Antique pottery is often very prized. The delicate nature of ceramics and their glazes means that most of these objects haven’t survived into the modern era. But, when an old piece does live on the value can be quite exceptional.
Some of these older items seemingly have no purpose in today’s world. Ceramic pieces like mustache mugs to keep one’s mustache dry, shaving sets, and bone dishes (for delicately placing discarded fishbones) are not commonly used today. There’s another obscure item we’re interested in today: the puzzle jug.
The oldest puzzle jug dates back to the 1300s. At that time finished ceramics were highly prized and rare when compared to today’s tableware. There are many designs of puzzle jug, but most followed the same format: a bulbous bottom where liquid was held, a perforated or latticework neck, and several spouts or channels at the top. Puzzle jugs also had a handle as well. They were sometimes also called suction jugs.
While some puzzle jugs were adorned with patterns of the day, others were decorated with a riddle, rhyme, or call to action. Basically, these poems dared people to try and figure out how to drink from the vessel without spilling any of the liquid inside. This was nearly impossible, of course, thanks to the holes in the top section.
The puzzle 18th century jug above reads:
Here Gentlemen come try your skill
I’ll hold a wager if you will
That you don’t drink this liquor all
Without you spill or let some fall
Betting on whether someone could figure out the puzzle became a popular tavern game. As it turns out the trick was often to cover a secret hole in the handle and suck through the nearest spout as if it were a straw. But, the average person didn’t know this and probably had a heck of a time trying to make it work. It didn’t help that only one of the spouts would work, which meant a lot of fumbling to get it figured out.
These jugs were particularly popular in the 18th century when Delft blue pottery, while still expensive, was a far cheaper option over exotic blue and white ceramics shipped from China or lusterware shipped from Ottoman Empire. However, word got back to Chinese ceramicists who then also made puzzle jugs for export back to Europe.
The popularity of puzzle jugs continued into the 19th century. These objects were highly decorated and some of the more elaborate designs required 4 firings to complete the glaze work.
Antique puzzle jugs today can fetch hefty sums in the hundreds. We’ve even seen them for sale for as much as $650.
Anyone interested in these unique pieces should know that the market is now flooded with puzzle jugs created in the 20th century as souvenir pieces in Europe. These more modern jugs can sell for as little as $5 or $10, though particularly gorgeous examples can sell for much more. Always look for signs of age and wear on ceramics. If something looks new, it probably is.