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This article contains images that depict the aftermath of violence.
While walking through the galleries in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, you’ll be lured to explore the remarkable spaces,
Left: Pillared Temple Hall; Made in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India, c. 1560 and Right: Room from Het Scheepje (The Little Ship); Made in Haarlem, Netherlands; Early 1600s
to linger alongside the famous,
Left: Thomas Eakins; Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic), 1875 and Right: Marcel Duchamp; The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915 – 1923
to satiate your senses with the noisy and the colorful,
Left: Cai Guo-Qiang; Fallen Blossoms: Explosion Project, 2009; Gunpowder fuse, metal net for gunpowder fuse, scaffolding and Right: Off the Wall: American Art to Wear, 2020
and, of course, to revisit the beloved ones.
Left: Vincent van Gogh; Sunflowers, 1889 and Right: Claude Monet; Japanese Footbridge and the Water Lily Pool, Giverny, 1899
But don’t walk by the quiet ones, the seemingly bland and ordinary ones. They, too, are exceptional.
Dave the Potter, Made at the Lewis J. Miles Pottery (Miles Mill), Edgefield district, South Carolina; Storage Jar, 1859; Alkaline-glazed stoneware; Philadelphia Museum of Art
For starters, it’s alkaline-glazed stoneware. During the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, American colonists used a type of functional tableware known as “dirt dishes” or “redware” (from the clay’s high iron content). To make the earthenware non-porous, it was coated and sealed with a lead-based glaze and then fired in a kiln. However, if the kiln didn’t reach a high enough temperature or if the pottery didn’t stay in the kiln long enough, the lead from the glaze seeped into the food or drink. And, at a time when most food was preserved by pickling, the acid in the pickling vinegar accelerated the release of lead from the glaze. Lead poisoning was common.
Left: Maker Unknown, American; Milk Pan, 1870; Red earthenware, white and manganese slip decoration, lead glaze. Top Right: Artist/maker unknown, American; Mug, 1830-1845; Red earthenware, lead glaze. Bottom Right: Vickers’ Pottery, PA; Pie Plate, c. 1850; Red earthenware, white slip decoration, lead glaze. (All from the Philadelphia Museum of Art)
In the early 1800s, Abner Landrum, a farmer, land speculator, newspaper editor, and physician who had seen the effects of lead poisoning in his patients, found a solution. He realized that his hometown, the Edgefield district of South Carolina, was surrounded by all of the required resources to make non-toxic stoneware: an abundance of various clays, forests of trees to fuel the kilns, and the necessary ingredients to make a non-toxic alkaline glaze.
Abner was so enthusiastic that he named three of his children after famous European potters, purchased over 450 acres of land, and opened Landrumsville (aka Pottersville) Manufactory. By the mid-1810s, his factory was known for producing waterproof, tough, non-toxic, and easy-to-clean tableware and vessels. They even came in extra-large sizes.
Left: 1817 Survey Map of Edgefield District, SC (Library of Congress) and Right: Attributed to Abner Landrum’s Pottersville Stoneware Manufactory; Double-Collared Neck Jug, 1821; McKissick Museum, University of South Carolina
Within a short period of time, several members of Abner’s family also established pottery factories nearby.
By 1820, the Edgefield District was the third most populated region in the American South. Thousands of large vessels were needed to store food for the majority of its population who labored at the center of South Carolina’s cotton boom, a crop planted, tended, and picked by its 24,000+ enslaved men, women, and children. By the start of the American Civil War in April 1861, cotton was the country’s most valuable export.
Enslaved people returning from the cotton fields in South Carolina, circa 1860
Edgefield potteries trained and relied on large numbers of highly skilled enslaved Black potters to build and maintain the kilns, each of which required ten tons of firewood a day;
Excavated contours of the Pottersville kiln, 2011; Archaeology of Edgefield, South Carolina Pottery Communities
dig and transport the clay; work and grind raw clay in “pug” mills;
prepare glaze mixtures, tempers, and clay pastes; turn the pottery wheels and shape jugs, pitchers, churns, and storage jars; and load and unload the kiln.
Edgefield potters produced a wide range of exceptionally well-made, practical wares in a fiercely competitive market.
Jars with wide mouths and horizontal lug (slab) handles were used to preserve solid staples, such as lard, vegetables, or meat.
Dave the Potter, Stony Bluff Manufactory, Edgefield District, South Carolina; Storage Jar, 1858; Alkaline-glazed stoneware; The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Jugs with narrow necks and vertical loop handles held liquids such as whiskey, cane syrup, molasses, or vinegar.
Dave the Potter; Double-handled jug, 1840; Lewis J. Miles Factory, Horse Creek Valley, Edgefield District, South Carolina; Stoneware with alkaline glaze; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Dave was one of the hundreds of potters who worked at the Landrum family factories. Enslaved people weren’t given a surname and he eventually became known as Dave the Potter. “Country born” (born in the US) in 1800-1 to enslaved workers in Edgefield, he grew up in Pottersville. The first mention of Dave appears in June 1818 in a legal document that involved one of Abner Landrum’s nephews, Harvey Drake: “two negroes Slaves Dave a boy about 17 years old Country born and Eliza a girl about 18 or 20 years old both my property and my indisputed [sic] possession.” By the time Dave was a teenager, he’d already worked at Abner’s local newspaper and at Harvey Drake’s pottery factory (1).
Something unusual happened on March 7, 1831. On a storage jar that’s been attributed to Dave, the date and a row of hatch marks were etched into the soft clay before it was baked and hardened in the kiln.
The Charlestown Museum, Charlestown, South Carolina
Harvey Drake died in December 1832. The settlement of his estate states that “1 Negro man named Dave [was sold] to [Ruben] Drake and [his business partner] Jasper Gibbs for $400.”
The horrors suffered by enslaved people in the US are well-known. In Edgefield, attempts to control the enslaved population included various forms of savage brutality and violent abuse. “Slave auctions” were held on market days; human beings were sold beside produce, livestock, and other goods.
The Old Slave Mart in Charlestown, South Carolina is now a museum.
Concerned that literacy among the enslaved population would result in the spread of abolitionist material and rebellion, South Carolina passed the country’s first laws that prohibited the education of enslaved persons in 1740. An unsuccessful revolt of enslaved people in 1834 led the state’s fearful General Assembly to increase the severity of the regulations. Anyone caught teaching an enslaved or a free Black person to read or write could be fined, imprisoned, and/or whipped. If an enslaved person was discovered to be literate, their fingers, toes, or hands might be amputated. Those who continued to learn to read could be whipped with a strap or slapped with hot irons up to thirty-nine times upon a bare back.
Gordon, who was also known as “Whipped Peter”, escaped from a plantation in Louisiana in March 1863. To mask his scent from the bloodhounds that chased him, he rubbed his body with onions after crossing each creek or swamp. Ten days later, upon reaching a camp of Union soldiers in Baton Rouge, he wept with joy. The extensive scarring on his back from repeated whippings was photographed by a Union soldier during a medical exam. (Library of Congress)
Gordon joined the Union Army as a guide. During one expedition, he was captured by Confederate soldiers, tied up, beaten, and left for dead. He survived and once more escaped to Union lines. Gordon joined the U.S. Colored Troops Civil War Unit and in May-July 1863, was part of an assault that regained control and navigation of the Mississippi River.
During the same year that South Carolina passed its harshest anti-literacy law, Dave incised a rhyming couplet – simple directions about how to pack a fourteen-gallon jar with meat – into the soft clay of a storage jar.
Dave the Potter, Made at Pottersville pottery; Storage Jar, 1834; On one side: Put every bit all between / surely this jar will hold 14 and on the opposite side: July 12th 1834 and fourteen punctates; Alkaline-glazed stoneware; South Carolina State Museum
When or how Dave learned to read and write is not known but there are several theories. Harvey Drake may have insisted that all of his enslaved workers read the Bible; Dave might have learned to read while working as a typesetter in Abner Landrum’s local newspaper; or perhaps Dave was taught to read and write so that he could personalize items (example at left).
A storage jar inscribed by Dave reads Panzerbieter’s Grocers / King and Columbus Ste, Charleston, S.C.
Around 1836, Ruben Drake and his family moved to Louisiana where land was cheap and took a number of Dave’s enslaved loved ones and friends with him. Left behind, Dave had no choice but to remain working for Jaspar Gibbs.
Accounts differ, but sometime in the 1830s (some suggest when Dave and his loved ones were forcibly separated), Dave was run over by a railroad train and one of his legs was severed. In 1930, researchers from the Charleston Museum in South Carolina interviewed an eighty-five-year-old formerly enslaved pottery worker, Carey Dickson, who recalled, “Of course I knew Dave. I know all about him. He used to belong to old man [Ruben] Drake and it was at that time that he had his leg cut off. They say he got drunk and laid on the railroad track.” That Dave was able to continue to form such large vessels with only one leg to turn his pottery wheel is incredible.
In 1836, Dave added poems onto two more vessels. One of them reads:
29th March 1836 on one side and on the other, horses mules and hogs — / all our cows is in the bogs — / there they shall ever stay / till the buzzards take them away =
Dave the Potter, Drake and Gibbs Pottery Factory, Edgefield District, S.C.; Storage Jar; Alkaline-glazed stoneware; Private Collection
In late 1839, Jasper Gibbs sold his interest in the pottery factory, which included Dave, to Abner Landrum’s son-in-law, Lewis Miles.
During January 1840, the first month that Dave worked in Miles’s factory, he began to carve “L. Miles” into several jars. And then, on January 27, 1840, Dave, for the first time, not only added the date, he signed his name into the clay. It’s an astonishing, blatant disregard for the anti-literacy laws and the potential consequences. It’s a blatant declaration of personhood, of individuality, and of intellectual freedom. No enslaved potter had even done such a thing.
Two days later, he took the bravest step of all and added the date, Miles’s initials, an original couplet, and signed his name – a declaration of courage, dissent, and dignity.
Dave the Potter, Lewis Miles Factory; Two-Handled Jug incised with Ladys & gentlemens Shoes = / Sell all you can & nothing you’ll loose!” on one side and January 29 1840 / L. Miles Dave and six punctates on the other side; Alkaline glaze; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Over the next three years (1840-43), among the numerous storage jars, butter churns, single- and double-handled jugs, and pitchers that Dave made, sixteen have been found that depict some variation of Lewis Miles’s name (L. Miles, Mr. Miles, Mr. L Miles, or LM) and Dave’s signature; five of these include his original poetry.
Dave belongs to Mr. Miles / wher the oven bakes & the pot biles /// / July 31, 1840; The Charleston Museum, Charleston, South Carolina. The last word is believed to be an alteration the word “boils”, which Dave changed to create a rhyme.
The next few years of Dave’s life were especially difficult. Lewis Miles’s wife died and he married his deceased wife’s first cousin, Sarah. As a result, in 1843, Dave was sold to and enslaved next by Miles’s new father-in-law, Reverend John Landrum. John and his son, Benjamin Franklin (“B.F.”) owned a pottery factory near Edgefield at the headwaters of Horn’s Creek, a tributary of the Savannah River.
To increase productivity, Dave was paired with another enslaved worker, Henry (Simkins), who did not have the use of either arm. Henry worked the pedal that turned the potter’s wheel with his feet while Dave worked the clay with his strong hands. When the jar was the desired shape and size, Dave applied the drippy alkaline glaze and then fired the vessels in the kiln. The strong, long-lasting pottery was loaded into wagons and peddled all over Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. Together, Dave and Henry produced what came to be known as the “best ware in the country.”
Dave the Potter, John Landrum Pottery; Six-Gallon Alkaline-Glazed Stoneware Jar, 1843
The double-dipping of the jar during the glazing process created a two-tone effect, with heavy drips cascading over a brownish-olive green ground at the base. The incised date, October. 13th. 1843, appears at the shoulder on the front beside two incised slash marks. This is the last known jar made by Dave prior to his “silent period.”
John Landrum was a minister at Horn’s Creek Baptist Church, where BF was also a member.
Horn Creek Baptist Church was a one-room meeting house of austere simplicity. The door behind the pulpit led to a creek where members were once baptized. National Register of Historic Places, South Carolina
Reverend John died in December 1846. Excerpts from his obituary state that he “was a zealous and untiring preacher of the gospel for more than fifty years” whose sermons “corrected the morals, mind, and heart of his fellow men.” His mind was “never occupied with amusements, or with anything in its nature, trifling.” He “was a warm friend to education and left no proper opportunity to embrace its advantages to society.” One wonders if Dave read the obituary and if he agreed.
The settlement of John’s estate separated his enslaved workers among six different buyers.
The record of the sale in February 1847 shows that “Man Dave” was next enslaved by the reverend’s son, B. F. Landrum, for the price of $800. “Man Henry”, Dave’s work partner, was sold to Lewis Miles for $50.
Tensions rose after three enslaved persons were murdered near Edgefield. Historically, if the murderer was someone other than the enslaver, “there was usually an investigation, at the very least because property had been destroyed and someone expected compensation.”
At the pottery factory, B. F. bound and whipped one of Dave’s co-workers, an enslaved woman who had tried to run away. A short time later, she hanged herself.
For the six years that Dave was enslaved by John and then B.F., he and his jars fell silent.
Edgefield, South Carolina; ? date; The View from the American South’s Country Coroner’s Office
Dave’s circumstances changed again in January 1849 when, for reasons unknown, Sarah Miles (B.F.’s sister and Lewis Miles’s second wife) petitioned for a new executor of her father’s estate. As a result, Dave was sent to work again in Miles’s pottery factory.
Dave, now a master potter at the highest-ranking level of skill, specialized in making very large containers that could hold up to forty gallons (151.4 liters). Miles paired him with another enslaved worker, Baddler, who worked the potter’s wheel. Six silent years came to an end; the number of vessels made by Dave with inscriptions proliferated immediately and continued until 1864. Once again, all of the writing was in script, although now only Miles’s initials – Lm – and not his full name, were incised.
Throwing pottery of that size and weight requires enormous skill and strength.
Dave worked as a turner. They were the backbone of the pottery business and had the highest value.
After clay was wedged (kneaded) to make it smooth and remove air bubbles, it was built up and formed on a treadle wheel, where the momentum of the potter’s foot swinging back and forth on a pedal kept the wheel rotating. The spinning creates a centrifugal force that pushes the clay outwards; the potter works against the force while pulling and lifting the clay up and out to create a variety of shapes.
When throwing very large pots, a potter can only pull the clay as far as the length of their arm. To increase a vessel’s height and width, Dave began with a sturdy base and then added long coils of clay around the top rim. A potter may go from sitting, to standing, to using a step-stool to reach the top as more sections are added and seamed together while the vessel rotates on the wheel.
Sometimes, Dave used a different technique. He divided the total weight of the clay, made each section separately and allowed them to stiffen, layered one on top of the other, and then joined and finished it on the potter’s wheel. Both techniques take physical strength in the arms, back, and hands and years of practice to master.
Dave the Potter, Stony Bluff Manufactory pottery site in Old Edgefield District, South Carolina; Storage Jar; the inscription reads: this jar is to Mr Segler who keeps the bar in orangeburg / for Mr Edwards a Gentle man — who formly kept / Mr thos bacons horses / April 21 1858 and on the opposite shoulder, when you fill this Jar with pork or beef / Scot will be there; to get a peace, – / Dave [and 25 slashes]; Alkaline-glazed Stoneware; The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Dave the Potter; Twenty-Five Gallon Food-Storage Jar; Signed “Dave”, July 29 1858, and inscribed the sun moon and – stars = / in the west are aplenty of – bears; Folk Pottery Museum of Northeast Georgia. There’s no proof but some have wondered if the poem is coded instruction for reaching a section of the Underground Railroad, a network of routes, places, and people that helped enslaved people escape to freedom.
This jar is one of very few existing pieces known on which David wrote the name of his assistant along with his own name. The name Mark probably refers to Mark Jones, another of the few documented enslaved potters working in Edgefield. Mark was twenty-four years at the time. Dave the Potter, Lewis Miles Pottery; Storage Jar, 1859. Alkaline-glazed stoneware; Incised in script: Mark and/ –Dave– and two slash marks; on opposite side: Lm. March 10·1859; Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
One of Dave’s large forty-gallon jars is in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. May 3d 1859, Lm and Dave’s large signature are on one side and a couplet is incised on the other. It was two years before the beginning of the American Civil War. Dave was fifty-nine-years old.
The jar is characteristic of his work: substantial with a broad base, thick walls, and high, broad shoulders; widest at the top with a thick, rolled rim that could be used to tie down a material to cover the opening; and two closely-fitted “lug” handles located close to the rim that are deep enough to accommodate strong fingers. It’s easy to see where he layered the coils to make the jar wider and taller.
Dave the Potter, Made at the Lewis J. Miles Pottery (Miles Mill), Edgefield district, South Carolina, c. 1830 – 1879; Jar, 1859; Alkaline-glazed stoneware; 26 1/2 × 23 1/2 inches (67.3 × 59.7 cm); Philadelphia Museum of Art
Enslaved men, women, and children worked from sun-up to sun-down, or, as it was known, “from can see to can’t see.”
Left: Drayton Hall Plantation, Charleston County, South Carolina and Right: Enslaved Workers Drying Cotton at Drayton Hall Plantation
On plantations (labor camps), enslaved adults and children who were assigned to work in main house maintained fires, hauled wood, swept hearths, carried water, emptied chamber pots, scrubbed floors, washed and ironed clothing, sewed, cared for babies and children, groomed adults, and cooked and served food.
Interior of the kitchen on a plantation, Camden County Georgia
Perhaps some of them came upon a large, bland, and ordinary looking jar made by an enslaved potter. Imagine their surprise upon discovering the deeply carved words and, whether or not they could read, what it must have felt like to run their hands over the surface.
Undoubtedly, some of Dave’s vessels found their way into the hands of enslaved people who could read. (These stories come from the Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938, a project that was under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration [WPA] and employed writers to interview formally enslaved people.)
Mandy Jones described that in Mississippi, she and others slipped out their quarters at night to attend a “pit-school,” a hole that had been dug deeply enough to hide in and cover with branches while folks hid and learned the alphabet. Mississippi Slave Narratives from the WPA Records
In Charleston, South Carolina, Benjamin Holmes, who was enslaved as a child by a tailor, studied all of the signs and the names on all of the doors where he delivered bundles. By the time he was twelve, he could read newspapers. He remembered holding a copy Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in his hands and reading it out loud. Black Past.org
William Johnson recalled, “We had one smart slave on our plantation, Joe Sutherland, who was master’s coachman. Joe always hung around the courthouse with master. He went on business trips with him, and through this way, Joe learned to read and write unbeknown to master. In fact, Joe got so good that he learned how to write passes for the slaves. Master’s son, Carter Johnson, was clerk of the county court, and by going around the court every day, Joe forged the county seal on these passes and several slaves used them to escape to free states.” City University of New York
Imagine a child tracing each letter with their fingers.
Incised Good for lard or holding fresh meat / Blest we were when Peter saw the folded sheet. The last line refers to a story in the Bible when the apostle Peter had a vision of a sailcloth full of creatures. Peter interpreted it as a message from God to accept all people regardless of their race or religion. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
In December 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union and in February 1861, became one of the founding states of the Confederacy. Two months later, the South Carolina Militia fired shots at Fort Sumpter, a Union garrison in Charleston Harbor – the first shots of a war that lasted for four years and accounted for more American military deaths than all other wars combined until the Vietnam War. Every eligible male in the Miles and Landrum families voluntarily joined the Confederate army. Although some enslaved men were forced to follow their enslavers to war, Dave, now sixty, continued to make pottery at Lewis Miles’s factory.
For the last four years, Lewis Miles, knowing that paper money would become worthless if war broke out, had been instructing Dave to make miniature versions of his great jars. Lewis filled each one with gold and silver and buried it. After Miles died, looters violated his gravesite in search of coins.
On May 3, 1862, Dave’s inscribed his last known poem onto a twenty-inch-high storage jar. It’s now at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington D.C.
Dave the Potter; Jar, inscribed May 3, 1862 / LM Dave on one side and I, made this Jar, all of cross / If, you dont repent, you will be, lost = on the other
The last known vessel that Dave signed is dated March 31, 1864. When Union troops marched into Edgefield three months later, he claimed his freedom and negotiated a wage-paying contract with Lewis Miles. He also formalized his first name to David and adopted Drake as his surname. Emancipated men and women often took the last name of their first enslaver; it was a custom that developed in hope to find family members whom they had not seen in decades.
A contract dated January 1866 between B.F. Landrum and several freed persons includes a man named Dave.
(Corbett E. Toussaint; http://www.justnorthofsouthern.com/?p=125 )
In 1870, only two of Edgefield’s potteries remained in business. Lewis Miles faced financial difficulties and leased his pottery factory to three emancipated potters. He then opened a new stoneware factory near a rail line also had a gristmill, sawmill, and tannery. Ten years later, B.F. Landrum’s and Lewis Miles’s sons both ran competing and profitable potteries.
The 1870 federal census, the first to list freed Blacks by name, indicates that “David Drake, seventy-year-old Black turner” was living in the same household as Mark Jones, who was once David’s assistant and was now his son-in-law. Mark was employed as a turner in Lewis Miles’s pottery. Mark and his wife, Caroline, had five children, including a four-year-old named David.
During the last years of David Drake’s life, members of the Ku Klux Klan, a White supremacist hate group, patrolled his neighborhood and severely beat Black men and woman. The 1880 census does not list a David Drake in the Edgefield District; the year he died is unknown.
It’s estimated that David Drake produced an astonishing 40,000 pots in his lifetime. About 170 have been found and of those, 40 are marked by couplets on various subjects – love, money, spirituality, life as an enslaved person, and the afterlife. As the years passed and his signature became larger, they trace his dignified presence, intelligence, humor, defiance, courage, and grace. Bland, ordinary, and seemingly empty-looking empty vessels are sometimes filled with a powerful presence.
– Meighan Maley
David Drake’s Descendants at “Dave Day!”, Edgefield Clay Studio, July 2016
1870 Census; LowCountryAfricana.com
Abolitionism The Library at Cornell University
Anti-literacy Laws in the United States; Wikipedia
Beneath his Magic Touch: The Dated Vessels of the African-American Slave Potter Dave; Chipstone.org
Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938; Library of Congress
Burrison J. South Carolina’s Edgefield District: An Early International Crossroads of Clay. 2012. American Studies Journal
Cornelius, Janet. “‘We Slipped and Learned to Read:” Slave Accounts of the Literacy Process, 1830-1865.” Phylon (1960-), vol. 44, no. 3, 1983, pp. 171–186. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/274930.
David the Potter, Greenville County Museum of Art
Dave the Potter; Smithsonian National Museum of American History
David the Potter; Leonard Todd
Education of the Enslaved People in the US; Wikipedia
Goldberg AF and James Witkowski. Beneath his Magic Touch: The Dated Vessels of the African-American Slave Potter Dave; Ceramics in America, 2006. Chipstone.org
In a Slaves Pottery: Saga of Courage and Beauty; New York Times
Introduction to Edgefield Stonewares; Archaeologyhour.com
Historical Overview of Edgefield, SC; Historic Edgefield.com
How Slavery Became the Economic Engine of the South; History.com
Humans for Sale; DailyMail.co.uk
Koverman JK. The Ceramic Works of David Drake, aka, Dave the Potter or Dave the Slave of Edgefield, South Carolina. American Ceramic Circle Journal, Volume 13, 2005.
Landrum Family History; Knowitall.org
Lead-Glazed Pottery; FDA.gov
Lewis Miles; Archaeologyhour.com
Literacy of Enslaved People; First Chapter ‘Jim Crow’s Children’ By Peter Irons
Map of Edgefield Area Potteries; Crockerfarm.com/
Pottery of South Carolina’s Edgefield District; Journal of Antiques
Slave-Made Pottery; Antiquesjournal.com
The Project Gutenberg Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves by Work Projects Administration; Gutenberg.org/
Wingard, Peter. How Old is That Jar? Southeastern Antiquing and Collecting Magazine