Not many of us can lay claim to becoming an overnight success, but legend says that’s just what happened when the Toby Jug made his first appearance in England sometime between 1750 and 1770.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that the term “overnight success” may not be completely accurate, especially since it’s not known exactly when Toby arrived on the scene, or which of the 18th-century Staffordshire potteries might have produced him.
Key potters of the day and area included John Astbury, Thomas Whieldon, Ralph Wood, Aaron Wood and John Voyez. Of these men, Ralph Wood (who apprenticed to John Astbury in 1730, and subsequently worked with Thomas Whieldon) is commonly referred to as the Father of the Toby Jug. Nonetheless, others believe Toby’s creator was Thomas Whieldon, who was in partnership with Josiah Wedgwood from 1754 to 1759.
Regardless of the first maker, historians credit the actual inspiration of Toby to the many Staffordshire potters that handcrafted whimsical earthenware figures and figural jugs. Typically measuring 6-8 inches high, common figures included soldiers, midshipmen, musicians and other characters dressed in the fashion of the day.
Today these early figurals are collectively referred to as “Astbury” wares, after the well-known potter of the day, John Astbury, although they were most certainly produced by a number of different Staffordshire potters.
Regardless of who actually created Toby, he soon became a familiar figure in Staffordshire homes and taverns, and his popularity quickly spread throughout England and beyond. By the late 1700s, Toby Jugs became common drinking and pouring vessels at local pubs, filled from barrels of a strong alcoholic brew known as Stingo.
The first Toby Jugs had a small, hollow cap that were fitted into the brim of the tri-corn hat. Not only did this complete the crown, the small caps were likely used as a drinking cup. As can be expected, few of these caps or crowns still exist on 18th-century Toby Jugs, having been discarded or damaged throughout the years.
The first Toby Jug, commonly referred to today as Ordinary Toby, is also the one that typically comes to mind when thinking of Toby Jugs, i.e. that of a portly rosy-cheeked gentleman wearing a full-length waistcoat, large buckled shoes, and a tri-corn hat; a gentleman that obviously enjoys the pint of ale he’s holding in his left hand.
Toby began to evolve in the late 18th century, when potters began making Character Jugs, a derivative of the Toby Jug that depicts only the head and shoulders (vs. Toby Jugs, which depict a full figure.) While Toby continued to serve duty as a pitcher well into the 19th century, its utilitarian function was gradually replaced by one of mere decoration. It was not long before several other humorous, eccentric or historical figures were created in the same style, such as the Thin Man or the Gin Woman.
By the mid 19th century, mass production had reduced the quality of English pottery in general, and the Toby Jug was often produced with inferior modeling, painting and glazing. Notable exceptions include jugs made by Samson Smith, which produced Punch (1860) and Town Crier (1880) versions, and Minton, which produced Quaker Man and Quaker Woman from 1865, into the 20th century.
Another prolific maker in the late 19th century was William Kent, who produced Punch and Judy and Admiral Lord Nelson among others; the company’s models were still being used up until quite recently at the Bairstow Manor Pottery.
The late 19th century/early 20th century was also a time of experimentation with Toby, as potters began creating with animal versions. In addition, Toby’s increased popularity saw some jugs produced in America, Australia and Continental Europe, especially Germany, France and Austria. By the early 20th century, nearly 200 potteries were producing Toby Jugs.
The 20th century also brought Toby to a new level. Between 1914 and 1918, F. Carruthers Gould designed what is considered one of the two most significant series of Toby Jugs, in a set depicting 11 World War I heroes produced by A.J. Wilkinson. The other series of significance was Shorter & Son’s 1948 D’Oyley Carte Opera from a Gilbert and Sullivan set.
Another important contribution to Toby history began in the 1920s, when Harry Simeon of Royal Doulton designed an extensive selection of stoneware Toby Jugs and derivatives, including ashtrays, creamers, salt shakers, teapots, liquor decanters and more. Royal Doulton designer Charles Noke followed this up by producing the first modern Character Jug in 1934, John Barleycorn, a figure that symbolized whiskey. Barleycorn also initiated the beginning of significant Royal Doulton Toby Jug production, which now numbers more than 300 characters. Figures have been inspired by historical and political subjects, as well as legends from storybooks and literature.
By the mid 1940s, Royal Doulton had a catalog filled with Character Jugs. Their charismatic charm appealed to 14 year-old Steve Mullins, a Kenilworth, Ill., native who was attending camp in Canada. “I had $9 left in my camp account, and the Jugs were $1.50 each. I picked out six figures, and gave the money to my camp counselor to buy them for me,” said Mullins. “He didn’t actually buy the ones I wanted – all these years later, I can still remember being a bit disappointed – but it did ignite my passion.”
Initially, Mullins gave his new possessions to his mother, and he was thoughtful enough to continue “her” collection over the next several years. “I went to college in New Hampshire, and would stop off at Niagara Falls on my way home through Canada, because there I could purchase a Jug for $4 Canadian, rather than $6 U.S.,” said Mullins. “When I went to Germany (with the Army), I was able to buy them for a $1 at the PX store. Of course, I brought home a whole steamer trunk full. That was the day my mother pointed out this was my collection, not hers.”
Mullins continued collecting, and by 1985, he had accumulated more than 300 Royal Doulton Character Jugs. “At that point, my wife, who while supportive of my desire to collect Toby, had no desire to have a house filled with it, asked me to find another home for them. I built and filled several cabinets in my real estate investment office in Chicago. Of course, it didn’t stop there. I branched out to include antique and 20th-century Toby Jugs. By 1996, my collection had reached 1,500 pieces and 26 cabinets. At that point, even I knew it was time to take action.”
Mullins decided to build the American Toby Jug Museum, first in the back of a British Collectibles store in Evanston, just north of Chicago; then in 2005, his vision was realized with the museum’s own dedicated 4,000-square-foot space nearby. The museum, which is open by appointment, currently has about 100 cabinets, with more than 6,500 pieces on display, illustrating Toby’s evolution from inception to present day.
As for Mullins, he welcomes visitors on an appointment basis, and is eager to share his passion and knowledge, noting that “we have entertained everyone from grade school students to seniors.” Sounds like Toby is just the cure for whatever ales you.