Breaking the Chains: Ceramics and the Abolition Movement

In 1788, Benjamin Franklin wrote to the English potter Josiah Wedgwood to thank him for the gift of anti-slavery medallions and noted, “I am persuaded it may have an effect equal to that of the best written pamphlets in procuring favour to these oppressed people.” [i]

The movement to abolish slavery was one of the earliest modern social justice movements and abolitionists pioneered many tactics now seen as common, such as the use of objects, to advance their cause.  They used objects decorated with anti-slavery images to raise awareness of the plight of enslaved people, to give supporters a tangible way to show their commitment to the cause, and to sell as fundraisers for abolitionist activities.

Between 1775 and 1860, a range of ceramics, some modest and some grand, were made to advance the cause of abolition.  They helped abolish slavery, in part because, as the author Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote, “There is no arguing with pictures and everybody is impressed with them, whether they mean to be or not.” [ii]


Ron Fuchs II, Curator of the Reeves Collection, and Cassie Ivey, Museum Program Coordinator