Nice Jugs

Scott Gordon

Why do college students take their beer from run-of-the-millcheap kegs and plastic cups? Because unlike the English, they havenot discovered the pleasure of pouring their beer out of a likenessof the village idiot or Margaret Thatcher.

More than 200 years’ worth of such figures of public and townlife — from the Queen Mother to Star Trek’s the Borg — are a partof the long and humorous drinking tradition of English Toby jugs,which originally were used as beer pitchers in 18th-centuryBritain.

Kevin Pearson, owner of British Collectibles, 917 Chicago Ave.,makes his living carrying on this tradition. In addition to sellingjugs and other trinkets via Internet and mail-order, Pearson, 45,displays the world’s largest private collection of Toby jugs –more than 6,000 pieces — in his American Toby Jug Museum, just offthe main floor of his warehouse.

Jugs from the 1700s form the base of Pearson’s collection. Theyare usually about the size of a coffee mug or beer stein, thoughone three-foot replica of a traditional Toby is on display.

Because the jugs are precious, Pearson has his three-leggedpoodle, Cassie, watch the shop.

Many were designed by Pearson, who has potters in England makeToby jugs depicting political, historical, literary and popularculture figures. His neatly arranged glass case exhibit of jugsincludes likenesses of Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln and StarTrek characters.

Designing the jugs enables Pearson to express his sense of humorand occasionally to make political statements. His figures includeseveral more-hideous-than-life Thatchers and a caricatured MikhailGorbachev sitting contentedly on top of the Berlin Wall.

Despite the novelty of Tobies, Pearson decided a few years agothat he wanted to sell a smaller and less expensive product. Hecame up with face pots, small porcelain containers with squatreplicas of faces serving as lids. The face pots include somefigures not on Tobies, such as Marilyn Monroe and John Lennon. Tobyjugs can cost more than $100, but face pots usually are about$60.

In the early 1700s, English manufacturer Ralph Wood invented theToby jug. After the death of Squire Toby Philpot — “one of thebiggest drinkers in the land,” Pearson says — a folk song sprangup about his notorious thirst. The song speaks of Toby’s body beingdissolved into the clay, made into an ale jug, in which Toby’sspirit lives on.

“The thinking behind (the jug) was they just represented aworking man enjoying a pint after a day’s work,” Pearson says.

As the jugs evolved, designs included historical and politicalfigures and some female characters that were “very disparagingtoward women at the start.”

One classic Toby character, the ugly Gin Woman, is portrayed asa “drunken, leering slut.” There are many other recurring figures,like the Snuff-Taker and the Drunken Parson.

Jugs, having lost favor with beer drinkers long ago, now areaimed at a less general market. Modern Toby fans are mostlyAnglophiles and 45- to 70-year-old women, Pearson says.

But Tobies have seen a revival in the 20th century — BritishCollectibles brings in about $1.5 million per year — more ascollectors items than among those seeking an authentic vintageBritish drinking experience .

“We cater to people looking to build serious collections,”Pearson says. “It’s not very practical, but people just like themfrom an ornamental point of view.”

Pearson earned an MBA and undergraduate degrees in economics andpolitical science at Leeds College and the University of Bradfordin England, but his interest in British pottery led him and afriend to start a small publishing company. In 1984 Pearson wroteand published The Toby Jug Collector’s Handbook.

When he had some jugs made to promote the books his companypublished, the jugs sold faster than the books and Pearson found anew business.

He originally sold Tobies and other antiques in Detroit. Aboutnine years ago he married a woman from Chicago and ended up findinghis current space in Evanston.

The creative challenge and relative independence of thecollectibles business makes the work enjoyable for Pearson, whoworked on radio advertisements in Britain.

“I had two years in the corporate world and I hated it.”

But like corporate businessmen, Pearson has capitalized onrecent trends. He already carries George W. Bush pieces and plansto release John Kerry face pots later this year.