Toby Jugs are small ceramic drinking vessels that depict fictional, historic or generic characters in full figure and high relief. They originated in mid-18th century Staffordshire, England, an area rich in clay and other natural resources. Early designs feature merry old souls dressed in the standard men’s outfit of the day: frock coat, breeches, waistcoat, and tricorn hat. Invariably, they are shown holding jugs of foamy stingo, a strong, locally-brewed bitter ale. Because the jugs symbolized mirth and merriness, their tubby, bubbly images also graced British inn, pub and tavern signs.
The identity of the Toby who gave Toby Jugs their name remains unclear. Some believe it references Sir Toby Belch, a spirited character in Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night. Others say it likely acknowledges a legendary local tippler named Toby Philpot. Supporting the latter theory is a rollicking 1761 drinking song that celebrates the transformation of Philpot’s mortal ashes into a jug:
Dear Sir this brown jug, which now foams with mild ale,
Out of which I now drink to sweet Kate of the vale,
Was once Toby Philpot, a thirsty old soul,
As e’er crack’d a bottle or fathom’d a bowl.
Clothing depicted on early Toby Jugs reflected the typical attire of the day. As times changed, so did the porcelain materials and methods of production. Pale, delicate creamware Toby jugs gave way to blue-tinged pearlware and brighter Prattware versions. Agateware Tobys, featuring alluring marble-like surfaces, and brown, salt-glazed stoneware treacle Tobys, their glazes resembling the sticky byproduct of sugar refining Americans know as molasses, were also popular.
Designs varied as well. So-called “ordinary” Tobys grasp their knees, hug jugs, puff pipes, or balance on barrels, and some of the bases feature inscriptions, such as ‘’Good Ale is Made for the Use of Men so fill Ould Tobe Once Again.” Another subgroup of Toby Jugs reflects common professions and pastimes of 18th-century British life: sailor, squire, snuff taker, parson, and collier. Still another iteration, Martha Gunn Tobys, immortalize a strong, stalwart Englishwoman who gained fame from her operation of a seashore bathing machine called a ‘dipper.’
As Toby Jug popularity soared, French potters riffed on the form by creating delicate faience models glistening with tin-oxide glaze. Potters in Portugal, Britain, Germany, Australia, and America subsequently contributed bright lead-glazed majolica models. In addition to popular, political, and literary types such as the barrister, the Quaker, and the lady with a fan, many Toby Jugs portray droll characters based on well-known songs and stories.
In the mid-1800s, Royal Doulton, a leading British producer of porcelain, introduced its own spin on the Toby Jug: character jugs. Instead of featuring seated or standing full figures, the Royal Doulton character jugs depict just heads and shoulders. Initially, these bust-form jugs portrayed Lord Nelson, a British naval hero, as well as zippy tipplers astride barrels marked XX. Other Doulton Tobys portrayed famed literary, political, and popular characters, from Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Dickens to Theodore Roosevelt and Charlie Chaplin.
During the 20th century, more than 200 potteries, including Sarreguemines, Royal Bayreuth, Royal Worcester and Wedgwood, produced a variety of Toby and Toby-like jugs. Shorter & Son alone introduced more than 100 types, including traditional favorites such as Old King Cole, Old Father Neptune, and Long John Silver.
In the 1930s, Royal Doulton introduced their first modern character jug. It resembled John Barleycorn, the British personification of malt liquor. Old Charley, honoring watchmen who kept law and order, joined him, followed by scores more. All told, the company created more than 600 Toby and character jugs. In addition, Doulton produced limited numbers of novel Toby derivatives such as tobacco jars, match-stands, music boxes, bookends, decanters and candlesticks.
Toby and character jug production thrived through the 1980s, with independent artists and innovative potteries issuing a range of appealing models. Many celebrate literary heroes such as Robin Hood and Robinson Crusoe. Others welcomed the 21st century with more up-to-date pop-culture and historical figures, among them Paul McCartney, Marilyn Monroe, Barack Obama and Tweety Bird. While the shapes and styles of Toby jugs have changed, they have lost none of their appeal. Collectors are likely to chase them for centuries to come.