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Crystal Bridges Acquires 1858 Jar with Poem Created by David Drake

David Drake, Twenty-Five Gallon Four-Handled Stoneware Jar, 1858, stoneware with alkaline glaze, 24 ½ x 22 x 22 in.
David Drake, Twenty-Five Gallon Four-Handled Stoneware Jar, 1858, stoneware with alkaline glaze, 24 ½ x 22 x 22 in.
David Drake, Twenty-Five Gallon Four-Handled Stoneware Jar, 1858, stoneware with alkaline glaze, 24 ½ x 22 x 22 in.
David Drake, Twenty-Five Gallon Four-Handled Stoneware Jar, 1858, stoneware with alkaline glaze, 24 ½ x 22 x 22 in.

Crystal Bridges recently acquired a Twenty-Five Gallon Four-Handled Stoneware Jar thrown in 1858 by David Drake, an enslaved potter also known as Dave Drake or Dave the Potter. This jar includes a poem, etched into the surface of the jar alongside Drake’s signature, chronicling both his own place in the world as well as the beginning of life for this object. The inscription “L. m. April 12. 1858 Dave.” on the vessel indicates the precise date he threw the jar while enslaved by Lewis Miles (“L. m.”).

David Drake was a highly skilled potter and poet born in the Edgefield District of South Carolina in 1801. His work attests to his breadth and depth of skills. He turned huge vessels on a wheel, hand-built jars and jugs using coil techniques, glazed vessels by dipping and pouring, and experimented with different glaze ratios to create surfaces with varied coloring and opacity. In fact, he inscribed poetry on jars throughout his adult life despite South Carolina’s passage of the Negro Act in 1740 prohibiting enslaved people from learning to read, among other freedoms.

Although there are gaps in Drake’s biography due to a lack of archives, we know he was first enslaved by Harvey Drake, a pottery manufacturer active in Pottersville, South Carolina, from whom David allegedly adopted the surname upon his emancipation in 1865. David Drake was forcibly sold to several different pottery producers during his lifetime and continued to work as a potter in Edgefield after his emancipation. While he stands out for his exceptional skills and poetic verses, he was one of many enslaved makers working in Edgefield’s potteries. Drake’s production offers an entry point to thinking about their lives and work as well as the broader history of enslaved artists in the United States whose names remain unknown to us.

David Drake, Twenty-Five Gallon Four-Handled Stoneware Jar, 1858, stoneware with alkaline glaze, 24 ½ x 22 x 22 in. (detail)
David Drake, Twenty-Five Gallon Four-Handled Stoneware Jar, 1858, stoneware with alkaline glaze, 24 ½ x 22 x 22 in. (detail)

Twenty-Five Gallon Four-Handled Stoneware Jar exemplifies every element of Drake’s production working in synchrony: he turned the large form of the jar on the wheel, added four hand-built handles, mixed his own ash-based alkaline glazes, poured the varied glazes to maximize the design through natural dripping, then incised and fired the jar. What really makes this jar remarkable is the verse across its surface: 

“A very Large Jar which has 4 handles
pack it full of fresh meats then light candles.”

This couplet reveals Drake’s expertise in poetry as it is neatly organized into rhyming pentameter. The verse is self-referential and affirms the scale, design, and purpose of the object. Drake was one of the few potters in Edgefield making jars of this scale, typically ranging from 20-40 gallons, a volume in high demand by South Carolina meat processors.

25-gallon jars are inherently social objects, requiring at least two sets of hands to carry the often 150+ pound load. The verse’s reference to “candles” indicates a step in the jar’s use for food preservation: once filled, a protective layer of melted wax across the top would preserve the contents from spoilage.

“With this acquisition, we now have the opportunity to make David Drake’s art and contributions to American history and culture even more accessible and widely known to our audiences,” said Austen Barron Bailly, chief curator. “This rare and important acquisition will help us tell stories of craft, American history, enslavement, the meat industry, relationships between labor and art, and so much more.” 

David Drake, Twenty-Five Gallon Four-Handled Stoneware Jar, 1858, stoneware with alkaline glaze, 24 ½ x 22 x 22 in. (detail)
David Drake, Twenty-Five Gallon Four-Handled Stoneware Jar, 1858, stoneware with alkaline glaze, 24 ½ x 22 x 22 in. (detail)

“Earlier this year in Crafting America, one of the themes was foregrounding diverse stories of making in varied media, including functional objects,” said Jen Padgett, associate curator and co-curator of Crafting America. “This acquisition not only helps extend our mission to provide access to American art in a free, public museum but also furthers our commitment to craft at Crystal Bridges.”

We look forward to putting the jar on view at Crystal Bridges soon.