The Augusta Museum of History opens an exhibit Saturday detailing one of the few industries on which the agrarian South managed to corner the market during the years when cotton was king.
Before the days of humming refrigerators in every kitchen, pottery was the cheapest and most efficient way to keep perishables cool. That meant that pottery manufacturers had to go where the clay was to meet the constant demand, and that meant moving South. Edgefield, S.C., and Aiken were major sites for the industry.
Gordon Blaker, curator at the Augusta Museum of History, said he is excited by this exhibit because a large segment of the population is unaware of the region's importance to the industry.
"They don't realize that we are right in the middle of the clay belt here," he explained. "In fact, most of the older pieces in this exhibition come from the Edgefield district in South Carolina, present-day Greenwood and Aiken counties."
The exhibition was envisioned as a simple display of a touring show featuring Georgia pottery. When presented with the pieces, the museum decided to create a more extensive exhibit.
"The stuff that came in with the traveling exhibit is mostly contemporary," Mr. Blaker said. "So we decided to add pieces from our own collection, local collectors and the McKissick Museum (at the University of South Carolina Columbia) to make it larger and give it more historic perspective."
The exhibit traces Georgia and South Carolina pottery from about 1821 until the present. Some of the more exceptional pieces were turned out in the early and mid-1800s by a slave known merely as Dave, who worked in the Edgefield district. Dave's pieces have garnered attention for their craftsmanship and size and for the bits of prose and poetry he inscribed on many pieces, as well as his signature. It's not known where Dave learned to read and write, a rarity among slaves, but it has allowed scholars to identify many of his pieces.
Other pieces have been more difficult to date and identify because many are inscribed with cryptic codes and markings whose meanings have been lost over time. One pot bears a clear double-Y at its base, and another has small circular impressions pressed into it. Mr. Blaker said that finding a large number of pieces in one place is often the only clue archaeologists have to a pot's origin.
"When they find pieces on a plot of land they know was owned by a certain family or person, they can sometimes attribute them to a certain craftsman," he explained.
What: Georgia-Carolina Clay: Pottery in the Folk Tradition
When: Saturday through Feb. 25. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday
Where: The Augusta Museum of History, 560 Reynolds St.
Admission: $4 adults, $3 seniors and $2 children. Age 6 and younger free. Admission is free on Sundays.
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.