Follow the Stories | Tulsa, OK (2012)
Alabama Stoneware — A Jug-full of History
The inscription on this jug reads "Made by JB Skinner Sterrett Ala." Skinner was a little-known potter in the small, mountainous Alabama "jugtown" of Sterrett.
LeAnn's jug is the same shape and color as the jug made famous in the late 19th-century folk song, "Little Brown Jug."
This stoneware's rich chocolate color was produced by a clay slip from the Hudson Valley of New York, called Albany slip.
At the Tulsa, Oklahoma, ANTIQUES ROADSHOW in July 2011 a woman named LeAnn lugged in a not-so-little brown jug she'd purchased at auction three years ago for $50. It was "dirty and gunky," she remembers, but when she cleaned it up, she saw it was inscribed with the name "J. B. Skinner" and the town of "Sterrett, Alabama." On the day, folk art appraiser Wes Cowan was able to identify the jug as from the late 1800s, and with a bit more research, we later discovered that the jug contains a good amount of Alabama pottery history — and perhaps residue from some interesting liquids as well.
If this jug was once used for alcohol, "it would be a party jug," says LeAnn, the jug's owner.
LeAnn's jug was stoneware — a remarkable material for its time. Earthenware made by American Indians and colonists was absorbent and porous, making it less effective for storing and preserving food and liquids. But stoneware, which had largely supplanted earthenware in the United States by the time Alabama was being settled in the 1830s, was fired at a higher temperature with clay that contained more silica. The resulting container was revolutionary. "You have a more durable pottery," says Joey Brackner, the author of Alabama Folk Pottery and director of the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture, who notes that earthenware had the fragility of garden pots. "But the stoneware, if they dropped it, wouldn't break."
"You also get a vessel that is impervious to liquid," Brackner says. This meant that stoneware jars and jugs could be used to store water, cider, oils, turpentine, syrup, molasses, vinegar, and whiskey. "They could also be used to preserve candied, smoked, salted, pickled, and dried foodstuffs." The ability to protect food and drink was crucial to Alabama's earliest settlers, who swept into the territory during the 1830s in a migration known as "Alabama Fever," which followed the forced displacement of Native Americans to the West. The new settlers fed themselves locally by farming, gathering, hunting, and fishing, preserving whatever they could in stoneware for leaner times that inevitably would come. They wanted practical vessels, such as jugs and jars, as well as pitchers for milk and churns to make butter. They'd also seek out clay marbles for their children; gardenware, such as plant pots and birdbaths; or smoking pipes, "more popular than wooden or corncob pipes in the 19th century," Brackner says.
Entrepreneurial potters followed these settlers into Alabama, establishing studios in what became known as "jugtowns," almost always located near clay deposits. "Young men would settle into a pottery community and make their way, often marrying a daughter of another potter," Brackner says. He notes that J.B. Skinner's father, also a potter, migrated from Georgia before settling in Sterrett, Alabama, a typical jugtown situated in the southernmost reach of the Appalachian Mountains. All the jugtowns served local needs — in the case of Sterrett, the major market was nearby Birmingham. By the early 1900s, at least 10 potters lived in Sterrett, including some of the Skinners.
These jugtown potters were almost always men, in large part because the work was physically demanding. Potters dug their own clay and transported it and their finished wares on wagons. Before pottery wheels were electrified, great leg and arm strength was required to turn them, Brackner notes. These pottery studios often served as community meeting places. During the all-night vigils necessary to keep the kilns burning hot enough to fire the stoneware, men often came together to drink and tell stories.
But what was the jug that showed up in Tulsa made for? Jugs of this same shape were often used for whiskey, made from corn that wasn't eaten, sold, or used as animal feed. In fact, LeAnn's jug is the same shape as the kind made famous in the folk song, "Little Brown Jug," its chocolate color a result of the Albany (as in New York) slip that Southern potters began using to glaze their pots in the late 1800s. The jug in the song was clearly made for alcohol.
"Me and my wife live all alone/
In a little log hut we call our own/
She loves gin and I love rum/
And don't we have a lot of fun!/
Ha, ha, ha, you and me/
Little brown jug, don't I love thee!"
LeAnn says that if her jug, which could have held a few gallons, was used for alcohol, "it would be a party jug."
But Brackner says that moonshiners usually didn't want such large jugs for alcohol. "The moonshiners would want a half-gallon jug, because that's what their customers would want to drink," he says. "Its main use was probably as a syrup jug." Syrup was made from the sorghum or sugar cane they sometimes grew.
Local Alabama stoneware died out as a result of a few forces: the advent of mass-produced stoneware, as well as glass and metal containers, cheaper to make than handmade pottery. Another blow came from a strong railroad network rebuilt in the South after the Civil War, and then the advent of trucking, which could get cheaper stoneware and alternative containers to the rural market quickly and inexpensively. Refrigeration also made some of the containers, such as churns and jars, less essential.
"It was really a Walmart effect," Brackner says. "The potters couldn't compete with products that were shipped, usually from the North. It was an economy of scale. Even with the transportation costs, they could undersell local potters. It was a dramatic decrease in family pottery after World War I."
Today Alabama stoneware has largely become the domain of local collectors. Stoneware from the 19th century that's signed is more valuable, Cowan notes, because it helps nail down a piece's provenance, and is harder to find. Brackner put the value of this brown jug in the $1,000 to $2,000 range. Cowan put it between $2,500 and $3,500. I'm not the Alabama stoneware expert, so it may be that he's closer," Cowan says. "I couldn't find comparable pots sold by that potter. No way!" On the other hand, if two Alabama stoneware collectors both wanted this pot, the price could well escalate, Cowan notes.
For now, this brown jug is not for sale. LeAnn's says the jug sits decoratively in the corner of her kitchen. And after she found out it might be worth a few thousand dollars to Alabama stoneware collectors, she's worked especially hard to protect it.
"My grandkids," LeAnn says, "no longer get to drop stuff into it."
For more on this topic, see:
Alabama Folk Pottery, by Joey Brackner, University of Alabama Press, 2006.
More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Pottery & Porcelain category:
Ordinary Jardinière or Genuine George Ohr? (Biloxi, 2011)
Next of Kiln: The Overbeck Sisters (Houston, 2006)
Firing Miss Daisy: What Happened at Wedgwood? (Houston, 2006)
See the Tulsa, OK (2012) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.