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In Their Cups - The Story of the English Puzzle Mug
by Delia Robinson

Drinkers carousing in a Medieval tavern could have their brew served in pottery mugs especially designed for by Delia Robinson

In the simple pre-electronic days of old, drinkers carousing in taverns might have enjoyed their brew from pottery mugs especially designed for boisterous amusement. A ceramic frog peering from the bottom of the cup, or a chirping whistle mug, such were the creations of long-gone potters to enhance the hilarity of happy hour.

Unless held to the mouth in exactly the right way, a Puzzle Mug would spill beer down the drinkers shirt. This was a big hit with the tavern crowd. The mugs were designed with multiple dribble holes and tunnels inside the handle and cup rim, the handle or walls connected to a drinking spout at the lip of the cup. This would allow the drinker to suck up his beverage, providing his fingers covered the right combination of false drinking spouts also placed around the cup lip. If he attempted drinking from the cup in the customary fashion, the beverage would pour out through perforations carved just under the lip. As the evening progressed into a rowdy uproar, finding the safe spot from which to drink would become increasingly chancy, providing merriment for all.

Staggering home in clothing soaked in beer has lost some appeal down the centuries. This might explain why puzzle mugs have gone out of vogue. They linger in a crude modern counterpart, the dribble glass, found in novelty shops. This, merely a glass drilled with a dribbling hole, is a far cry from the elaborate pottery concoctions designed to send tavern patrons into stitches.

‘Fuddling cups’, charmingly named, required less skill from the potter, but more from the drinker. They consisted of multiple cups attached side by side into one diabolically messy drinking container. Passageways between the cups required the drinker to carefully empty them in the correct sequence. The wrong choice resulted in a drenching, the right choice in befuddlement.

Joke mugs have lost none of their popularity over time. A slip trailed witticism on a Staffordshire cup has its counterpart in the office coffee mug of today, with its snappy saying or cartoon. Even the frog in the mug has surfaced repeatedly, metamorphosing into everything from submarines to naked ladies. A cup of this sort was named a Nightingale, a genteel name suitable for tea drinkers.

Another option for the noisy set was the whistle mug. These came in several variations. In the simplest, a whistle was affixed to the handle of the cup. In a more complex form, the whistle chamber was made to connect with an air passage into the bowl of the cup. When empty and the whistle blown, only one note was emitted. When the cup was full, the air bubbling through the liquid created melodious trills and warblings. Some people insist it is correctly called a Hubblebubble, which would seem to require beer.

Drinkers from the past must have been a convivial lot. Many of the early tavern mugs are found with two or more handles. This allowed several drinkers seated around the table to have equal access to the brew. At banquets, two handled ‘loving cups’ could be passed easily along a line of guests, each taking a swig. Two handled cups still persist, but, but primarily in their even more antique function, for sports awards. Their utility is largely over; the beverage sharers of today don’t require special containers but just pass the bottle.

Since their heyday in the raucous taverns of the 16th-18th centuries, the trickier cups have become rare specialty items. Whistle mugs are still produced in Germany with the barrel shape reminiscent of old tankards. Like their predecessors, they are often impressively large. They hold amounts that could easily put several drinking cronies under the table, though the one handle with a whistle perched jauntily on top, suggests that a single drinker is expected to finish it all.

Next > How to Make a Puzzle Mug

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