Exploring the engraved beer tankard

Exploring the engraved beer tankard

The engraved beer tankard has often been compared to the German beer stein, and there really is not much to differentiate them. Both are large, cylindrical drinking vessels, and both have a handle and often a hinged lid too. The materials vary from glass, silver and pewter through to ceramic, leather and wood, depending on the era, and country, from which they came. Of course, the material used will ultimately decide whether the tankard will be engraved, etched, carved or painted, but beer tankards are usually very decorative, with country scenes, sporting activities or personalised themes.

Origins of the tankard

Originally, the word ‘tankard’ referred to any vessel made of wood, and can be traced back to the 13th Century. After this, it became more common for a tankard to be known as a drinking vessel.

Fashioned out of wooden staves like the barrels of the day, the first tankards were crude and did not have lids. A wooden tankard, or drinking vessel, was unearthed in Wales that is thought to be around 2,000 years old, and also has a four-pint capacity.

Pewter tankards

Pewter tankards, on the other hand, became popular replacements for wood, but they could have serious effects on a drinker’s health as the lead content was particularly high. Illnesses ranged from gout to metal poisoning, and in counties where cider was regularly drunk, these side effects were heightened as the acidic nature of the drink helped the lead leach much more quickly. Clay tankards quickly became a safer option in these areas.

Today, pewter can be produced without lead, eliminating the risks of poisoning.

The glass-bottomed engraved beer tankard

A popular feature of many beer tankards is the glass bottom, and there are a few interesting stories of where and why it originated. One theory concerns the ‘King’s shilling’, which was a way of conscripting men into the army or navy. A shilling would be dropped into a drinker’s tankard (who was usually intoxicated by then) and if the drinker emptied his tankard to retrieve the coin, he had unwittingly accepted the ‘Kings shilling’ and there was no turning back. The glass bottom allowed the drinker to see the shilling and so refuse the drink and conscription. Another story suggests that in the event of a bar fight, the glass bottom allowed the drinker to see any punch that may be thrown in his direction.

The barmaid’s half

Trading standards may not fall for this today, but in Victorian times, it became common practice for the engraved beer tankard to sometimes not be as it appeared to be. Unscrupulous landlords used a variety of methods to serve short measures, from putting large dents in metal tankards, to having an inverted conical bottom, to serving a large frothy head. The barmaid was also known to supplement the poor wages of the time with her own pewter tankard. These tankards were, on the outside, the exact same size as a pint tankard, but they were made in such a way as to only hold half a pint. The story goes that when offered a drink, the barmaid would gladly accept a pint, but of course she would be able to pocket the difference in money. Drinking less also meant that she would not end up drunk by the end of the night.

Nowadays, the tankard is still being manufactured, though mainly as a speciality item. The engraved beer tankard can be a novel way to commemorate almost any occasion.

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