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More notes towards a history of the beer mug

Loved and disliked in equal parts, and enjoying an unexpected renaissance in hipstery parts, despite being more than 70 years old, the dimpled beer mug is undoubtedly an icon of England.

It was invented in 1938 at the Ravenhead glassworks in St Helens, Lancashire by an in-house designer whose name is now forgotten, and given the factory identity “P404”. Although the dimple has its enemies, who dislike its weight and its thickness, it soon became extremely popular, and at a rough guess some 500 million have been manufactured since it was born.

Strawberry pink pint beer mug of the kind George Orwell enjoyed, stamped 'Pint MxCC GR 29', for Middlesex County Council
Strawberry pink pint beer mug of the kind George Orwell enjoyed, stamped ‘Pint MxCC GR 29’, for Middlesex County Council

The dimple had much competition: even in 1938, many pubs still served beer in the pottery mugs that George Orwell praised in his “Moon Under Water” essay about his ideal pub, from the Evening Standard in 1946. Orwell declared that “in my opinion beer tastes better out of china,” but “china mugs went out about 30 years ago [that is, during the First World War], because most people like their drink to be transparent.” However, two documentary films made just before Orwell’s essay, The Story of English Inns, from 1944, and Down at the Local, from 1945, both show pint china mugs were still being used alongside glass ones, at least in country pubs. Orwell talked about the pottery beer mug as being strawberry-pink in colour, but they came in other shades (baby blue and a dark biscuit-beige, for example), all with white interiors and white handles, and also with transfer-print designs. The majority of pottery beer mugs, however, appear, in fact, to have been of the kind known as mochaware, invented around the end of the 18th century, which have tree or fern-like patterns on the sides, made by a drop of acid dropped onto the glaze of the mug while it was still wet. Most mochaware pint beer mugs seem to have been blue, or beige-and-blue, with black and white bands. Many were made by TG Green of Church Gresley, South Derbyshire, while the plain coloured mugs were the speciality of Pountneys of Bristol. TG Green stopped producing mochaware at the outbreak of war in 1939, when it was apparently the last company still making mochaware beermugs. It tried to revive the tradition in 1981, without success. The company closed in 2007.

Pewter mugs were pretty much obsolete by the middle of the 20th century, though Orwell claimed that “stout … goes better in a pewter pot”, and they were described as “old-fashioned” even in 1900, when it was said to have been replaced by the glass mug, “a thick, almost unbreakable article”. The problem, for publicans, was that their pewter pots kept being stolen, and they cost around ten times as much as china beer mugs. The better class of premises kept silver-plated pewter beermugs and, to guard against theft, carved the name and address of the pub into the base. Glass was also cheaper – and, it was claimed, the working man at the end of the 19th century liked to have his mild beer served in a glass so that he could see it was bright, and not hazy or cloudy.

Two men drinking from china pint mugs, from the film Down at the Local, 1945
Two men drinking from china pint mugs, one mochaware, the other transfer printed, from the film The Story of English Inns, 1944

Fortunately for the beer mug collector, after the Weights and Measures Act of 1878, drinking vessels used on licensed premises for draught beer or cider purporting to be a specific size – half-pint, pint or quart – had to bear an Official Stamp Number, either acid etched or sand-blasted through a stencil, a system that lasted, with tweaks, until 2007, and each district – county council, county borough and the like – had its own numbers, so that, for example, 19 was Derbyshire and 490 Bristol. They also carried the mark of the crown, and the initials of the reigning monarch of the time, something that had first been required by the Act “for ascertaining the Measures for retailing Ale and Beer” that had become law under William III in 1700. (That Act covered vessels “made of wood, earth, glass, horn, leather, pewter or of some other good and wholesome metal”, suggesting the variety of drinking vessels you could expect in a Stuart inn or alehouse, and it also only mentions quarts and pints, suggesting the half-pint was illegal – or at least extremely rare.) It is thus possible to tell roughly when an older beer mug was made, and roughly where, too. In 2007, when the CE, or “Conformitée Européenne” mark replaced the old system (leading to the Daily Mail to declare: “EU stealing the crown of the great British pint”), it became easier to tell when a glass was made, but no simpler to find out where and by whom. Alongside the CE on the glass will be an “M” and the last two digits of the year of manufacture, plus the identification number of the “notified body” that verified that the container was an accurate measure. To identify the notified body you have to go to the Nando website – nothing to do with peri-peri chicken, this stands for New Approach Notified and Designated Organisations.

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