Material Culture and Identities: The Case of Eighteenth Century Toby Jugs


A main principle of material culture theory (the study of objects and their relationships to people) is that they can reflect or shape the people who lived alongside them in any given time. I have always enjoyed studying objects more than any other kind of source because the process gave me a direct and tangible link to the past. Historical persons lived in a material and visual world, as much as the written one recorded in archives and print. In attempting to reconstruct a part of this eighteenth-century material world, whilst think about social and political history, I’ve interacted with objects that can seem niche – or even comical! – but, with some research, Toby Jugs can be helpful in illustrating a number of themes around gender, the body, and changing local or national identities.

Image of a Toby Jug. The jug is shaped like a man in black, three-corner hat. He holds a beer jug and looks a bit drunk!
Figure 1. Toby jug ‘Ralph Wood the Younger’ (c.1780)

It is fair to suggest that the Toby Jug has a place in the British national psyche, albeit fairly small, with remnants of it in popular culture today. In the 1990s, restaurant group Mitchell and Butler created the ‘Toby Carvery’ brand, with a Toby figure as their logo and Toby Jugs atop pub mantelpieces to replicate a homely dining atmosphere. They reference Toby Jugs on their site as the origin of their logo, using the symbol to foster a sense of heritage, despite being a modern brand. A number of pubs have used the name ‘Toby Jug,’ with one in Tolworth, Surrey famous for hosting David Bowie and Led Zeppelin performances at early stages of their careers. Lord Toby Jug, member of the Monster Raving Loony Party was nicknamed as such after his fellow bandmate and party member Screaming Lord Sutch noticed his round shape. The party, to the dismay of ‘serious’ politicians, have run on their motto ‘Vote For insanity’ since the 1983 Bermondsey by-election, with some interesting and quirky manifesto promises. Nonetheless, the use of the name suggests that even today, the Toby Jug is a recognisable image in British popular and political culture.

Toby Jugs were first produced in the 1780s, largely by the Staffordshire potteries and represented a much more diverse set of characters than the most recognisable Toby discussed above. The people they represent are both real and imagined. The original ‘Toby’ came from folklore- ‘Toby Fillpot’ was said to be a drunkard whose body became the clay in the ground and was then re-formed, by a potter into the stout man represented in this jug. He holds a large plain jug, as he is in the prints held at the British Museum which feature the ballad of the story of his creation, but other forms hold pipes and can be both seated and standing. He wears a tricorne hat that forms the spout of the jug and generally a waistcoat, often unbuttoned, with breeches in a variety of colours. Toby is visually very similar to how the fictional character John Bull, essentially the ‘British everyman’ was shown in print. His large body nicely suits the jug form, whilst also representing abundance and excessive alcohol consumption. John Bull and beer are frequently drawn upon as parts of the masculine national identity, so the popularity and continuous production of the Toby Jug makes sense in this context.

Drawing of Martha Gunn. A lady in a black bonnet holds a naked, cherub-like child.
Figure 2. Martha Gunn (1797)

Other Toby Jug figures represented public figures. Martha Gunn became well known in Brighton for working as a bather, someone who assisted upper class people perform the health trend of bathing the open sea. This earnt her the nickname the ‘Brighton Bather’, and she became somewhat of a celebrity in the local area. A pub is named after her today and she is represented in paintings and engravings incredibly well, given that she was a working-class woman. Gunn gained significant fame and was also represented in satire, defending Brighton from French invasion whilst cowardly men hide on the beach in ‘French Invasion or Brighton in a Bustle,’ a copy of which is held in the British Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings today. Some engravings of her holding a child were wrongly said to be of the infant George IV, but we know that he did not visit Brighton until he was 21. Regardless, to be given such a connection highlights how well-known she was locally, and perhaps to some degree nationally. Jugs begun to be produced in her image from the 1790s and continued to be produced well into the twentieth century, suggesting an enduring popularity well beyond the eighteenth century. 

Naval figures were also commemorated in the form of ‘Tobies.’ Last month, a jug of from the ‘midshipman’ family (a word used to describe a man working on a ship) based on Admiral Rodney sold at auction for £81,500. These jugs look very different from the one pictured above; slimmer in the body, much more delicate in decoration, with a small dog sat at his feet. The high price that these jugs fetch today is connected to the excellent condition that some are in given their delicate details, and not necessarily to them having a more refined appearance. Traditional ‘Tobies’ with ugly, wart-covered and blotchy complexions are actually often very popular at auction – just as when they were originally made. When we think of eighteenth century ceramics, delicate porcelain in chinoiserie designs might be the first images that come to mind, but I think that Toby Jugs demonstrate an additional taste for ugly, even grotesque visuals.

Colourful cartoon of the inside of a club or tavern. A group of men smoke and drink. A Toby Jug can be seen on the table. John Bull images can be seen on the wall in the background.
Figure 3. ‘A Smoking Club’ (c.1784)

Conducting research outside of museum collections has been enlightening and very interesting, as restrictions on the resources I can access has led me to online antiques forums and the modern-day collecting community. Like many other researchers, the pandemic means I now rely on material that has been digitised. We tend to see this as material put online by an archive, but catalogues and collector’s guides are easily found online and very useful for tracking down a maker or producer. Sometimes, images have been posted in forums with little information, but using these websites to gather information and reverse image search to quickly see how images and designs were repeated has allowed me to continue researching outside of the traditional areas considered by academic historians! Studying these jugs has also highlighted the extent to which niche and quirky objects can actually be loaded with rich and diverse histories well beyond what we might expect and proven that material culture is an incredibly useful research method for understanding how eighteenth-century popular culture continues to linger in our lives today.

Kerry Love is a PhD student at the University of Northampton, studying political material culture and memorabilia, 1780-1850. Kerry tweets about her research under @kerrymlove and she is also a Publicity Officer for the IHR’s History Lab network

Figure 1. Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. Available in the public domain.

Figure 2. William Nutter, after J. Russell, ‘Martha Gunn the Brighton Bather’ (1797). The British Museum. Available in the public domain.

Figure 3 (and banner image). [After?] G. M. Woodward, ‘A Smoking Club’ (c.1784). The Wellcome Collection. Available in the public domain.

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One Comment on “Material Culture and Identities: The Case of Eighteenth Century Toby Jugs

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