First There Was Clay
Corbett Toussaint’s discovery of the noble jar
Corbett Toussaint’s slender hand grabs the lip of a huge 19th century Edgefield vessel, not with intent to lift it but with authority emanating from her years of hands-on research of the journey this vessel made: clay to wheel to kiln and, ultimately, to a South Carolina home.
The large, luminous alkaline-glazed stoneware piece she is holding is a linchpin in her carefully curated collection. It would have been used prior to the Civil War for storage and transfer of food, such as salted pork. Well beyond its intended utilitarian role, what she knows about it imbues the vessel with life. It was made by a real person. Before she acquires such works, Corbett strives to know as much as possible about the craftsmen. “I love the stories behind each one,” Corbett says, adding that pieces being considered for her collection must have a comprehensive provenance. “Of course, the condition of the piece is critical as well.”
Corbett is known regionally as a collector, with an essential grasp of traditional Southern stoneware. Collectors often become historians in areas of ownership that have piqued their interests, but for Corbett the draw is multi-faceted: intellectual and academic, archaeological and societal, tactile and artistic.
Traditional Southern stoneware pieces that have met her stringent criteria and come into her collection are not packed away in burlap or wood shavings. They surround her as part of her active family life. Many of her pieces are displayed in her home’s dark-paneled study, where the subtle sheen from the alkaline glazes picks up ambient light and sun-shards entering the windows. A sofa faces an expansive mantel with a long queue of rare face jugs that also catch the light. Corbett explains that face jugs are popular among collections, not only because they are distinctive to their makers, but also because as few as 200 are thought to exist. Her collection of face jugs is by no means the largest number owned by an individual. “There are many more within collections of institutions,” she says. Their size, diminutive when compared with massive utilitarian vessels, lends credibility to the notion that slaves made these jugs on their own, using far less clay. “Some people believe they represent voodoo or black magic or that they have some other cultural influence,” she says. Face jugs are a departure from the utilitarian 19th century churns, jars, jugs, pitchers, plates, and cups, but are only one area of interest to Corbett.
Her collection also includes pieces by “Dave,” a celebrated Edgefield potter who was a slave living in 19th century South Carolina before the Civil War. Prior to the Civil War, teaching a slave how to read and write was illegal. Dave, however, was literate and wrote bits of poetry on the pottery he created. His pottery is highly valued and sought after.
Standing sentinel at the edge of the hearth, the largest vessel in the room could have held close to 20 gallons of some commodity used by 19th century South Carolinians on a working plantation. Pieces often were marked with where and when the vessels were made and by whom and, in many cases, displayed a number conveying their container capacity as well.
Corbett has learned how to prevail in a field dominated by men. When purchasing pieces for her collection, she relies on auction houses, owners, and agents.
“A seller’s agent once asked to come to our home to show me pieces, setting them up all along our driveway. I looked at everything and then asked about a box that had not been unpacked. I asked, ‘What’s that?’ The piece left unpacked is the piece I ended up buying. It was a four-handled Phoenix Factory storage jar.”
Corbett says the Phoenix Stone Ware Manufactory was a prominent 19th century manufacturer of Southern stoneware located in present-day Aiken, the former Edgefield District of South Carolina during the year 1840. The rare Phoenix Factory piece she purchased is on display at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston Salem, North Carolina. She has a few other pieces on loan there, and she generously supports other academic institutions that need pieces from her collection to round out curated exhibitions.
As for collecting through bidding, technology certainly has changed the dynamics of the process. “My husband, Philip, and I enjoy traveling to auctions when we can; I find the previews before the auctions to be such rich learning experiences.” Corbett says being able to look at scheduled items, reading their provenance, and inspecting their conditions ahead of opening bids is invaluable. “But my interest in this Southern stoneware area of collecting is well-known. I have found if I am seen at an auction, bidders may try to run me up,” meaning bid against her to push the final bid higher. “If I bid by phone, that usually doesn’t happen.”
While adding to her collection has been gratifying, Corbett now finds greater satisfaction in the research and history of Southern stoneware. She especially takes interest in the pottery created in the Old Edgefield District of South Carolina. The Edgefield District was comprised of present-day Edgefield and Saluda counties, and portions of Aiken, Greenwood, and McCormick counties.
“This district was on the Fall Line, which affects the properties and quantity of kaolin clay found there, so pottery there is distinctive within the state from that standpoint,” Corbett says.
Fritz Hamer, Ph.D., an organizer of an earlier exhibition and symposium on the material culture of the Fall Line, defines the imaginary line as the geological border essentially between the Piedmont and Lowcountry regions. Dr. Hamer is curator of history at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room. “It’s where the first shoals and falls were encountered when settlers went from the Lowcountry into the Piedmont,” he says.
Corbett notes that a trade embargo, prior to the War of 1812, left settlers without sources for china and kitchenware. “They worked with what they had, which included this clay with high kaolin content. We had no heavy deposits of salt, which was used in other regions for glazing.”
Corbett says an Edgefield physician of Scots-Irish descent, Dr. Abner Landrum, is credited with creating the alchemy for the alkaline glaze that makes Edgefield pottery distinctive. “He was not only a doctor, but also a newspaper publisher; his brothers, John and Amos, were also involved in the enterprise.”
“One of the things I have liked about this research is it’s gotten me back into genealogy,” Corbett says. Close at hand for ready reference is her copy of Great & Noble Jar, by Cinda Baldwin. The surnames and dealings of these entrepreneurs are relatively easy to find compared with genealogical information on slaves or potters who were emancipated after the Civil War. To track the provenance of stoneware manufactured in that historic district in the 19th and early 20th century, Corbett has sought both traditional and non-traditional sources, including crop lien books, which are not digitized; local and state tax rolls; court documents; and even coroners’ inquests. New information about the potter named Dave was recently located in Freedmen’s Bureau documents.
Her parallel interest in the research side of collecting is bringing her recognition. She co-authored a journal article with noted archaeologist Carl Steen in 2017. She co-curated a 2016 exhibition at Vero Beach Museum in Florida with Jay Williams and contributed content to a catalog that accompanied and supported the exhibition. Currently, she is working with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on a 2020 exhibition for which she is lending material and supporting academically. Several years ago she began blogging at “Just North of Southern.”
Corbett has accrued much of her knowledge hands on. She was interested in Anna Pottery, made by the Kirkpatrick brothers of Anna, Illinois, even before moving to South Carolina. In Columbia, she realized the challenges of making pots when taking a class at Southern Pottery on Devine Street.
She has visited pottery sites, both as an observer and worker. In 2014, she devoted time and energy at the University of South Carolina’s McKissick Museum, where she met researchers, studied documents, and participated in field work related to Edgefield District stoneware.
Her eureka moments more likely came from an academic find than from the discovery or acquisition of a piece of stoneware. “These usually came as I was learning about potters and pottery in the company of long-time collectors.”
Currently, Corbett considers herself more on the academic hunt. “That’s not to say if the right piece came to market I wouldn’t want to add it to my collection. But I won’t say what that right piece is.”