Posts Tagged ‘toby 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.