Dear Tom, this brown jug that now foams with mild ale,
(In which I will drink to sweet Nan of the vale),
Was once Toby Fillpot, a thirsty old soul,
As e’er drank a bottle, or fathomed a bowl….
~1761, by Francis Fawkes, a clergyman
Toby jugs portray a character whose story is rather unclear. He reminds some people of Shakespeare’s jovial, disreputable Toby Belch from Twelfth Night. Others believe he is probably named and modeled after the legendary 18th century drinker “Sir Toby Philpot” who made an appearance in the Francis Fawkes song quoted above.
This ceramic character was born in the English Staffordshire potteries region in the 1760s, fully clothed in breeches, coat, and a tricorn hat, seated, and clutching his own jug of ale. Sometimes Toby holds a pipe, takes snuff, or has a barrel between his feet.
Although Toby jugs are real glazed jugs with a handle behind and a spout in front (typically formed by the front point of the three-cornered hat) they were intended to be decorative pieces of pottery rather than a drinking vessel.
Toby inspired many other character jugs that have been made continuously over the last 250 years. Some of these Toby-inspirations are fictional personalities and some are based on real people. Keeping to the theme, faux-Toby jugs generally have humorous, earthy wrinkled faces with an element of caricature.
Genuine Toby jug antiques can cost several hundred pounds and are collected by many enthusiasts. Collectors often specialize in particular types – pearlware or Wemyss ware, sailor or farmer Tobies, etc. – and the best jugs are sold by upmarket auction houses and antique dealers.
The most desirable of the early Staffordshire Toby jugs are the Ralph Wood-type. Credited with the invention and spread of the jug, Ralph Wood produced well-modeled figures decorated with translucent colored glazes. He was amongst the first English potters to mark his work and Toby jugs signed by Wood are particularly sought-after. An unmarked Ralph Wood jug is worth over £1,000, depending on condition. His rare ‘Thin Man’ jugs can be worth double. Jugs marked with a Mould number are often more valuable and examples signed by Wood command a premium, sometimes over £2,500.