. The banks of Mobile Bay were exceptionally rich in clay deposits. While ceramics were produced in the area during the Spanish period from 1780, a widespread immigration only got under way after the Indian Removal. The newcomers were of European stock with three French families dominating the pottery scene — the Lefevers, later Lafever; Francis Coste or LaCoste; and the Marshalls, formerly the Mareschal family. They introduced European traditions, such as the use of stamps on their products, the use of cobalt decoration and unglazed interiors.
Later immigrants included Irish, French and Scots, who also made an impact on pottery. The McAdam family was prolific; one Peter McAdam created a clay altar for St Paul’s Church in Daphne, Ala.
The east central area drew stoneware potters from South Carolina, particularly the Edgefield area, North Carolina and Georgia. The most active families included the Presleys, the Mulders, John Lehman and others who practiced the arts they learned at Edgefield. The influence of Edgefield was profound in the antebellum south. Many of the wares produced had an elegant, elongated oval form.
Alabama settlers from the Mid-Atlantic and Ohio Valley introduced their own traditions in the areas like Rock Mills and Randolph County where they settled. The Prothro, Leopard, Ussery and Duncan families were former Edgefield potters. The Falkners came from Georgia. Wares made around Rock Mills were usually ovoid and alkaline glazed. Characteristic pieces that had been “double-dipped” and churns with two strap handles along one side that were known as Alabama churns were made in this area.
Settlers in the mountains gravitated toward Oak Level, home to the Pitchfords, the Browns and others, and to Sand Mountain where the Davidsons established themselves and their pottery. They were joined by the McPherson, the Belcher and the Henry families. The pottery classified as Sand Mountain ware includes Alabama churns and other double-dipped wares with a dark green and light green alkaline glaze and wavy, incised decorations. Thumbprints are often found at the base of the strap handles.
The mountain town of Sterrett was home to the Falkner family, which had arrived from Randolph County. They used a lime-based alkaline glaze with slip trailing and a decoration of an iron bearing wash. The Falkners employed maker’s marks.
Potter Daniel Cribbs settled in Greene County in the west central part of the state. His brother was working in nearby Tuscaloosa. Both made stoneware, as did the Ham family, the Millers and the Skinners, who also settled the area.
The northwest part of the state was settled by members of the Brown family; Jerry Brown is at work today in his Hamilton pottery and among the numerous items he produces are churns.
Other potters working today in the traditions of their forbears include descendents of the original major pottery families, like Eric and Steve Miller and Thomas Allen Ham.
For more than two centuries Alabama has remained unique in the rich deposits of clay throughout the state. Its color and composition vary geographically, but the quality is consistently high.
Early potters provided essential household articles, mostly those designed for food — its preparation, presentation and storage. They ran to plates, mugs, bowls, jars, jugs, water coolers, crocks, churns — for butter and adapted for beer — and chamber pots. Later developments included pipes, cuspidors, drain pipes, flue thimbles, poultry waterers, rabbit feeders, ant defenders, bricks, flowerpots and grave markers. The variations on these forms were endless.
Water coolers were produced in several forms, including the unglazed monkey jugs that were in common use throughout the South to keep the contents cool. They mostly had side spouts. Glazed monkey jugs were used to store kerosene.
Jugs for storing food generally had a three-gallon capacity; they were, however, made in 30-gallon sizes as well. Over time, as commercial products filtered into the market, they assumed the proportions of today’s Mason jars.
As the market for preserving jars and churns diminished in late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, potters turned to marketable objects to fill the gap. They began making shaving mugs like the modern coffee mug, candlesticks, marbles and other toys, dollhouse furnishings and figures.
Face jugs gained in popularity. Although their genesis is unknown, one theory suggests that they were made to warn illiterate slaves of toxic contents. Later they were considered testaments to a potter’s creative skill.
Some pots were embellished with political and patriotic decorations. One such example on view is the alkaline glazed political jar that proclaims “Hurrah for Jefferson” on one side and carries an image of George Washington on the other that was made by Rock Mills potter John Lehman.
Glaze traditions tell the story of American pottery and its regional distinctions. The essential glazes were lead, followed by alkaline and then salt. Alabama ceramics were characterized primarily by an alkaline glaze that was introduced from South Carolina, probably from the Edgefield area where the first Southerner to employ it was said to be Abner Landrum. It was also seen in the Catawba Valley of North Carolina. Made from wood ash or lime, only Southern potters used it. Southern potters used a groundhog kiln built into the side of a hill to produce their wares.
Rock Mills on the Georgia border, founded in 1834, was a major center for potters using the distinctive greenish alkaline glaze. Many had emigrated from Edgefield, S.C., and Georgia and they adopted the distinctive alkaline glaze.
Alkaline glazes are as variable as their ingredients. Color and texture are predicated on the potter’s formula, whether it is wood ash or lime flux that is used. While dark, runny, greenish or brown glazes are generally assumed to be ash, glazes with a more uniform color are thought to be lime-based. Since Alabama clay is light colored for the most part, it is more difficult to determine which flux was used.
Some of the earliest stoneware in Alabama was salt glazed; the first Alabama potter documented to have used salt glaze was Daniel Cribbs, who arrived in Tuscaloosa from Ohio in 1828 or 1829. Salt glaze was in wide use along the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, due perhaps to the influence of French immigrants.
When the Civil War broke out, Alabama potteries worked overtime to produce medicine bottles and other medical supplies. While it was a most prosperous time for potters, the potter families were hit hard by heavy war casualties.
After the Civil War, itinerant potters from the North and the advent of railroads turned the tide toward a salt glaze domination of pottery across the state. With railroads came Northern potters who introduced the industrial model (for example, Rookwood) to the jugtown model. Alabama potters held fast, however, and the factory model never caught on. The state remained rife with jugtowns dominated by pottery families.
Also after the Civil War, Albany slip came into wide use. The lustrous brown glaze produced in the Hudson River Valley became popular. It was also used as an interior glaze. The song “Little Brown Jug” is said to refer to Albany glaze jugs. Albany slip has remained in use and into the late Twentieth Century studio potters and industrial ceramicists alike used Albany slip in their crock pots, sewer pipes, electric insulators and other commercial products. New York State closed the clay mines in 1987 and potters adopted Alberta slip, which is mined in Canada. Contemporary potters Jerry and Sandra Brown use Alberta slip.
After 1900, a white glaze became commercially available. It was a derivative of the originally English (or Bristol) combination of feldspar, zinc oxide and calcium carbonate.
Mud mills, also known as clay or pug mills, were used to grind the clay to a consistent quality. They were mule-driven. Contemporary potter Jerry Brown continues to use a mule to drive his pug mill. A traditional flaw in the mule system has been that the mule stopped working without the potter to urge him on. Children were sometimes given the duty, but Brown has made use of modern technology to keep his mules moving: he recorded mule threats and phrases guaranteed to goad them along and played the tape to keep everyone moving.
Although in the Twenty-First Century the trade is diminished somewhat, it remains quite vibrant. Decorative forms have supplanted the utilitarian as the demand for churns and storage jars abated. Today, the most sought-after pots are the early alkaline glazed ceramics and the whimsical face jugs.
“Alabama Folk Pottery” remains on view through January 7 at the BMA. Brackner’s accompanying book of the same name was published by the University of Alabama Press in cooperation with the Birmingham Museum of Art. The hardbound book is 352 pages and it retails for $60 from www.uapress.ua.edu.
The Birmingham Museum of Art is at 2000 Eighth Avenue North. For information, 205-254-2714 or www.artsbma.org.
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