David Drake (potter)

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One of the many jars created by Dave. This one is inscribed with "Lm may 3rd 1862 / Dave"
David Drake, I made this jar for cash, though it is called lucre trash. Alkaline glaze stoneware, 1857.

David Drake, also known as Dave the Potter and Dave the Slave, (c. 1801 – c. 1870s) was an American potter who lived in Edgefield, South Carolina.

Drake produced over 100 alkaline-glazed stoneware jugs between the 1820s and the 1860s. An enslaved African American, he often signed his works "Dave". He is recognized as the first enslaved potter to inscribe his work, during a time when most slaves were illiterate, often forbidden from literacy, and anonymous.[1] Drake inscribed his work with poetry, often using rhyming couplets[2], as well as his signature.[3][4][5]


Drake is thought to have been born around 1801 on a plantation in North Carolina, owned by Harvey Drake.[3] The first legal record of Drake is a description from June 13, 1818, the record describes “a boy about 17 years old country born” who was “mortgaged to” Eldrid Simkins by Harvey Drake”.[6]

"Country born" refers to an enslaved African American who was born in the United States rather than Africa.[3] During the antebellum period, Drake was one of the 76 known enslaved African American to have worked in Edgefield's twelve pottery factories.[7]

Harvey Drake was the first owner of Drake. Harvey Drake owned a large pottery business with his business partner Abner Landrum. This pottery business and the area, within which Drake worked is known as Pottersville. Landrum was the publisher of a local newspaper called The Edgefield Hive.[3] It is unclear how Drake learned to read and write. Scholars speculate he was taught by Landrum, who was known to be a religious man and may have taught Dave how to read the Bible.[3] During this time period it was unusual for slaves to be literate, especially in South Carolina. Most southern states in the early 1800's restricted black literacy, and in 1830's legislation was passed laws prohibiting their education.[8] South Carolina's Negro Act of 1740, prohibited teaching enslaved Africans to read and write, punishable by a fine of 100 pounds and six months in prison.

After the death of Harvey Drake, Drake's ownership was transferred to Rev. John Landrum. In 1846 Rev. Landrum passed away and all eighteen of his slaves were put up for sale. Drake was next purchased by Rev. Landrum's son, Franklin Landrum. Drake's treatment under Franklin Landrum was poor.[8] In addition to this Drake's wares were not inscribed and no poetry is thought to be produced during this time.[3]

In 1849, Lewis Miles acquired ownership of Drake. During the time Drake produced his largest amount of wares that included poetry.[8] Miles' factory was known as 'Stony Bluff.' Drake's poetry at this time increased from one every few years to three in 1857, eight in 1858, and seven in 1859.[3]

At the end of the Civil War, Drake was a free man and it is thought he took the surname "Drake" from his first owner Harvey Drake. The name is recorded in the 1870 United States Census as "David Drake, turner." [7] It is thought that Drake died in the 1870's, as his name does not appear in the 1880 census.[3]


Dave’s earliest recorded work is a pot dated July 12, 1834.[9] The poetry on this vessel reads[9]:

Putevery bit all between

surely this jar will hold 14

Drake scholar, Jill Beute Koverman argues that Drake "made more than 40,000 pieces over his lifetime."[10] A total twenty of Drake's jars and jugs are inscribed with original poetry and fifty additional vessels reveal his signature, maker's mark, date, and other inscriptions.[9] Dave's jars are bulbous in form, similar to most ware produced in antebellum Edgefield. Drake is known for the massive size of his ware and the largest jar attributed to Dave hold 40 gallons and measures 29 inches tall, with a circumference of 85 inches.[11] One marker of Dave's work is that his jars are widest at the top - "They are wide-mouthed forms with thick, rolled rims and high broad shoulders. Contemporary potters who have examined Dave's thick- walled, large capacity storage jars are amazed at the great strength and skill that was required to produce vessels of such size."[9] The use of Dave's ware ranged from pitchers for buttermilk, jugs for molasses or whiskey, churns for butter, large jars for pickling vegetables or preserving meats such as venison and bear.[11]

Dave commonly used 25- to 40 gallon jugs, which he frequently adorned with short poems and couplets below the rim of the jar.[9] Some of these were explanatory "Put every bit all between / surely this jar will hold 14;" and some were commentaries on the selling of slaves "I wonder where is all my relations / Friendship to all—and every nation." This unusual feature of his work is one of his most famous trademarks. Some collectors and scholars have suggested that Dave's poetry should be characterized as an early act of sedition in the cause of civil rights, because at the time it was generally forbidden for African-Americans to read and write.[12] Pieces by Dave frequently feature the initials "LM." This stood for Lewis Miles, the man who owned the pottery workshop where Dave worked (Miles may have owned Dave for a time, starting in the late 1830s).[12] Lewis Miles has even been referenced directly in one of Dave's couplets: "Dave belongs to Mr. Miles / Wher the oven bakes & the pot biles."


In 2010, the children's book Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave was written by Laban Carrick Hill and illustrated by Bryan Collier. The book gives a biography of Dave as well as his prowess for creating pottery. It won the Coretta Scott King Award and was a Caldecott Honor book in 2011.

During Dave's lifetime his pots were worth around 50 cents; However today, they sell for as much as $50,000.[11] In contemporary auctions and sales, his work has sold for over $40,000 per piece.[13]

In 2008 Leonard Todd published a cohesive biography on Dave the Potter. Leonard Todd’s interest lies in the fact that two of his ancestors were owners of Dave at some point in time.

The 1998 exhibition The Life and Works of the Enslaved African American Potter, Dave at University of South Carolina's McKissick Museum was the first exhibition devoted solely to Dave's pottery.[11] In 2010 contemporary artist Theaster Gates created an exhibition responding to and centering around the work of David Drake, titled Theaster Gates: To Speculate Darkly at the Milwaukee Art Museum. In this exhibitions Gates uses Dave’s work to address issues of craft and race in the African American history.[14]

In 2016 an exhibition at the Vero Museum of Art titled David Drake: Potter and Poet contained 31 objects; 13of which are known to be from Dave’s hand


Dave Drake's work is in various collections, most notably the Smithsonian collection of the National Museum of American History in Washington DC.[15] Philadelphia Museum of Art,[16] Museum of Fine Arts Boston,[17] and the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ de Groft, Aaron (1998-01-01). "Eloquent Vessels/Poetics of Power: The Heroic Stoneware of "Dave the Potter"". Winterthur Portfolio. 33 (4): 249–260. 
  2. ^ Wood, Marcus (2010). The Horrible Gift of Freedom: Atlantic Slavery and the Representation of Emancipation. University of Georgia Press. ISBN 9780820334271. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Todd, Leonard. "Dave's Life". Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter, Dave. Retrieved 14 March 2015. 
  4. ^ "Dave the Slave Potter". Our Infamous History. Edgefield, South Carolina. Retrieved 14 March 2015. 
  5. ^ "Dave the Potter – Pottersville, Edgefield County, South Carolina" (Includes Photos)". South Carolina Information Highway. Retrieved 14 March 2015. 
  6. ^ "Dave, the Potter (aka David Drake)". Encyclopedia of African American Writing. Credo Reference. Retrieved 7 February 2017. 
  7. ^ a b Beute Koverman, Jill (February 2017). "e Ceramic Works of David Drake, aka, Dave the Po er or Dave the Slave of Edge eld, South Carolina". American Ceramic Circle Journal. 13, 2005: 83–98 – via McKissick Museum Commons. 
  8. ^ a b c Leonard., Todd, (2009). Carolina clay : the life and legend of the slave potter Dave. W.W. Norton. ISBN 0393058565. OCLC 300404359. 
  9. ^ a b c d e Baldwin, Cinda (April 2014). Great and Noble Jar: Traditional Stoneware of South Carolina. University Of Georgia Press. p. 41. ISBN 978-0820346168. 
  10. ^ Reif, Rita (2000-01-30). "Art/Architecture; In a Slave's Pottery, a Saga of Courage and Beauty". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-05-21. 
  11. ^ a b c d "A Slave, a Poet, a Potter: Preserving the Legacy of David Drake". The Chronicle of Higher Education. 1998-07-31. Retrieved 2017-05-21. 
  12. ^ a b Wingard, Pete. "WHAT'S HOT in Collecting Southern Stoneware". McElreath Printing & Publishing. Retrieved 14 March 2015. 
  13. ^ "Dave the Potter" Archived 2007-02-16 at the Wayback Machine., University of South Carolina
  14. ^ "Theaster Gates Speculates Darkly  : Chicago Art Magazine". chicagoartmagazine.com. Retrieved 2017-05-21. 
  15. ^ "Jar made by "Dave"". 
  16. ^ "Storage Jar". Philadelphia Museum of Art. 
  17. ^ "Storage Jar". MFA Boston. 
  18. ^ "History of Collections". McKissick Museum - University of South Carolina. 

External links[edit]