Rumor has it that Peyton Manning, the star quarterback of the Denver Broncos football team, is an avid collector of toby jugs and character mugs, charming pottery vessels that are molded in the image of people.
When it comes to collecting, toby jugs and character mugs appeal mostly to men. They are not delicate or pretty; they are the opposite of a fancy china teacup.
Sleuthing out the difference between a toby jug and a character mug is elementary; jugs have a spout on the rim for pouring, while mugs are straight along the entire rim. A typical character mug is molded to represent just the head of a subject. A toby jug is fashioned into the full figure of a plump, jolly man named Toby Fillpot, who was said to have died from overindulging in drink and tobacco. Toby jugs depict their namesake dressed in a long coat and a tricorn hat, which forms the pouring spout. Toby also holds a mug of ale in one hand and a pipe in the other.
Toby jugs were made by several potteries in the Staffordshire region of England beginning in the late 1760s. They remained popular throughout the 1800s and well into the 20th century. Character jugs were introduced in the 1930s and became so popular that many English potteries began producing their own versions of the novel vessels.
By the middle of the 20th century, a new collecting trend was going strong, and the possibilities for building a collection seemed endless. Both toby and character jugs came in a wide variety of sizes and styles. The majority of character subjects were historical, literary, political and occupational men, although some important women were also depicted. Eventually entertainers and movie stars, sportsmen and storybook characters were added to the roster.
Two theories surround the origin of the name “toby jug.” Some believe it was named for the character of Sir Toby Belch in Shakespeare’s play “Twelfth Night.” Others believe it was named after a well-known portly drinker from Yorkshire named Harry Elwes, whose nickname was Toby Fillpot. It was said that over the course of his life, Elwes drank 2,000 gallons of strong ale (called Stingo) from a brown jug.
In 1761, the year Elwes died, the Rev. Francis Fawkes wrote a poem about his life and death. Part of the poem read: “His body, when long in the ground had lain, and time into clay had resolved it again, a potter found it in its convert so snug — and with part of fat Toby, he formed this brown jug.”
In 1765, the poem inspired the famous Burslem potter Ralph Wood and Son to create the first clay toby jugs, finished in a brown salt glaze. The novelty soon prompted other Staffordshire potters to produce their own version of the toby jug. As they gained in popularity, potters throughout England began to produce a wide variety of jugs, some even based on new characters and real people.
In 1786, an artist by the name of Robert Dighton engraved an image of the jovial character and titled it “Toby Fillpot – A Thirsty Old Soul.” The engraving was reproduced and sold by a London print seller named Carrington Bowles and greatly inspired the collecting trend. The heyday of authentic toby-jug production in England was between 1775 and 1825.
Perhaps the most well-known and by far the most plentiful producer of character jugs and mugs is the Royal Doulton company. First located in London, the firm began making tableware and collectibles in 1815. In 1882, John Doulton, the company’s principal founder, purchased a factory in Burslem, Staffordshire, in a region known as “The Potteries.” From that time forward, Royal Doulton became a leader in ceramic noveltyware.
In 1924, Doulton’s artist designer Harry Simeon began making toby jugs based on the traditional style, but with a fresh approach by adding color. The “tobies” became an instant success, and today pieces modeled by Simeon are eagerly sought by collectors the world over. In 1933, Charles Noke, Royal Doulton’s creative director, introduced the first character jugs.
Royal Doulton’s toby and character jugs and mugs were made in the likeness of more than 300 subjects. Over time, the handles on jugs were molded to accentuate the character. For instance, the handle on a pirate mug is shaped like a bird; on a golfer mug, the handle is shaped like a bag of golf clubs; and on the Queen Victoria mug, the handle is her scepter. Many other English potters produced their own version of character mugs and jugs, providing endless opportunities for collecting. Look for names such as Allerton, Lancaster Sandland, Kelsboro Ware, Character Ware by Sterling, Beswick Ware, Shorter and Son, Highmount, Tony Wood, Artone, Studio Original and Burleigh Ware, as well as many Japanese knockoffs. Because the items are so plentiful, it is a buyer’s market, and great deals can be had on the Internet. A recent search on eBay for toby jugs and character mugs turned up a listing of 4,322 examples for sale, and almost all were reasonably priced. To learn more about the subject, visit www.tobyjugmuseum.com.
Julie Robinson Robards is an antiques journalist and dealer living in Upper Jay. She is the author of two published books on celluloid, an advisor to several antique price guides and a writer for AntiqueWeek Newspaper since 1995. She may be reached through her website www.celluloidforever.co.