Toby jugs portray a character whose story is rather unclear. He reminds some people of Shakespeare’s jovial, disreputable Toby Belch, and he very likely has something to do with an old song about Toby Fillpot.
Dear Tom, this brown jug that now foams with mild ale,
(In which I will drink to sweet Nan of the vale),
Was once Toby Fillpot, a thirsty old soul,
As e’er drank a bottle, or fathomed a bowl….
(1761, by Francis Fawkes, a clergyman)
This ceramic character was born in the English Staffordshire potteries region in the 18th century, fully clothed in breeches, coat, and a tricorn hat, seated, and clutching his own jug of ale. Sometimes Toby holds a pipe, takes snuff, or has a barrel between his feet.
Although Tobies are real glazed jugs with a handle behind and a spout in front, usually formed by the front point of the three-cornered hat, they have probably never held much liquid, and were originally intended to be decorative pieces of pottery.
Toby inspired many other character jugs, and they have been made more or less continuously over the last 250 years. Some are fictional personalities, and some are based on real people. They generally have humorous, earthy faces. Character is drawn in their wrinkles, and there may be an element of caricature. Themed sets are also possible.
Were any early Toby jugs made outside England?
Everyone knows Toby is an Englishman, and that’s why I was surprised to find that a French museum (Musée de Bretagne) has a Tobyish jug made in Rennes, probably 18th century. (See photo) His jug says Boy-Tout or Drink-All. In France of the 1700s this was a slangy, joky word to do with finishing your drink in one swig:* rather like the Toby Fillpot character, that “thirsty old soul”. As far as I can discover, Toby’s French cousin is called Jacquot, but please comment if you know more.
Victorian and Edwardian attitudes to Toby jugs
In 1904 the writer Gertrude Jekyll thought of a Toby jug as an ornament to sit above the fireplace on a cottage or farmhouse mantelpiece along with other “coloured glazed pottery and low-class porcelain”.
She was not the only person of that period who was unimpressed by earthenware Tobies, whether recently-designed Victorian ones or earlier jugs from the Georgian period. Edward Downman, who wrote English Pottery and Porcelain in 1896, doesn’t sound too enthusiastic, even when he admits that the older antique jugs were made by expert craftsmen.
…the most eminent potters of a bygone age may be associated with this grotesque and commonplace ware…
Now Toby jugs are admired by many and collected by enthusiasts. Genuine antiques may cost several hundred pounds in their home country. Collectors can specialise in particular types – pearlware or Wemyss ware, sailor or farmer Tobies, for example – and they expect the best jugs to be sold by upmarket auction houses and antique dealers.
*Various old French dictionaries on Google Books explain boy-tout aka boi-tout: like this one.