Recently, I posted an article here about a group of drinking vessels which were the precursors of the more complex puzzle jug. Most of the drinking vessels described in that article shared a few things in common with the puzzle jug. The majority of those vessels were typically made of various types of ceramic, and most of them had some kind of perforation in the body by which their fluid contents might escape when an attempt was made to drink from them. These vessels could be found in many taverns and tap rooms across England, where they were used in a host of games which required their contents be consumed without spillage.
There was another class of drinking vessel which had been popular for at least a century before the Regency, and remained so for the more than nine years during which the Prince of Wales ruled England as Regent. What all these vessels had in common was their bottoms and the reaction of the drinker as the contents of the vessels were consumed. The vessels in this class were less often used in drinking games, but they were still part of the popular practice of jesting and joking among drinkers in tap rooms and taverns, with or without the added suspense of a wager. These drinking vessels might best be considered practical jokes in pottery or glass, an appropriate subject for April Fool’s Day.
The first of these vessels to be discussed is in a class by itself. It was only ever made of glass, never of ceramic, a feat which would have been nearly impossible to accomplish, given its large size and unique shape. The yard of ale was literally a yard, that is, thirty-six inches, long. The yard of ale, in the form it was known during the Regency, evolved during the eighteenth century. There are records of "ell glasses" dating back to the reign of James I. However, an ell was actually nine inches longer than a regular English yard, and these earlier glasses had feet attached. It is believed by some scholars that these early "ell glasses" were originally used as measures for liquids. In the eighteenth century the yard of ale, also known as the "long glass," was shortened to a regular yard, it lost its feet and acquired the shape it would have right through the Regency, a shape it retains to this day. In the century before the Regency began, the yard of ale was made in the form of a long trumpet, similar to the "yard of tin" used by mail coach guards, with a rounded hollow globe at the closed end. When full, one of these glasses could hold at least a half gallon of ale or beer. These glasses could not be set down without falling over, and, if someone was presented with a full yard of ale, they were expected to drain it without taking their lips from the rim. But there was a trick to accomplishing this feat. Because of its shape, air pressure would keep the beer or ale from draining out of the globe at its base as the yard of ale was raised slowly by the drinker. But if they raised it too steeply while trying to fully drain it, the air would suddenly rush into the hollow globe at the base, forcing out the remaining liquid to gush down the tube in a sudden stream straight into the drinker’s face, drenching his clothing and usually leaving him choking and spluttering. The only way to safely drain one of these long glasses was to tip them up slowly and carefully. Once the bulk of the liquid in the horn portion of the glass had been consumed, tipping the yard of ale down a bit to allow more air into the globe section would equalize the pressure and the rest of the liquid would then flow down the tube at a fairly even rate, reducing the likelihood of a drenching when the last of the ale was polished off.
The next group of drinking vessels we will consider were always made of ceramic, as their opacity was one of the most important features in concealing the joke in the cup. They all had a flat bottom and a single handle. The ancestor of this group of vessels is the Toby jug. These figural jugs were in the shape of a seated heavy-set man in eighteenth-century garb, usually elderly, with a tankard of ale in one hand, a pipe in the other and a tricorn hat on his head. They were first made in the Staffordshire pottery of Ralph and Aaron Wood, in the early 1760s. They were soon widely imitated and were made by potteries all across England for more than a century. There are a number of theories as to how this vessel acquired its name. There are those who think it was named after Sir Toby Belch, a character in Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night. There are others who believe the jug was based on the figure of Toby Fillpot, whose real name was Henry Elwes. Elwes was reputed to have drunk 2,000 gallons of stingo, a very strong beer (one can only hope not all at one sitting). A supposed portrait of "Toby Fillpot" appeared in an engraving which was used to illustrate the lyrics for a song entitled Little Brown Jug, published in 1761. And there are still others who believed the Toby jug was named for the character Tobias Shandy, "Uncle Toby," in Laurence Sterne‘s popular novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, the first two volumes of which had been published in 1759. Just as it is today, merchandising items in order to take advantage of that which had caught the public’s fancy was often done by manufacturers in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. I suspect that the Toby jug was more likely to have been based on the engraving of Toby Fillpot or Uncle Toby from Tristram Shandy, or a combination of the two, since both were published at about the same time the Toby jug made its debut. Thus, the Staffordshire potters were able to capitalize on popular publications which would drive sales of their wares.
Whatever the source of the name, the Toby jug became very popular in England during the eighteenth century, and could be found in tap rooms and public houses throughout the country. And soon, the idea of making drinking mugs in the shape of popular, well-known people became customary. By the turn of the nineteenth century, one of the most popular figures to be immortalized in drinking jugs was Admiral Lord Nelson. Drinking jugs depicting Lord Nelson were especially popular in taverns and public houses in port towns, where Admiral Nelson was widely admired by most sailors. They particularly enjoyed drinking to his health, and later, to his memory, in a mug which carried his image. After Trafalgar, Nelson mugs became even more popular, and many had the name of his flagship, "Victory" inscribed somewhere on the mug. By this time, Nelson mugs could be found in both pint and quart size, and had spread beyond port towns to many towns and villages inland.
Nelson’s "… glory was also set forth in those curious mixtures of sentiment and fun, called ‘frog mugs.’" This according to Charles Dickens, Jr., in a number of his journal, All the Year Round, for 1875. Inside of these mugs, the potter placed a realistic model of a frog, made to look as though the creature was about to spring out of the bottom of mug and down the drinker’s throat as its contents were consumed. The inspiration for this practical joke in ceramic was a more benign version of the age-old practice of slipping a live toad or frog into a fellow drinker’s beer mug when he was not looking. This practice was apparently very common with seamen, which may explain why the first ceramic frogs found their way into Nelson mugs. One suspects this new trend was appreciated by the frog populations of Great Britain. As frog mugs became more popular, they were most often decorated with various motifs and designs which illustrated Britain’s naval prominence. By the early nineteenth century, most frog mugs were made of white earthenware, and might just as often be decorated with village drinking scenes as famous naval battles. Initially, these ceramic frogs were solid, painted in green and brown glazes to resemble a real frog as much as possible, in order to maximize the shock to the unsuspecting drinker. Over time, the ceramic frogs were often made with hollow bodies and small openings which allowed air to pass through them. These hollow frogs would not only startle the hapless drinker when they emerged from his beer, but they would also embarrass him by making various rude noises as the liquid escaped the hollow body of the frog. Victorian scholars would have us believe that barmen kept frog mugs on hand to rout patrons who had drunk too much. As they drained their mug, the tipsy patron would be confronted by "a popeyed, reproachful frog countenance" which was supposed to shock the inebriate and hurry him on his way home. This may have happened occassionally, but it is more likely that bar keepers kept a supply of frog mugs available to enable their patrons to play jokes on one another or unsuspecting strangers. The more jokes that were played, the more beer or ale the patrons would consume. During the Regency, frog mugs remained in the taverns and tap rooms, they were not considered appropriate for the home. But within a few decades, their social standing had improved, and frog mugs were welcome in the parlor and dining room. The frog had become a symbol of good luck and it became quite popular to make gifts of gilt and inscribed frog mugs on many occasions. Ironically, considering their early history, they became quite popular as gifts for children. By the end of the nineteenth century, a frog mug was more likely to contain milk than beer. Even today, frog mugs are still made and delight many children when their grinning green faces emerge from the milk which covers them.
During the Regency, along with frog mugs, some tavern and innkeepers, particularly those in the country, kept a selection of mugs and cups intended to amuse their more sporting customers. Patrons who enjoyed hunting could drink their beer and ale from mugs in the shape of fox heads, hounds, deer or stags. Those who preferred bear baiting could drink from mugs in the shape of bears, there were bull mugs for those who enjoyed bull-baiting, while cock-fighting fans could imbibe from ceramic roosters. There were also mugs in the shape of famous prize-fighters, cricket players, even a few well-known coachmen, particularly those popular with the Corinthian set. The brief popularity of the velocipede was even immortalized in ceramic mugs near the end of the Regency. A portion of these sporting-themed figural mugs may have had frogs in their bottoms, just to enhance the merriment.
There was another sport, or more precisely, game, which had its own drinking vessels. These, however, were always made of glass, not ceramic, as their transparency was critical to their use. Some time after the middle of the eighteenth century, glass makers developed a drinking vessel with a hollow cavity in the base. Within this clear glass pocket, the glassblowers sealed a pair of dice. There is no record that such glasses were ever used in the homes of Georgian England, but they were very popular in the taverns and tap rooms of the realm. They may even have made their way into the lower sort of gaming hells. A group of gamblers may each have had their own dice glass when they gathered at a tavern, or they may have shared a single glass, each calling out a number before the glass was drained. When the glass was slammed down onto the table, the man who had called out the number which the dice showed might have to pay for the drinks, or, he might be stood to a drink by his companions. If only a couple of men were drinking, they might decide that whoever had the highest, or the lowest, number on the dice in his glass would pick up the tab, for that round, or for the night. It seems there were many ways to employ these dice glasses in wagering and tippling. The rules may have changed from region to region, or even village to village. There is some suggestion that even tavern keepers themselves might occasionally play the game with a customer, to determine if the drinks were to be paid for or on the house. During the Regency, it appears that fewer dice glasses were being made, but there were a significant number of those made in the decades prior which could still be found in tap rooms and public houses across the country.
Gambling was also often part of the ritual when imbibing from this next, rather gruesome specialty glass drinking vessel. It was known as the "last drop" glass, because the unsuspecting victim was typically challenged, usually accompanied by a wager, to drain the glass "to the last drop." But no matter how much he might try, it was completely impossible to drain this type of glass to the presumed very last drop. However, that fact would not become visible until the glass was upended, at which point a most disconcerting image would come into view. Engraved on the bottom of the last drop glasses was a line drawing of a figure of a hanged man dangling from the arm of a gibbet, the final "last drop." Thus, the "last drop" could never be drained from the glass since it was etched into its bottom. One would assume that this particular practical joke could only be played on any victim once, that they would not be tricked a second time. It seems most likely that tavern keepers kept a last drop glass or two on hand for the use of the locals when an unsuspecting stranger should stop in for a drink at the tavern.
There is no doubt there were a plethora of amusing drinking vessels to be found in many of the tap rooms, taverns and ale houses of Regency England. They would not have had the wide range of beers and ales from the diverse micro-breweries which can be found in many bars and restaurants today, nor would they have had big screen televisions positioned around the room, yet they had a number of options for entertainment. Most barmen had multiple mugs, jugs, glasses and cups on hand which added variety for their customers when drinking their smaller selection of beverages. Those gathered in the tap room would find their entertainment in watching the pranks which were played on their unsuspecting fellow drinkers. Wagering was often associated with these pranks, adding to the sport of the festivities. So, now you know, an evening at the local tavern in Regency England was not necessarily a dull night out, particularly if the bar man had a few of these mugs and glasses available for his customers. In fact, one wonders if their simpler fun might have been more enjoyable than the amusements to be had in many watering holes today.