GREAT SOUTHERN POTTERY:
How to Start or Complement a Collection

By Pete Wingard

The old potters and collectors have a special relationship. Though the potters themselves would never have believed that, long after their deaths, so many people would show this much interest in their work. But the collectors are building a bridge to the past with every shred of information they can uncover about the old potters.
Collectors come into collecting Southern pottery in any number of ways. They start collecting because of family connections, regional pride, interest in making their own pottery, academic research, love of history or artistic beauty, and almost always from an interest in the old way of life.

The most interesting thing about collecting Southern pottery is the fact that there are few resources available to help the novice collector. What most collectors do is simply learn for themselves. They accomplish this through pure passion and love of the activity, no matter what drove them to collect in the first place.

The point is, there is no one place that has all the answers a collector seeks. It may take years for a collector to fully understand what it is they are looking for and why they are looking for it. What drives them initially will probably change with time as their knowledge increases.

So how do you start a collection of Southern pottery? First understand what interests you. Then pursue it by going to shows, auctions, the Internet, other collectors or dealers.

Remember to always buy what you like, not what you think someone else will like. Be price conscious, but don't let that stop you from buying a rare piece. You will have to figure out what is rare and what is not through your own experience. Finally, buy the best that you can afford. If you can afford only one quality example, buy that instead of two or three lesser pieces. Again, you will have to learn for yourself what has quality and what doesn't. Over time as you get better at collecting, you can start trading up for better and better pieces.

Some collectors get caught up thinking that they can never own or be able to pay the market prices they see on quality stoneware. This is not true. Think of collecting as saving for retirement. You put a little in each month, and over time, you have a nice bank account. The investment grows over time with interest. Collecting pottery can be the same way. If you develop a sharp eye, your "investment" will grow in value far exceeding any nominal interest rate you might receive from the bank.

Why is this? You will learn to see the value others miss because of what you have learned on your own while collecting. If collectors could go to a book and look up the values of all the various pieces of pottery, then anybody could become a collector overnight, and the rare valuable pieces would be snapped up, but guess what? There are no books of any real value for pricing Southern pottery, though some have tried to write them. No book could capture every piece ever made with all the intrinsically valuable variations, or who made it­with any accuracy­much less put a reliable dollar figure on any example you may ever find.

Every piece of pottery is also unique in its own way that varies from collector to collector. One jug may be worth $200 while another one that seems similar to the novice may be worth $2,000. Another collector might think just the opposite: the $2,000 jug is worth only $200, while the $200 jug is more valuable. This fact alone, that different collectors have different definitions of what is valuable, will always confound any attempt to pigeon-hole the values. There is still a tremendous number of unknowns left for collectors to discover.

Why is this all so confusing? There are few hard facts to go by. What is known has come largely from the efforts of other collectors. The knowledge is scattered here and there. You also can't readily assume that other collectors will share private and valuable information with their competitors.

A good example is pottery made by Dave. Dave was a slave who lived in Edgefield, South Carolina. He worked as a slave potter for about 50 years. He initially became of interest to collectors who simply wanted to know who "Dave" was. He sometimes signed his wares "Dave" along with dates, and every once in a while, he would put a short poem on the side of his pots. The fact that slaves were not allowed to learn to read or write is what stands out about Dave. But there is precious little in hard facts known about him­a little vague census data here or a reference in a newspaper article there. But still, the most intriguing thing about Dave is his name on the side of some jars and jugs he left behind for posterity.

Not that long ago, his signed pottery could be found in antique shops for sale to anybody for relatively few dollars. The collectors who knew his pottery was somehow special were driven by curiosity to buy it. Now, his pottery sells for many thousands of dollars since collectors have pieced together his story bit by bit over time. Now, you no longer find his work in antique shops.

What should every collection of Southern pottery have? Assuming a broad interest, a good collection should include, perhaps, a quality piece from each major pottery center, by state or by region.

North Carolina. In the Catawba Valley, find a "DS" (Daniel Seagle) or a "DH" (David Hartsoe) piece. There are also areas to collect from like Buncombe County, the Piedmont, and others.

South Carolina. Buy a piece or two of decorated pottery from Edgefield. This is where alkaline glazed pottery began. Search for a decorated piece from Thomas Chandler or Collin Rhodes. Also, Dave was from Edgefield! There were many different pottery centers operating over time in several areas in Edgefield worthy of collecting, including Horse Creek, Pottersville, Miles Mills, and others. Again, research is key to collecting.
Georgia. In this state, look for pieces from Crawford County, Washington County, north Georgia and a few other centers. Try for unusual forms and signed examples by the early Longs and Bechams, Lucius Jordan, the Meaders, the Dorseys, and others.
Alabama. Seek a decorated and double dipped Sand Mountain piece, some of the prettiest pottery around. Then there are the potting families like the McPhersons or the Sterretts to collect or counties with rich pottery traditions like Shelby, Randolph and Dekalb to search.

Collecting by Region. One way to start or complement a collection is to collect a signed example of every potter in your area or a classic example from each shop or family that worked in your area. Maybe you will identify someone that no one knows about. Of course, that may take some research, a skill that will come in handy for serious collectors.

Even creating a regional collection can be challenging. For example, in Crawford County, Georgia alone, there were some 200 potters of record, and many of them signed their wares. Collecting all the signatures would be a big task there, as well as in the Catawba Valley and Piedmont area of North Carolina where a significant number of signed examples are known to exist. In Edgefield, there are fewer marked pieces, and they will be pricey. You could try for primarily Potters-ville or Horse Creek and expand your collection to other potteries as you learn more.

Folk Art and Face Jugs. If you are into folk art or face jugs, avoid the common pieces. Lanier Meaders, Cheever Meaders and Arie Meaders are rare and pricey, but worth it. Also, high on the list would be early Brown face jugs, first from Atlanta and later from North Carolina. Burlon Craig's folk pottery and face jugs from before the mid-1980s is also a good place to start. The crowning piece could be an Edgefield face jug. In general, any face jug from before say 1970 is a very collectable item.

For Folk Art Pottery, there is the Seagrove area (Eastern Piedmont) in North Carolina with good examples from the 1920s to the present­Jugtown Ware, Swirl Ware and pottery families like the Coles, the Owens, the Browns, and the Reinhardts, just to name a few. There is South Carolina's Billy Henson. Georgia has the Gordys, Marie Rodgers and many others.

If you are interested in collecting Southern pottery, the above suggestions can help you start or improve your collection. However, if you see a pretty piece of pottery at a show, and all you walk away with is the feeling that you could buy a piece of pottery for much less money at Wal-mart, then you may never understand what it means to be a collector. A collector by definition can see and understand the intrinsic value that others cannot. Yes, a non-collector may think a particular piece is nice or pretty, but they will be tone deaf to its siren song.

If you hear its call, it is time to begin the hunt.


Pete Wingard is the owner of Mud Sweat and Tears Antique Southern and Folk Pottery located at 216 Heatherdown Rd., Decatur, Ga., and www.mudsweatandtears.com . He is available by appointment at 404-418-4480 or by emailing
muddytears@mudsweatandtears.com.


 Antique Southern Pottery and Their Collectors

I was born by a shovel and a grunt. I was hauled out and dropped in a box. It was too soon to be of any value-maybe never. After a time, I was pulled up out of my small muddy world. I was old enough now. I was thrown in a mill with others like me but-different. A blade pushed all of us around until we no longer knew who was who anymore. The mule, too, grunted his indifference, as he pulled the blades about. Afterward, we were thrown back into another dark box-again to wait.

Sometime later, a knowing but calloused hand pulled us out of the dark. Have we been selected? With joy we tried to stand straight and tall as his hands whirled us around and around on a wheel. We grew in his sight and care, and his touch, until he was satisfied we now knew our purpose.

We are to be useful. We will carry what food we are given or hold what drink need be. But first, he cautioned, we must be baptized. Are we up to the test?

We are dipped in liquid and then burned in the most hellish heat. The flames try to convince us that we are not useful, that we are just mud. But we stand straight and tall just like the Potter taught us. The liquid coating transforms to a beautiful green glass and joins us in our purpose. The green reminds us of our old home, the woods and field from which we came.

The fire relents and dies away. With care we are born from the kiln to the wagon. We can see in the Potter's eyes that he is proud, proud that we did not give in to the heat. We make the trip to where we are needed, where we will be useful. We will miss the Potter.

Bought for mere pennies we are carried into the new home. The hands of these New People don't have time to fool around. Everything has a purpose, as do we. We must keep the food given to our care, or they will go hungry. In this, the Potter and the fire have taught us well.

But the New People have grown old and died. Their children and their children's children have come and gone as well. Still we stand straight and tall, ready to be useful. But our usefulness is now ignored. We sit in dark cellars and old barns. We rarely see food anymore. We sit empty.

One day some different hands reach for us with a careful touch we had long forgot. Our New Hands clean us up and made us shine like the day we were born from the ashes of the fire. They have no food for us to hold but yet they can see the purpose in us that we have always had. We stand straight, tall, and proud as the Potter taught us long ago.

We wish to tell the New Hands about the Potter that made us useful, about all the People who used us to keep the food so they could eat when the wind blew cold. But we can't. We can only hope that they can see all of that in the way we were made. Yes, we can see in the eyes of these New Hands the pride in us that the Potter eye's once held. Maybe they do understand.

2006

 

Arie Meaders decorated vase, mid-20th c.

Burlon Craig weeping eyes face jug from the early 1980s.

Propst swirl pitcher,
2nd quarter 20th c.

Crawford County jug, last quarter 19th c.

Decorated Collin Rhodes pitcher, 1840s.

Decorated Trapp-Chandler jar, 1840s.

Edwin Meaders alkaline-glazed rooster, early 1980s.

Lanier Meaders double face jug

Edgefield face jug, 1870s.

Daniel Seagle jug, 1840s.

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