The tradition of shaping human likenesses on ceramic vessels is thousands of years old. Face vessels held different meanings in different cultures around the world. Some were probably used in burial rituals, others satirized the person whose features were captured in clay, and still others were made just for fun.
The earliest face vessels known to have been produced by white southern potters were probably not made until the end of the 1800s. White potters working in the Edgefield area in the mid-1800s may have seen the slave-made vessels and taken the idea with them as they moved out of South Carolina.
Like many southern pottery families, the Brown family encompasses a line of potters generations long. The Browns began making pottery in west-central Georgia by the mid-1800s before migrating east to the Atlanta area after the Civil War. The family spread from there to North and South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas.
Starting in the 1960s, a growing interest in southern face vessels as examples of 20th-century folk art prompted collectors, historians, and cultural institutions to seek out and encourage the potters who produce them. This piece, on the left, was made by a member of the Brown family in North Carolina, and donated to the Smithsonian by Ralph Rinzler and his wife. Working for the Smithsonian's Office of Folklife Programs, Rinzler was instrumental in the rediscovery and popularization of face vessels.
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