Modeled in the form of a heavy-set, jovial person, or person of repute, Toby mugs and Toby jugs have existed since the 1760s. The first Tobies, made in the form of a jovial, stout man dressed in the attire of the period, wearing a tri-corn hat, puffing on a pipe, and holding a mug of ale (stingo), are referred to as "Ordinary Tobies." Toby “Jugs” are used for pouring; Toby “mugs” are used for drinking. The determining feature between the two is the top rim. If the opening has a spout, it’s a jug; if not, it’s a mug.
The creator of the first Toby jug is unknown, but most attribute it to either potter John Astbury or Thomas Wheildon. The origin of the term also remains unsettled. One possibility is that the form was named after the character of Sir Toby Belch in Shakespeare's play, “Twelfth Night” (an intoxicated, jovial man). Another theory states it was named after a notorious eighteenth-century Yorkshire sot, Henry Elwes, who was known as "Toby Fillpot" (or Philpot). Another theory ties in the real possibility that a popular English drinking song, "The Brown Jug," which paid tribute to Toby Fillpot, is the source of the name. The popular Brown Jug verses were first published in 1761, the same era as the appearance of Toby jugs.
No matter the creator, Toby jugs caught the popular attention of late eighteenth-century England, with early jugs created by such well known potters as Ralph Wood I and II, Enoch Wood, Thomas Hollins, and William Pratt, as well as the aforementioned Astbury and Wheildon - all potters working in Staffordshire, Leeds, and Portobello areas of England.
Toby jugs soon became common pouring vessels at local pubs and taverns. The jugs were filled from barrels of stingo (a strong alcoholic brew) and the tri-corn removable crown served as a cup. Toby jug production grew throughout the nineteenth century with the creation of many new humorous depictions of fictional and historical figures. Today, collectors use the name “Toby” to describe all types of figural jugs. A true Toby has the sculpted form of a full seated or standing figure. The close cousin to the Toby jug is the Character jug, which features only the head and shoulders of a character.
In the early and late twentieth century, Toby and Character jugs were produced by more than 200 different companies, including Royal Doulton, Shorter and Son, Lancaster-Sandland, Royal Worcester, Kevin Francis, and Wedgwood & Co. in England. Toby-type jugs from other countries include French majolica figural jugs from Sarreguemines, Onnaing, Orchies, Fives-Lille, and Nimy Les Moines; and figural German jugs from Royal Bayreuth, Schafer and Vater, and Goebel. The United States and Australia also made significant contributions.
Most Toby jug manufacturers have discontinued production, as their popularity has ebbed during the twenty-first century. Today, there are only three companies still producing Character and Toby jugs. However, the whimsical fun of these pieces could mean that a resurgence in their popularity is just around the corner!