Face Jugs: A Mystery of History


Some parts of Appalachian Ohio hold some fascinating chapters of American history, but local potter Maddy Fraioli is bringing a story that stretches south beyond the Mason-Dixon right back to Shawnee, Ohio.

Fraioli has been making pottery and stoneware in Muskingum County for years. With her husband, Howard Peller, she owned and operated Fioriware in Zanesville for than 20 years, but now works in Roseville, OH, producing high quality pieces of stoneware and tabletop accessories. One of the new editions to her body of work are several face jugs, which forge a connection to a lesser-known part of African American heritage.

The origin and use of face jugs by African Americans has been disputed, and there is no definitive proof that would disprove the many theories put forth by experts, enthusiasts, and historical researchers. Their varying facial expressions, colors, sizes and shapes only add to the intrigue of these detailed historical pieces.

Some historians believe that face jugs were used by slaves as everyday, utilitarian objects, mainly as water jugs which they brought out into the fields with them. Others have made connections between the face jugs and ceremonies performed by shamans in traditional African religions, particularly the use of an object called an Nkisi doll.

nkisi doll
A Nkisi doll. The hole in the center of the chest was filled with a powerful object or objects and then resealed with clay.

Experts say the shaman would fill the doll with powerful objects and seal them inside to contain the objects’ power. Some historians believe the face jugs were used in a similar way. A similar theory describes the face jugs as grave markers, used by slaves who otherwise would not be allowed to mark the graves of their loved ones with any headstone. The fearsome expressions on many of the face jugs, or “ugly jugs,” as some enthusiasts and researchers call them, have been explained as a method of scaring the devil away from a grave so the soul of the deceased would be free to go to heaven. Some experts have suggested that the jug which was carried during a person’s life, whether for water or some other purpose, would be the jug used to mark their grave.

Another theory suggests that the scary faces were meant to deter young children from drinking syrup or alcohol that might be stored in the jug. Whatever their origin and purpose, the jugs boast a unique, striking appearance and can teach us about the everyday lives and traditions of some of the earliest African people brought to America.

Though much of the research on face jugs has been done in North Carolina and other placed a bit further south than Ohio, the legacy of the Underground railroad in Ohio means that some of those pieces might have made their way up here, or they were brough up later by some of the many African Americans who migrated to southeastern Ohio in search of coal jobs or other work.

Some of Fraioli’s pieces also use a technique that was traditionally seen on some face jugs: wood ash glaze. The glaze is mixed with ash from burned wood before being poured over the finished jug. One the jug is fired in a kiln, the outside takes on a shiny, slightly rough texture.

Like those in Rendville, OH, the city that elected Isaiah Tuppins as the first African American mayor in the state of Ohio, Fraioli has used her work to preserve an important and interesting chapter of African American history right here in Southeast Ohio.

Wood ash glazed face jug. Made by Maddy Fraioli

Fraioli’s face jugs, as well as other pieces, including bowls and mugs can be purchased at the Winding Road Marketplace at 117 W. Main Street, Shawnee, Ohio. Wood ash, as well as two other glaze colors are available. For more information call at 740-394-2852.

The Winding Road Market place serves as a sales space for artists and makers to put their wares up for sale. For more information about the consignment process, interested artists or vendors can contact at the phone number listed above or email at thewindingroadohio@gmail.com.

For more information about a specific face jug that was discovered in Eastern Pennsylvania and for sources visit PBS.org. The story about face jugs begins at 18:50.


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