A diverting drinking vessel which could be found in village inns and public houses for centuries had a resurgence in popularity in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These vessels had been made throughout England and northern Europe since at least the fifteenth century. Most commonly called puzzle jugs, they were also sometimes called teasing pitchers or wager jugs. It was a challenge to determine how to drink the liquor which they contained and wagers were often placed on the outcome of the attempt.
By the time of the Regency, puzzle jugs were being made not only for use in inns and taverns, but also for home use. Many gentlemen enjoyed entertaining their male visitors with drinking games using their own puzzle jugs.
Puzzle jugs are a puzzle because it is not obvious how to imbibe the beverage which they contain. The neck of the jug is perforated, often in ornamental patterns, so one cannot simply raise it to one’s lips and drink. Most puzzle jugs also have a hollow rim which can have between three to seven spouts which protrude from it. This hollow rim is connected to either a hollow handle, which opens into the lower part of the jug body, or the inside of the jug has a tube or pipe built into the jug wall. It is through this concealed piping that the liquid contents of the jug flow to the hollow rim. The secret of the puzzle jug is to know which of the spouts on the rim to plug with the fingers, while sucking the liquor out of the jug via the remaining spout. Some puzzle jugs have a small additional opening somewhere below the neck or beneath the handle which will spill the liquid on the hapless drinker if the jug is not held just so.
Many puzzle jugs have inscriptions on the body of the jug. They might be very brief, or quite lengthy, occasionally waxing poetical. Some examples are below:
The ale is good, taste.
From mother earth I took my birth,
Then formd a Jug by Man,
And now stand here, filld with good cheer,
Taste of me if you can.
Here, gentlemen, come try yr skill,
I’ll hold a wager, if you will,
That you Dont Drink this liqr all
Without you spill or lett some Fall.
Within this jug there is good liquor,
‘Tis fit for parson or for vicar;
But how to drink and not to spill
Will try the utmost of your skill.
It was common for publicans and tavern-keepers to provide various vessels in order to cater to the amusement of their customers in various drinking games. Among these vessels might be found puzzle jugs, fuddling cups, frog mugs and yards of ale. It would appear that puzzle jugs were one of the most popular of these challenging drinking vessels. Ale or hard cider were the two beverages which were most often served in puzzle jugs, but a customer could drink, or attempt to drink, any liquor available. The drinker’s companions would all then make wagers on whether or not he would be able to drain his puzzle jug without soaking himself with its contents.
Early puzzle jugs were made in earthenware, a porous, low-fired ceramic. Puzzle jugs of this material tended to be of simple shapes and coarse decoration. Later, puzzle jugs were made of stoneware. Stoneware was fired at higher temperatures and the body of a vessel made from this material was much finer than that of earthenware. By the Regency, puzzle jugs were also made in pearlware and bone china. The puzzle jugs made of these much more highly-fired ceramics were also more elegant in both shape and design. Puzzle jugs made from these more precious and costly ceramics were more often intended for the home than the tavern, as they were less able to stand up to the hard usage such vessels would receive in a public house.
The puzzle jug was such a complicated vessel form that even during the Regency, when assembly lines and mass production were becoming features of the Industrial Revolution, each of them had to be made by hand. In addition, each jug had to be unique. If they were all made the same, there would be no challenge in figuring out how to drink from them. There were many small potters across England who regularly made puzzle jugs for their local public houses. Some of these potters also made puzzle jugs for the local squires and gentlemen farmers to use in their homes. The products of these small potteries were usually of earthenware or stoneware. Very few of these small potteries could afford kilns which could generate the extremely high temperatures needed to fire either pearlware or bone china. Puzzle jugs in these materials would be made at the larger china potteries which could afford the high-firing kilns necessary. There were several of the larger potteries which did a good business making puzzle jugs. Most of the more elegant and fragile puzzle jugs made by the china potteries were purchased by members of the gentry and the aristocracy for use in their homes.
Yes, perhaps the puzzle jug is a bit silly, but no more silly than today’s beer hat or other goofy gadgets which men employ for their amusement in the consumption of liquor. Personally, I find the puzzle jugs I have seen much more attractive than any beer hat I have encountered. In my opinion, those men who wanted some diversion as they imbibed during the Regency had a more creative experience using the puzzle jug. Yet another reason why I find the Regency is so much more romantic.
For more information on puzzle jugs:
Campbell, Gordon, editor, The Grove Encyclopedia of Decorative Arts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Cooper, Emmanuel, Ten Thousand Years of Pottery. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.
Jervis, William Percival, The Encyclopedia of Ceramics. New York: Canal Street, 1902.
Jewitt, Llewellynn Frederick William, The Ceramic Art of Great Britain. London: J. S. Virtue & Company, Limited, 1883.
Latham, Jean, A Taste of the Past. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1975.