I have never understood the wide appeal of Toby jugs but they are one of the most collected ceramic forms today. First made in eighteenth century Staffordshire, they typically feature the jovial head of a man of that era, usually in a tri-corner hat (called more specifically a character jug), or a seated figure of such a man, holding a tankard in one hand and a long stemmed pipe in the other. There is a handle attached to the back. The contained beverage (beer of course) is poured from the hat.
A quick look at eBay shows almost three thousand Toby and character jugs up for bid, with Buy It Now prices ranging from $2,000.00 for a Royal Doulton Simeon Toby to a penny for a Royal Doulton Toby Aramis jug. I cannot say that I have ever personally met anyone with a collection, but my mom had one small character jug that intrigued me as a child. She also had a creamer shaped like a purple cow! Hmm, I wonder where they are today? I wouldn’t mind having another look.
The urge to turn a vessel into a depiction of a person’s head has been with potters across cultures and for millennia. One thinks of the finely made Moche heads of ancient Peru; of Roman cinerary urns; of the German bellarmine; and of the face jugs of the American south. Pots, it seems, are irresistibly anthropomorphic.
In Toby and Character Jugs, Graham McLaren, who taught the history of ceramics and glass at Staffordshire University and has written several books on the topic, gives us a good overview of the development of these whimsical pieces. We see jugs based on characters in Dickens novels, political figures, jugs of satire, and a few women. He includes photos of potters working in the factories and takes us from the early press molded jugs to the later, more intricate slip molded jugs.
Delightfully, this is not a price guide for collectors, but a book for those of us interested in ceramic history, particularly 18th – early 20th century British ceramic history.