Face Jugs: A Uniquely Southern Collectible with a Mysterious Origin

Face jugs are a uniquely Southern art form. This 5-gallon face jug made by Burlon Craig and part of the Daisy Wade Bridges’ Collection, sold for $2,000 at auction in June 2010.

Bulging, uneven eyes and pointed teeth may not sound like desirable facial attributes, but in the world of face jugs, sometimes the uglier the better.

These jugs typically have large eyes, often seeming to bubble off the face, a protruding nose and a mouth rivaled by a James Bond movie character by the name of Jaws. And for all that, face jugs are a beloved, highly collectible folk art fetching hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars.

Unique to Southern pottery, face jugs’ origins are sometimes as colorful as the artwork themselves.

“Nobody really knows where they came from,” says Pam Briggs, a cataloguer with Leland Little Auctions and Estate Sales in Hillsborough, N.C. “The earliest ones were found in Edgefield, a district in South Carolina. Nobody actually knows where they started, but they have become a southern tradition.”

Edgefield was a pottery hub in the mid-19th century that used slave labor. Pottery shards, some which are pieces of face jugs, were found in and around the underground railways used by fleeing slaves. These facts lead to the theory that slaves were the first makers of face jugs, but why they were made is where the stories get interesting.

One story line says the face jugs were used as grave markers because slaves were not allowed traditional tombstones. Another legend says the jugs held moonshine and the intimidating faces on the jugs were intended to scare away children from trying to take a swig.

“Another is that some folk artist or people working in clay simply wanted to make an image, and they did so,” Briggs says.

Not all faces on the jugs are scary—some are believed to be made in the likeness of the artist—though some are called “grotesque,” and that may be their main appeal to a collector. Briggs says people collect face jugs for a variety of reasons, such as pieces only from a particular state, or with a specific type of glaze, such as alkaline or ash glaze.

This pair of modern face jugs by Peter Lenzo sold for $900 in June 2010.

This Billy Ray Hussey face jug brought $275 at auction.

“Devil face jugs are very popular now,” Briggs says.

A face jug, like this one by Charles Lisk, can easily be had by a beginning collector. This one sole for $275 in June 2009.

Face jugs of all kinds can be found in retail shops across the South, she says, so someone could pay as little as $30 for a modern example. That jug may not increase in value; in fact, it may not even hold its purchase price over time.

A beginning collector may want to start with a Charles Lisk face jug, at prices that range from $200 to $400, which is not a huge risk, Briggs says. Lisk produces some “colorful ones with kind of grimacing faces,” she says, and he “sells out every show.”

Buy for what appeals to you, and always buy the best, she advises.

Serious collectors may want to focus on the art’s two best known contemporary artists; Lanier Meaders (1917-1978,) from Mossy Creek, Ga., who is credited with reviving the art in the state in the 1970s, and Burlon Craig (1914-2002,) who independently revived the art in his home in Vale, N.C., around the same time period, though he made several face jugs in the early 1940s before he went off to World War II, Briggs says.

Lanier Meaders is considered one of the deans of face jugs. This Meaders face just sold for $600 in 2010.

Another of Meaders’ jugs,. This one sold for $800 in 2009.

Several Craig face jugs from the Daisy Wade Bridges collection were sold by Leland Little in June.

This pointy-toothed face jug by Craig, another from the Daisy Wade Bridges’ Collection, sold for $1,200.

This pair of Craig tumblers sold for $300.

A pair of smiling Craig tumblers with a spotty, dark alkaline glaze—one stamped “B.B. Craig Vale NC,” and the other with “DWB 1977” on the bottoms—sold for $300. A seven-inch pointy eared, and pointy-toothed Burlon Craig scary face jug with a runny ash glaze sold for $1,250 at the June auction.

Those might be considered a bargain compared to face jugs from the mid-19th century which are “very rare” according to Briggs. She has only handled two of those 100-plus-year-old pieces, and says she could only guess at their value today as being in the $7,000 to $9,000 range.

All photos courtesy of Leland Little Auctions and Estate Sales

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