by Jessica Kosinski
For over 200 years, the area near Edgefield, South Carolina has been known for a unique style of pottery, appropriately named Edgefield pottery. Edgefield pottery has a deep and rich history, which is strongly tied to the American South. By extension, that history is tied to one of the darkest blots in our history, slavery. Today, Edgefield pottery is extremely collectible. The works of one of the most famous Edgefield potters, an enslaved man named Dave, are highly prized by collectors. Let’s take a peek at the rich history of Edgefield pottery and Dave the Potter himself, as we delve into why this pottery is so popular.
Ancient Native American Pottery Influences
The area around Edgefield, South Carolina may be known for Edgefield pottery, but the first potters to live in the area date back to long before the United States as we know it today was formed. That pottery is credited to Native Americans who lived approximately 4,500 years ago. They learned that clay hardened when exposed to fire. That knowledge allowed them to shape the clay into various pots and vessels.
The Start of the Edgefield Pottery Movement
Edgefield pottery as we know it today got its start in the early 1800s. The Landrum family is responsible for starting the first major professional pottery manufacturing business in the area at that time. The head of the family was Abner Landrum. They initially used their pottery business to supply smokehouse and kitchen items.
The Edgefield Pottery Style
Edgefield pottery is a particular type of stoneware known for its alkaline glaze. Its development stemmed from a blending of influences. Those included African, European, and Asian techniques. In the 1810s, when the Landrum family first started producing Edgefield pottery in large quantities, it was inexpensive to produce. Therefore, it was quickly used to meet household needs in the area.
The Edgefield Pottery Popularity Explosion
Edgefield pottery quickly developed a reputation for being harder to break than the standard earthenware pottery of the time. As word spread about the sturdiness and durability of Edgefield pottery, demand for such pieces increased. Eventually, twelve different popular factories produced Edgefield pottery, including the Lewis Miles Factory.
The Ownership History of David Drake (Dave the Potter)
David Drake was an enslaved African American born on North American soil. He took on the last name of one of his earliest known owners, Harvey Drake. Harvey Drake was the business partner of Abner Landrum. Dave’s birthplace is believed to have been somewhere in South Carolina, though that is not explicitly clear. He is listed as “country born,” which was a common term for an enslaved person not born in Africa. What is known is that Abner Landrum owned eight slaves. He brought those slaves with him when he began producing pottery in Edgefield. Dave was likely the son of one of those initial eight slaves.
Dave the Potter was unusual in many respects. He was able to read in write. At that time, it was frowned upon for a person of African descent to be taught to read and write. It was made illegal in 1830. It is believed that Dave somehow learned those skills from Abner Landrum.
When Harvey Drake died, ownership of Dave was passed to a member of the Landrum family, Reverend John Landrum. Upon his passing, Dave became the property of John’s son, Franklin Landrum. He was then purchased by Lewis Miles in 1849.
Dave the Potter: His Pottery (and Poetry) Production
There were 76 known African American slaves who worked in the various Edgefield pottery factories in the early to mid-1800s. Dave was one of them. He was most likely taught the trade by previously mentioned business partners Abner Landrum and Harvey Drake. He was a prolific producer of pottery, but that pottery evolved with time. Soon, he began including poetry etched into many pieces. That practice was particularly common for him after he became the property of Lewis Miles.
Dave the Potter Marks, Dates, and Famous Poetry Lines
Dave the potter is famous for signing his works “Dave” and often including “LM” on pieces produced at the factory of Lewis Miles. He often dated his pieces, but he only occasionally included lines of poetry on them. One of his most poignant known lines was “I wonder where is all my relations – Friendship to all and every nation,” that was inscribed on August 16, 1857. It was featured on a 19” greenware pot, which is now one of his most well-known pieces.
The above poetry is particularly heart-wrenching to anyone knowledgeable about the slavery practices that occurred in the American South. Slaves were listed in records and inventories as property. Often, numbers of slaves and ages were listed. Sometimes genders were also included, but names were rarely part of slave lists. For that reason, Dave and his fellow enslaved potters probably never knew what happened to many of their sold relations. To this day, collectors and fans of Dave’s work and the work of other enslaved Edgefield potters continue to try to trace their histories and constantly encounter historical roadblocks along the way.
The Value and Legacy of Edgefield Pottery
Dave lives on historically in many books produced about his life and work, including Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter, and Poet by Andrea Cheng. The popularity and collectible nature of Edgefield pottery also continue to help keep the memories of his fellow enslaved potters alive in the present day.
In 2020 one of Dave’s pots sold for over $184,000. Only 34 of his pieces with inscribed poetry lines are known to still exist today, and those are each valued at more than $500,000.
Other pieces of Edgefield pottery are also historically and visually impressive, and they are also typically more affordable. However, Dave the Potter will always be held in the highest regard by collectors and historians alike for his talent and his brave, defiant style of poetic artistry during a time when literate African Americans often risked punishment or death.