University of Portsmouth's History Blog

From folk tale to cheap consumer good to object of wonder – the life history of a toby jug

Our new UoP history module, The Extraordinary and the Everyday: People, Places and Possessions, taught by Dr Katy Gibbons and Dr Maria Cannon, studies material evidence – objects, buildings, landcapes – as a starting point for asking questions about the past.  It employs an innovative form of assessment – the object biography, which recognises that material artefacts, just like people, accumulate histories and have their own life-stories to tell, about the meanings and values of the societies that produced, collected or consumed them.  Harry Odgers’ object biography told the complex story of a seemingly simple drinking vessel, a ‘Toby jug’.

Objects of the past are incredibly useful and can offer the historical narrative unique information and emotion concerning people’s lives. Items are ‘the stuff of life’; because they have frequently interacted with individuals in cultural and social ways.[1] This biography provides insight into a ‘Toby Jug’ by exploring its significant contextual features; its reflection of the early modern consumer market and its growth; and its numerous lives.

Photography of the toby jug

British Museum, Registration number 1887,0307,H.78 © The Trustees of the British Museum

The jug depicts a seated man clutching a mug of alcohol. It is made out of an earthenware material with a colourless lead glaze; and painted yellow and purple. This, along with its distinctive tri-cornered hat, makes it a Toby Jug – a popular object in early modern Britain amongst consumers; and its primary function was to store and serve alcohol. It currently resides in The British Museum, who state that it was created ‘circa 1780’ in Staffordshire.[2]

The precise origins of this fairly fictious character are somewhat unknown. The jug of alcohol, tobacco pipe resting at his side and name ‘Toby’ all associate it with the tavern, specifically referencing tales of an eighteenth-century Yorkshireman, with similar features, who supposedly drank two-thousand gallons of ale from a jug. Elizabeth Wallace acknowledges that the character took influence from a ‘Yorkshire drinker’ named ‘Toby Filpot’; it was spread and ‘memorialized’ by the poet Francis Fawkes, whose tale, The Brown Jug, refers to a similar drunkard.[3] Living in Yorkshire, Fawkes was situated where the jugs first became popular, implying his poem potentially incorporated this character into northern folk-life.[4] Folk tales are often fictitious, yet Dee Ashliman explains that many people have ‘accepted’ folktales to be true.[5] Likewise, Vladimir Propp explains further that either way folk law can simply reflect ‘the outlook of the age’.[6] It suggests that tales were a common way of successfully spreading knowledge of, potentially even marketing, consumer goods during this period. Word of mouth was the ‘simplest form of communication’ because it did not require any form of education to utilise, unlike writing letters or reading newspapers. Therefore, it provides insight into how folk tales, and their materialistic counterparts, were a popular form of early modern culture; and also, that objects were a focal point of conversation between people and communities – aiding the social historical narrative within early modern society.[7]

Etching of Toby Fillpot, 1786

Etching, 1786, with verses below: ‘this brown Jug that now foams with mild Ale … Was once Toby Fillpot, a thirsty old Soul’, the jug being supposedly created by the potter out of the clay of Toby after he had been long-buried. https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_2010-7081-1369

Alternatively, it reflects the growing consumer market during this period, in which people sought items of both decorativeness and functionality, strengthened by steam power advancements and the introduction of materials like earthenware, which were ‘so much cheaper’.[8] Cheaper earthenware’s encouraged a ‘great spread of spending on manufactures’ because businesses had spare money to reinvest.[9] Correspondingly, people in this period were more ‘conscious of their material life’, meaning mass production was becoming necessary to match the higher demand for materialistic products.[10] Inevitably this led to a period where production expanded at a higher and constant frequency across the country.[11] Bevis Hillier explains that folk pottery is unique, and popular, because it is both ‘ruthlessly decorative as it is ruthlessly functional’.[12] Clearly this Toby Jug is a part of this growing consumer market: it functioned as an alcohol jug and was decorated in a purple and yellow colouring, mirroring the growing desire from consumers. Additionally, this Toby Jug was created from earthenware and its cheap, brittle form can be reflected by the minor damages to its lid. Staffordshire potters, including Ralph Wood, utilised similar materials in their other work; which are similarly ‘earthenware’ and ‘lead glazed’.[13] Wallace argues that this jug was ‘made at the factory of Ralph Wood’ – suggesting it was indeed his work. It is a valuable asset because it offers insight into its creator; whilst providing a unique perspective into the growth of the consumer market, including the cultural desire of consumers, emerging in the English Industrial period.[14]

The ‘transition to capitalism’ during this period – demanding objects of luxury and functionality – only saw the market grow further. For example, it included other folk legends including Gin Woman and Drunken Sal; which functioned correspondingly, whilst aiding the market by offering consumers choice.[15] They were revised in the twentieth century where anything could appear on the jug – including Charlie Chaplin or Pavarotti.[16] Its impact is reflected by this growth into later centuries; where artists such as Richard Slee have even created modern adaptations like Toby as Abstraction, which plays on the idea of ‘Englishness’ and the meaning of English traditions. [17] It shows the impact these jugs had within the consumer market, which grew over the recent centuries, and the extent they ‘circulated as a popular consumer item’ – as they remained popular for consumers, even today.[18] This usefully enforces how items incorporating both functionality and decorativeness, which are prominent within modern consumerist culture, stemmed from the early modern period.

Toby jug of King George V

Staffordshire Toby Jug of King George V, 1918, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Luckily this jug was able to survive numerous lives. Once created, it would have been used in a tavern to store alcohol. Use in an alcohol establishment, surrounded by people who were intoxicated, could indicate how the lid was damaged.[19] Also, it implies that there was a shared usage of this item. The jug would have been utilised in a public house by numerous people, suggesting that these establishments favoured items of decorative and functionality as well. It was later acquired by museum administrator Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks, and then donated to the British Museum in 1887.[20] Catherine Richardson states that object’s function as a ‘consumer good’ in their primary lives, whilst later becoming objects of ‘collecting and wonder’.[21] Whilst Anne Gerittsen explains further that it is through these numerous ‘social lives’ that objects acquire their meaning.[22] Similarly, Samuel Adshead explains that when objects are ‘processed’ through these social interactions, and therefore given meaning, they become ‘cultural objects’ of materialistic culture; because their interactions with various people, and within different places, provides them with unique and diverse backgrounds, as well as an emotional perspective – which written culture can often lack due to its less visually engaging form.[23] This object is useful by providing ‘complex, symbolic bundles of social, cultural, and individual meaning’ through its cultural complexities regarding its origins; its placement in a wider, growing consumer market; and its social lives over the past three centuries.[24]

Clearly this object has had a rich and diverse history. It passed through multiple life stages – from its primary use as a jug through to its life in a museum. The jug is a useful instrument when investigating the historical narrative: its features and materials reflect the pottery industry amongst the wider, developing consumer market in the eighteenth century, whilst its lives offer valuable, emotional perspectives into past relationships and human interactions. It is an item which provides a unique angle on the cultural and social relationships within the early modern period.

[1] Anthony Buxton, Tim Harris, Stephen Taylor, and Andy Wood. Domestic Culture in Early Modern England (Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2015), 95

[2] The British Museum Collection Online. “Toby Jug.” https://research.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?assetId=415927001&objectId=38180&partId=1, last accessed 2 April 2020.

[3] Elizabth Kowaleski Wallace. “Character Resolved into Clay – The Toby Jug, Eighteenth-Century English Ceramics, and the Rise of Consumer Culture,” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 31, No. 1 (2018): 19-22; Francis Fawkes. The Brown Jug (1761).

[4] West Yorkshire Archive Service. “Lister Family of Shibden Hall, Family and Estate Records.” https://www.catalogue.wyjs.org.uk/CalmView/Record.aspx?src=CalmView.Catalog&id=CC00001, last accessed 2 April 2020

[5] Dee Ashliman, Folk and Fairy Tales: A Handbook (London: Greenwood Press, 2004), 34

[6] Vladimir Propp, Ariadna Y. Martin, and Richard P. Martin. Theory and History of Folklore (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 3.

[7] John Miller. Early Modern Britain, 1450-1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 420.

[8] Darren Dean, Andrew Hann, Mark Overton and Jane Whittle, Production and Consumption in English Households, 1600-1750 (London: Routledge, 2004), 104.

[9] Pat Hudson. The Industrial Revolution (London: Edward Arnold, 1992), 175.

[10] Lorna Weatherill, Consumer Behaviour and Material Culture in Britain, 1660-1760 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), xix.

[11] Peter Mathias. The First Industrial Nation: The Economic History of Britain 1700-1914 (London: Routledge, 1988), 2.

[12] Bevis Hillier. Pottery and Porcelain 1700-1914: The Social History of the Decorative Arts (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1968), 117

[13] The British Museum Collection Online. “Figure of Lioness.” https://research.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=73277&page=3322&partId=1&searchText=europe, last accessed 1 April 2020.

[14] Elizabth Kowaleski Wallace,  Character Resolved into Clay – The Toby Jug, Eighteenth-Century English Ceramics, and the Rise of Consumer Culture,” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 31, No. 1 (2018): 40

[15] Darren Dean, Andrew Hann, Mark Overton and Jane Whittle. Production and Consumption in English Households, 1600-1750 (London: Routledge, 2004), 2.

[16] Victoria and Albert Museum Archives. “Charlie Chaplin.” http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O120675/charlie-chaplin-jug-unknown/, last accessed 11 March 2020.

[16] Victoria and Albert Museum Archives. “Pavarotti.” http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1289377/pavarotti-jug-tootle-douglas/, last accessed 2 April 2020.

[17] Garth Clark and Cathy Courtney. Richard Slee (Aldershot: Lund Humphries, 2003) pp. 100-101; https://www.artfund.org/supporting-museums/art-weve-helped-buy/artwork/9353/toby-as-abstraction.

[18] Elizabth Kowaleski Wallace. “Character Resolved into Clay – The Toby Jug, Eighteenth-Century English Ceramics, and the Rise of Consumer Culture” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 31, No. 1 (2018): 19-22

[19] The British Museum, “Toby Jug.” https://research.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?assetId=415927001&objectId=38180&partId=1, 2 April 2020.

[20] The British Museum, “Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks.” https://research.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/term_details.aspx?bioId=148562, last accessed 2 April 2020.

[21] Catherine Richardson, Tara Hamling and David Gaimster. The Routledge Handbook of Material Culture in Early Modern Europe (London: Routledge, 2016), 6

[22] Anne Gerritsen. Giorgio. Riello, The Global Lives of Things: The Material Culture of Connections in the Early Modern World (London: Routledge, 2015),  2

[23] Samuel A. M. Adshead. Material Culture in Europe and China, 1400 – 1800: The Rise of Consumerism (London: Macmillan Press, 1997), 2-3

[24] Ann Smart Martin. “Winterthur Portfolio”, A Journal of American Material Culture 28, No. 2 (1993): 141-157.

, , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply