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History of the Tankard

What is a Tankard?

A tankard is a large drinking vessel with a hinged cover and a handle which is used to contain a serving of beer or ale. The decoration of these items varies depending on the period in which they were made: some made out of pewter, clay, silver with a glass bottom, some very decorative where others were just plain. They were also very large back in the 1600's- perfect to serve the working gents of the time.

Tankards were originally crafted in wood for use in taverns; today however, they are mainly regarded as collectors’ or novelty items. The concept of creating a tankard with a lid (as we recognise today) was first initiated in Germany in the 1400s. These early lidded tankards were known as ‘steins’ (steinzeugkrug) and were made from decorated stoneware. Gradually, similar designs began to be crafted in pewter, silver, glass and by the 1600s, faience- the European equivalent to China’s porcelain.

There is much speculation as to why these drinking vessels were fitted with a ‘lid’. One theory is that during the time in which they originated, ceilings weren’t plastered and the lid was to protect from anything unwanted falling into your drink. Alternatively, the design could have been implemented to avoid spillages during brawls in taverns. Another feature of these early tankards that would have been useful in the case of an attack was their glass bottoms. This way an approaching enemy could be spotted through the bottom of one’s drink. A second speculative reason for the glass bottoms was so that the drinker could avoid ‘the king’s shilling’ which was sometimes slipped into people’s drink as a sly way of conscripting them into the British army or navy.

tankard history
what is a tankard
history of the tankard

Tankard Designs

Tankards were used all over northern Europe especially in Germany and the British Isles. They were also used in colonial America from the mid sixteenth century to the end of eightieth century and their designs varied accordingly.

The Elizabethan tankard, for example, had engraved or flat chased decoration to the body with continental influenced patterns and the classic S-scroll handle. Both the foot and cover were heavily embossed with designs depicting fruit and they featured a lobed thumbpiece and a cast finial.

Examples of tankards crafted in England in the early 17th century are exceptionally rare; this is because the English Civil War led to a lot of melting of metals to repurpose in order to support the war effort in some way or another.

Tankard History

Rest assured, however, that tankards did certainly exist during this time and ale was still being consumed.

By the end of the 17th century, the previously popular designs had been replaced by plain cylindrical vessels with flat-topped lids, perhaps a restrained response to the effects of war. As puritan ideologies grew in popularity across Britain, simplistic and practical designs took precedence over more elaborate styles of times passed.

These tankards were simpler and usually only engraved with armorials. It was also around this time that the sizes of tankards increased and they were commissioned for ceremonial and presentational use, an applied skirt foot also became a popular feature. Due to the English Civil War, which was taking place at this time, tankards began to be crafted in a thinner gauge of silver.

Another interesting design variation in the 17th century was the pegged tankard. This type of tankard had a vertical line of pegs on the inside. The tankard would be passed around as a form of wage: participants had to drink down to the next peg in one go. If not, there would be a forfeit to pay.

Silver tankards featuring domed lid originated during the 1800s and as the shape continued to alter, baluster/tulip-shaped bodies appeared. Some designs even included small whistles on the handles which were supposedly used for attracting a waiter’s attention.

During the 1700s, when the popular beverages changed from beer and ale to wine and spirits the tankard diminished in popularity, replaced with vessels such as goblets. This didn’t entirely halt production of tankards, however, as wine and spirits were expensive beverages, and the average person still saw more use in a tankard than a goblet.

The dawning of the 18th century saw more elaborate designs find their place once again, with chased decoration and fluting becoming more commonly found in tankards of all sizes. Eventually, the production and evolution of tankards did cease over time, with only large presentation tankards being crafted as gifts to commemorate special occasions.

Tankard Sizes

Tankards can vary in size, the most popular tankard sizes being half and quart tankards. The largest tankard on record was uncovered in wales and was two quarts- a four pint capacity!

The varying sizes correspond to different measures that were served. A quart is equal to two pints whereas a half tankard serves a pint. Interestingly, it is said this is where the phrase ”mind your P’s and Q’s” comes from, with the P’s and Q’s referring to the measure of alcohol. The bartenders in taverns would use this phrase to the customers to remind them "watch how much you are drinking”.

Today, the measurements served have been reduced by the world health organization and pint glasses have taken over. During the heyday of the tankard however, the vessels were used to serve the somewhat copious measurements that were expected at the time.

View our collection of
Silver Tankards
Andrew Campbell started trading in antiques during the 1970s. Initially, Andrew lived in the South of England, travelling the country, searching for items of silver to buy. Andrew sold these items at various London markets and antique fairs. Over time, and through selling at a range of venues, Andrew built up a large and diverse customer base from private buyers to national and international trade customers.
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