Puzzle jug

By Dr Alicia Marchant
Puzzle jug held in the collection of the St Bartholomew Hospital Museum and Archive

This jug may be aesthetically plain and neutral-coloured, but do not be fooled: a first drink will often result in a drenching, with ale over the drinker’s face and clothes.  You see, this is a joke jug, a puzzle jug, with multiple spouts through which drink spills out when the jug is tipped up in the process of swallowing. The trick was to choose the correct spout through which to sip the ale, and to cover the remaining spouts with your fingers to create a vacuum.  This is, of course, easy in theory but is progressively harder to practice as the night progresses.

From the collection of St Bartholomew Hospital Museum and Archive, this puzzle jug is testimony to the rich drinking culture of London in the late seventeenth century, at which time the jug was crafted. While ale was the most readily available and popular beverage at this time, there were numerous other options with which this jug could have been filled, including sack, porter, beer, cider, gin or wine. [1]

Amongst puzzle jugs, however, this one is notably undecorated, preserving a relatively intact pale cream glaze which suggests the jug originated in the Netherlands. How it came to reside in London is another of the jug’s mysteries. Puzzle jugs, some of which were quite ornate in design [Figure 1], were found all over Europe from the fourteenth century onwards [2], and would have been popular in the many taverns, public houses, inns, and alehouses surrounding St Bartholomew’s. These taverns, like Ye Olde Mitre thought to operate from 1546 [3], were important social spaces, where people could meet, engage and talk, whilst eating and drinking, and were popular with locals and travellers alike.

Figure 1: Puzzle jug. Salt-glazed stoneware with cobalt decoration; 1620s, probably from the Westerwald. Charles W. Nichols Collection, “The Art of German Stoneware”, 2012. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 unported licence. Photograph by Marcus Cyron. 

This jug is currently displayed in the St Barts archive alongside other ceramic jars and pots which contained poisons, painkillers and medical unguents. This sits at odds with the merriment implicit in an object such as the puzzle jug. While we do not have specific details about the history of this particular jug, it is clearly an object made to encourage social interactions, and to incite comedy and amusement between a drinker and audience.

London ale and public houses would commonly have been noisy and busy places, full of merriment and cheer, brawling and yelling, no doubt helped along by various drinking games.  Puzzle jugs would also have featured in parties held in more private spaces, like the home, and between friends.  It is entirely possible that this particular puzzle jug came to be in the collection of St Bartholomew because it was used in one of the surrounding houses owned by the hospital.

Figure 2: Henry Singleton, The Ale-House Door, oil on canvas (1790). Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 unported licence.

Regardless, the puzzle jug was a product of leisure, offering a focal point for revelry and camaraderie, in which heavy drinking was practiced as part of a social ritual. [4] The puzzle jug allowed for an individual to display intellect and mastery of this tricky object, to win over a crowd, or simply cement a place amongst friends.

The puzzle jug was a test and a challenge, but any resultant failure would have been worn by the drinker for the rest of the evening, and potentially even longer. This would, of course, have been the source of much hilarity and laughter, not to mention the strong smell of alcohol.

While this drinking game was very clearly meant to entertain, the other side of this practice is centred on an individual who is singled out, laughed at and humiliated, and so one must also view the spilt drink stain as a mark of shame and embarrassment at having failed in the quest.  The puzzle jug could be used by a friendship group to tease an outsider for pleasure and laugher.

When you view the puzzle jug in full 3D-rotation, how does it make you feel?

About the author

Dr Alicia Marchant is a University Associate in History at the University of Tasmania, and an Associate Investigator and Fellow of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions 1100-1800. Her current research interests include the history of emotions, heritage, materiality, narrative and dark tourism. She is currently editing a collection for Routledge on the history of heritage and emotions (2017).


[1] Paul Jennings, A History of Drink and the English 1500-2000 (Abingdon, 2016).

[2] D. M. Hadley, ‘Dining in Disharmony in the later Middle Ages’, in Consuming Passions; Dining from Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century, edited by M. Carroll, D. M. Hadley, and H. Willmott (Stroud, 2005), 110.

[3] David Thomas, A Visitors Guide to Shakespeare’s London (London, 2016), 148.

[4] For detailed examination of the sociability of drinking in early modern England, see Mark Hailwood, Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England (Woodbridge, 2014).

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