Decorative Arts
Stoneware with alkaline glaze
USA,South Carolina,Horse Creek Valley,
Overall: 17 3/8 × 13 7/8 in. (44.13 × 35.24 cm)

One of only twenty-nine identified, signed, and dated poem wares by enslaved potter David Drake, this rare double-handled jug gives  evidence of Drake’s ability to read and write. Although a few slaves were taught to read in the early decades of the 19th century, the practice increasingly became illegal in the period preceding the Civil War. Writing was considered particularly problematic because it allowed bonded persons to communicate with one another and plan rebellion against their masters. Following Emancipation, Drake continued to produce ceramic wares, but no longer inscribed them. This change suggests that he used his rare skills to defy slavery and proclaim his identity during a period when his status as a man was not acknowledged.  

Like many of Drake’s poem pieces, the inscription on the surface of this jug highlights the various activities occupying plantation life. The Miles plantation operated a tannery where leather was prepared for making shoes. Hence, Dave writes: “Ladys & gentlemens Shoes: / Sell all you can & nothing you’ll loose!”

Demand for storage pieces such as this jug was high in the Deep South where large-scale plantations with numerous enslaved laborers required significant quantities of food and drink. This jug with its two strapwork (ribbon-like) handles was used to store and pour molasses or other liquid substances. This example is rare not only because handled wares are prone to breakage but because its two-handled design required greater skill than single-handled works; if the straps are not set symmetrically, the jug will not tip evenly.

Signed "L Miles Dave."
Dated by the artist: January 29th 1840. Inscribed poem: "Ladys & gentlemens shoes / sell all you can: & nothing you'll loose."
Floyd D. and Anne C. Gottwald Fund and partial gift of Dr. and Mrs. John E. Hoar
Image released via Creative Commons CC-BY-NC

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