Posts Tagged ‘ring jug’

A Greedy Cup

April 15, 2012

It was grotesque.  It was a curio.  A whimsy.  It was any odd ball ceramic item (using these descriptive terms) that didn’t easily fit into otherwise serious functional categories.  Humor often had something to do with it.  Such items seemed to proliferate in the 18th -19th centuries; the puzzle jug, the face jug, the toby jug, mugs with a model frog or lump of shit in the bottom, whistles, ring jugs, toy figures, fuddling cups (somewhat earlier), etc.  Perhaps clay just brings out a particular sense of humor in people…

These “grotesqueries” tended to be made by and for the unwashed masses.  The upper crust had it’s own selection of  “follies.”   These were in no way limited to extravagances like the entire rooms of porcelain made for Augustus the Strong – or even ceramic items at all.  The 14th century Count Robert of Artois excelled in bizarre garden statues that squawked like parrots at passers by and conduits that “wet the ladies from below,” etc. etc. etc.

But back to pottery.  The penchant for curiosity was, of course, universal to every culture with a ceramic history.   Nor was production of such whimsies confined by era.  During the Greek Classical era (500bc) a unique drinking cup was made on the island of Samos.  The intent, seemingly, was to discourage over consumption of wine.

This was the “Greedy Cup.”  It had a tube running up the length of its stem and into the bowl of the cup.  A hollow column in the bowl covered the tube.  A small hole was pierced in the column.    If the cup was filled too full, the pierced column and inner tube design would allow enough hydrostatic pressure to create a siphon, sucking out the entire contents of the cup (onto the lap of the poor sot holding it).

Some believe that anything this ingenious had to be designed by a mathematician.  The most famous mathematician of Samos was Pythagoras, so the cup was also credited to him.

Pythagoras as potter specializing in practical jokes?  That’s a curious, maybe even grotesque, notion.


If These Pots Could Talk.  Ivor Noel Hume.  University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2001.

Early American Pottery and China.  John Spargo.  The Century Co./NY.  1926.

A Distant Mirror, The Calamitous 14th Century.  Barbara Tuckman.  Ballantine Books, New York.  1978.

How To Drink Switzel

February 5, 2012

It sounds disgusting but it really isn’t that bad.  Water, ginger, vinegar, and molasses.  Switzel.  Think of it as an early Gatorade.  Especially when chilled.  But we’ll get back to that…

The “switzel ring” was just one of a long line of usages for the ring shaped jug.  This jug was essentially a disc shaped canteen

Ring Jug by Stephen Earp

with usually two but sometimes four loop handles along its shoulders.  Certain types, like the marbled “Pilgrim Jugs” from Northern Italy and eastern France (circa 15-17th century), had an attached base.  Others, like the  English “Costrel Jug,” (circa 15 – 17th century) were simply two plates fused together.  But most were a thrown hollow ring.  The ring could be short and thick, like those of the North Carolina Moravians.  Or extremely wide and thin.  Some were glazed redware, some salt fired stoneware.  Some were highly ornate, others plain.

This unusual shape could be found as far away as Russia and Ukraine, where ice was packed in the middle to dispense chilled vodka or kvass (rye beer).  Far away from Europe and long after these times, some modern Cubans use unglazed pedestaled rings filled with water and put in front of fans as a sort of passive air conditioner.  But anything this unusual and somewhat difficult to throw was (and is) as much an excuse to show off one’s potting skills as to provide any particular function.

And of course, some early American farmers drank switzel from it.  But why use a hollow ring, and not just a regular jug?  You might imagine it was so they could be slung through the arm and stuffed in the hot,  grimy, sweaty armpit of the farmer on his way to mow his hay fields – unless you’ve actually tried to do that.  Awkward, yes.  But mostly just gross.

Very soon you’ll come to agree that it’s far better to find a shady spot along a creek, lay the ring jug in it, and put a stick through it’s circle into the mud to keep it from floating away.  The enormous amount of surface area of the switzel ring in the water will keep it cool until break time.

…Nice cool switzel.  Just the way it should be drank.