Here’s a picture of a shelf in my house. Take a close look. Does anything look strange? Does anything look anomalous?
Here’s another picture of another shelf. See what I mean? Yes, there’s an odd pot out.
I have many more shelves like these. Some in the house, several in the shed, and I’m not even going to get on to the subject of the attic. My taste in pottery tends towards late twentieth century modernism and brownness. So what’s with the weird blue jug?
It arrived last week. My local charity shops have been going through a particularly thin patch with scarcely an interesting pot to be found for weeks and weeks. And then this. There it was in the Oxfam shop, in the middle of a sea of dross, and it spoke to me. Here’s what it said: “I’m a Victorian moulded blue-glazed earthenware jug. You’ve never seen anything quite like me before. I know perfectly well that I’m not to your current taste. But I know and you know that I’m coming home with you.” And so it did. God knows why. It doesn’t fit in. It’s an anomaly.
Regular readers of the Random Treasure Blog will already know that despite my main collecting interest being modern British studio pottery, I am not a purist, not a completist. Some people set out on their collecting lives with a focus on a particular type of object, and never change that focus, becoming ever-increasingly single-minded and obsessive in pursuit of the last rare piece to complete a collection or set. But not me. I feel no compulsion to accumulate a full set of anything or a full representation of work by any particular maker or in any particular style.
In fact I find quite often that if I happen to spot any kind of interesting and/or attractive object, and if I happen to find that object affordable, however foreign it may be to my current collecting interests, I’ll buy it willy-nilly. My tastes and interests are wide and ever-changing. I get hooked and then I lose interest, and then go back. A short attention span. A disinclination for in-depth study or research. A magpie-like attraction to shiny and eye-catching objects. And an incidental eye to making an occasional profit from re-sale while learning something new at the same time.
There is however, a certain predictability about what classes of objects are likeliest to attract my attention and to lead me astray from the studio pottery path. One such class is jugs. Indeed, so likely am I to be beguiled by non-studio-pottery jugs that I have blogged about them on more than one occasion, as here and here.
And now here I am again blogging about yet another jug made long before the studio pottery movement was so much as a twinkle in Bernard Leach’s eye. A jug which, frankly, is about as far away as a jug can get from any of the characteristics of studio pottery.
When I got it home from the charity shop, I knew nothing about this jug other than what it told me itself – a Victorian moulded blue-glazed earthenware jug. What drew my attention first was the image moulded on the sides: a Roman chariot pulled by two prancing horses galloping across a hilly landscape. It is driven by two soldier charioteers, one bearing a flag on a pole, and the other an imperial eagle standard. Above the chariot is a grapevine growing from the moulded stalk of the jug’s handle.
I’ve seen many moulded jugs before but never one with this particular stirring Roman image. But this isn’t the only unusual thing about it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one with this light blue glossy glaze. And I certainly haven’t come across one with an original closely-fitting earthenware lid with a finial or knop moulded as a bunch of grapes. Or, moreover, with a large and prominent and rather weird straining contraption attached just behind the pouring lip.
Yes, it’s a jug which is significantly different from any that I have seen before. Which, of course, is why I had to pay £7.00 for it and bring it home.
I tried my best to get some information from Google. At which factory might it have been made? Around what date? Could I find any other examples with the same Roman chariot moulding? Are there other jugs with similar lids? What’s the meaning of the big clunking strainer?
The strainer especially mystified me. If it was a modern jug, you’d think it was for catching ice cubes, and indeed if it were used today as a water jug it would be ideal for that purpose. But I don’t think ice cubes were in common use at the time when this jug was made. According to Wikipedia, the domestic refrigerator was invented in 1913, and this jug is very clearly from several decades earlier. So what on earth might the strainer be required to strain?
Google didn’t help. I found lots of images of moulded jugs, but none with the chariot image, none with a pottery lid and none with a big fitted strainer. I drew a blank.
So I posted some pictures on the page of the Facebook Sprigged & Relief Moulded Jugs group. This is a group with 479 members, of whom 478 know between them everything there is to know (and more, much more) about sprigged and relief moulded jugs. The 479th member is me, and I know nothing.
My jug caused a mild sensation. In a group as niche and douce as this, sensations tend to be on the mild side. Here are some of the comments which came in almost immediately from experts and collectors, who are constantly on watch for the latest major discovery to emerge into the realm of Sprigged & Relief Moulded Jugs.
- “uniquely beautiful”
- “a new one to me and a very interesting piece”
- “rocking horse poop rare” and
- “I’d have bought it in a heartbeat”.
So there you are. Not just any old jug. Unfortunately the experts didn’t tell me anything about the maker, the date, the light blue glaze or the moulded chariot. I’m no further forward with these. Let’s just assume (i.e. guess) as follows: that the jug was made in an unidentifiable factory in Staffordshire around 1860-’70; that the blue glaze, while unusual in a moulded jug, is sometimes seen on pottery dinnerware made around that time; and that the moulded chariot image is derived from an unidentified print or engraving seen by the pottery factory’s in-house designer. That might be as far as we’re going to get.
The experts did, however, provide a name for the type of jug and a pointer towards an explanation of the lid and the strainer. It isn’t a water jug, and it isn’t an ice jug. It is a Toast Water Jug.
Hands up all those readers who know about Toast Water? Me neither. So I looked it up, and, remarkably, several bloggers have blogged about it. One beautifully-written blog describes it thus: “Toast water tastes like a pond that is haunted by the ghost of toast that drowned in it. It is a mournful beverage” .
In olden times, as, perhaps, now, if you were caring for an invalid (particular form of invalidity not specified), you would want to get him or her to take nourishment. For the Victorian carer, if your invalid refused to take other forms of nourishment, you would try to tempt him or her with Toast Water. I turned for more information to the indispensable Book of Household Management by Mrs Isabella Beeton.
Mrs Beeton’s book was first published in 1861, and became a huge success, selling some 140,000 copies in its first few years. My copy is an early example from the even more successful revised second edition which came out in 1869 – by which time Mrs Beeton herself was already long dead, having died in childbirth in 1865 at the age of 28 years.
In passing, you might think that a book which sold in such enormous quantities wouldn’t be desirable or collectable now. You wouldn’t, for example, expect it to be in any way comparable to a precious rarity such as a Toast Water Jug. But in fact, if you were to put my worn but intact copy of the book into an auction alongside my splendid jug, it’s likely that the former would achieve a very much higher price than the latter.
There are two reasons for this:
- Firstly, the Book of Household Management is something that lots of collectors want, but it’s rare now because very few copies survived complete and undamaged from years of heavy use in hot, steamy, greasy kitchens;
- Secondly, although Toast Water jugs are exceptionally unusual, they are almost completely unknown as a class of artefact, and very few people know enough about them to feel any need or desire to own one.
So an item which you would expect to be common and cheap is in fact scarce and valuable, while an item which you would expect to be almost unique and priceless is indeed almost unique but actually has very little value. That’s the way the market works.
Returning to my subject from this brief and exquisitely superficial excursion into the complex forces of supply and demand as they exert themselves upon the antiques trade, I discover that Mrs Beeton refers to the concoction not as Toast Water (as seems to be its more usual appellation) but as Toast-and-Water. In the 1869 second edition of the book, its editor, her widower Samuel, includes a recipe in the Invalid Cookery section in Chapter XLI, paragraph 2000, pages 943-944.
TO MAKE TOAST-AND-WATER.
INGREDIENTS. A slice of bread, 1 quart of boiling water.
MODE. Cut a slice from a stale loaf (a piece of hard crust is better than anything else for the purpose) toast it of a nice brown on every side, but do not allow it to burn or blacken. Put it into a jug, pour the boiling water over it, cover it closely, and let it remain until cold. When strained it will be ready for use. Toast-and-water should always be made a short time before it is required, to enable it to get cold: if drunk in a tepid or lukewarm state, it is an exceedingly disagreeable beverage. If, as is sometimes the case, this drink is wanted in a hurry, put the toasted bread into a jug, and only just cover it with the boiling water; when this is cool, cold water may be added in the proportions required, – the toast-and-water strained; it will then be ready for use, and is more expeditiously prepared than by the above method.
I think it probable that all those of us with a palate trained during the twentieth or twenty-first centuries would find Toast Water an exceedingly disagreeable beverage at whatever temperature it might be served. As for its efficacy when served to invalids, perhaps the best that can be said of it is that if that’s all the sustenance you were given when feeling poorly, you would likely find yourself with enormous added incentive and motivation to get better without delay.
What is of yet more interest to me than the recipe for and uses of Toast Water, is the fact that this ghastly preparation must have been in such common use that pottery manufacturers perceived a demand to design, manufacture and market a vessel specifically designated as a Toast Water Jug. And, moreover, that householders and/or their housekeepers in polite households up and down the land must have felt such a compelling need to dispense Toast Water to their resident invalids that they went out and bought a vessel designed for that purpose and for that purpose only.
For occasional use you could easily strain your Toast Water through a sieve or muslin, and serve it daintily to your invalid from a jug or decanter or teapot or coffeepot – so why on earth would you go to the expense or effort of buying a Toast Water Jug? It’s a mystery, but perhaps it’s a mystery that sheds as much light on middle-class attitudes and tastes in the mid-nineteenth century as anything we might read in the pages of a novel by Elizabeth Gaskell or Anthony Trollope.
At the start of this piece I showed you pictures of my new Toast Water Jug looking anomalous on shelves full of modern studio pottery. Of course it won’t come to rest permanently on any of these shelves. It will have to be found a place on a different sort of shelf altogether (I have many such).
It doesn’t have much commercial value, and as such it is Random but it is not necessarily Treasure. But now that I know a little about it I have come to like it. I find it attractive. It’s a keeper. It might just be the best “Guess what it’s for?” object in my entire collection.
 There are a few other examples of Toast Water Jugs in the hands of collectors and an interesting blog piece here: http://dishynews.blogspot.com/2015/07/transferware-toast-water-jugs-and.html