The art of drinking
Drink has stimulated a rich material culture. Specific situations and drinks require particular vessels; from stoneware beer mugs to jade cups and silver goblets. These objects reflect wealth and social class as well as local custom and tradition.
By placing these often curious vessels within the context of social history we are better able to understand their function and importance. The social history of drinking over the past 500 years encompasses pleasure and pain, tradition and innovation as well as extraordinary creativity in the decorative arts.
Beer or ale mug, 1772-99. Museum no. C.65-1921. Given by Alfred Darby Esq.
Beer or ale mug
England, Caughley, 1772-99
Porcelain, painted and gilded
Museum no. C.65-1921
Given by Alfred Darby Esq.
Beer and Ale
Beer is rich in calories and vitamins and was a dietary staple until 150 years ago. Clean drinking water was a luxury for most people and beer often took its place at meal times. It had a wide social appeal and was drunk in the most humble of taverns and the most refined homes.
Beer or ale mug, about 1700. Museum no. C.174-1933. Given by Mr A.L.B. Ashton
Beer or ale mug
England, Fulham, about 1700
Stoneware with brown mottled glaze
Museum no. C.174-1933
Given by Mr A.L.B. Ashton
Beer and Ale: The Tavern
The tavern was central to community life. It was a place for eating, drinking and merriment as well as business deals, local celebrations and the gathering of news. Beer and ale were sold in government approved measures and served in pewter or stoneware mugs. Vessels were often stamped with the initials of their owner.
Wager cup, Joseph Walker
Maker's mark of Joseph Walker
Museum no. M.1643-1944
J.G. Parker Bequest
Drinking games were sociable activities that tested the skill and dexterity of the participant. The silver wager cup challenges co-ordination. While draining liquid from the milkmaid's skirt, the drinker must balance the full pail below to avoid an embarrassing soaking.
The Lushington Tankard, 1675. Private Collection
The Lushington Tankard
Celebration and Commemoration: The Lushington Tankard
The Lushington Tankard was commissioned to commemorate the charitable efforts of Sir Edmund Berrie Godfrey during the Great Plague of 1665 and the Fire of London in 1666. Charles II rewarded Sir Edmund with 800 ounces of silver from which he made six such tankards. The tankard bears the arms of both Charles II and Sir Edmund. The engravings and inscriptions on one side commemorate Sir Edmund's 'invaluable service' during the great plague; on the other they celebrate the awarding of his knighthood in September 1666 following the Fire of London.
Posset pot, Late 17th or early 18th century. Museum no. 3841-1901
Late 17th or early 18th century
Tin-glazed earthenware painted in blue
Museum no. 3841-1901
Celebration and Commemoration
Drinking alcohol has long been associated with celebration, but many traditions have disappeared. Posset was a nourishing warm drink of eggs, sugar, milk and breadcrumbs. Decorative posset pots were brought out for celebrations such as a wedding, Christmas or harvest feast.
Loving cup, Johann Christian Bothe
Johann Christian Bothe
Museum no. M.337-1940
Given by Sir Francis Oppenheimer
Ceremonies and Rituals
For colleges, guilds and societies, drinking together is an affirmation of fellowship. Large communal vessels are central to the ceremonial drinking rituals of the trade and craft guilds. Drink is passed around to mark such occasions as the arrival of a new member, appointment to a post or completing a term in office. The loving cup of a Bridlemakers' guild is engraved with the arms of the guild and the names and dates of the officers.
'Ale Bench' figure group, about 1835. Museum no. C.3-2002. Purchased through the Julie and Robert Breckman Staffordshire Fund
'Ale Bench' figure group
Moulded lead-glazed earthenware painted in enamel colours
Museum no. C.3-2002
Purchased through the Julie and Robert Breckman Staffordshire Fund
The Evils of Alcohol
Alcohol has always been regarded as a risk as well as a pleasure. The 'gin-sodden London' of the 18th century was the result of complex legislation, which meant a pint of gin was cheaper than a pint of beer. The dangerous craze for gin earned it the name 'liquid madness'. The Temperance Movement of the 19th century denounced the immorality of alcohol and its effects on family life.
Excessive drinking is not the worst evil of alcohol. In the 18th century rum was the staple of the Navy and the basis of the popular punch drink. As a by-product of sugar it was also at the centre of the British slave trade, which saw over 4 million slaves purchased by the sugar colonies in the West Indies.
Whisky set, Mori Masahiro
Designed by Mori Masahiro
Made by Hakusan Porcelain Company
Porcelain and stainless steel
Museum no. FE.107 to F-1981
Spirits: Whisky in Japan
Japan is among the world's largest producers and consumers of whisky. The country's first commercial distillery opened in 1924, employing Scottish methods to produce a rival to the traditional local spirit, shochu. Spirit drinks have a long history in Asia. Distillation was first practised in ancient Babylonia, and alchemists developed modern distilling methods in Iran in the 8th and 9th centuries. The technology eventually reached Europe 300 years later.
Wine measures, about 1800. Museum no. 550 & A
Museum no. 550 & A, B, E-1926
Bequeathed by Lt. Col.G.B. Croft Lyons
Measures were used to draw wine, ale or spirits from the barrel for either sale or consumption. It was important that the capacity of measures was accurately determined and indicated in order to prevent fraud. Measures were usually stamped with marks proving that their capacity had been checked by an appointed inspector.
Punch bowl and stand, about 1770. Museum no. C.37&A-1960
Punch bowl and stand
Made at the Meissen factory
Porcelain, painted and gilded, gilt-bronze mounts
Museum no. C.37&A-1960
Punch became popular in Britain during the early 17th century. It demonstrated support for British interests in the sugar, spice and wine trades of the West and East Indies. Punch was served in a large bowl and was ideal for convivial drinking (as depicted on this example). Notoriously potent, the ingredients were mixed in a formula of 1 part sour (lemon and nutmeg), 2 parts sweet (sugar), 3 parts strong (rum) and 4 parts weak (water).
Wine goblet, Omar Ramsden and Alwyn Carr
Designed by Omar Ramsden and Alwyn Carr
Silver, set with green aventurines
Wine has been enjoyed for thousands of years. It has played an important part in expressing and celebrating cultural identity throughout the world. Vessels represent the variety of forms which evolved to reflect different customs and ideas. This goblet, in the Arts and Crafts style, bears an inscription translated from a medieval Iranian poem by Omar Khayyam: 'while the rose blows along the river brink, with old khayyam the ruby vintage drink'.
Glass rinser, 1757-8. Museum no. C.427-1921.Bequeathed by D.M. Currie
Soft-paste porcelain, painted in colours and gilded
Museum no. C.427-1921
Bequeathed by D.M. Currie
Until the 20th century vintners imported and sold wine in barrels. They tested the quality of the wine by pouring a small amount into shallow silver wine tasters. Wealthy families bought wine by the barrel and had it transferred into bottles for storage. It was then decanted into something more elegant for the table. Servants poured wine on request after which empty glasses could be cleaned in individual rinsers.
Cocktail glass, Lalique
Made by René Jules Lalique
Museum no. Circ.34-1970
Given by Arthur Byron
Attributed to Norman Bel Geddes
Chromium-plated metal and plastic
Museum no. M.227-1984
Spirits: The Modern Cocktail
The cocktail is immediately associated with stylish modern living. The cocktail hour gained popularity in Britain after the First World War as the young generation rejected elaborate Edwardian dining traditions. It became the vogue among the Bright Young Things because it was novel, American and outraged their parents. Designers complemented the new fashion with strikingly modern forms.