The word tankard was initially used to describe any wooden vessel hooped with iron. It later came to mean drinking vessel, first used for water and then more recently to describe a one-handled jug used mainly for beer. In December 2007, a complete wooden tankard was discovered in Wales that is approximately 2,000 years old and capable of holding nearly four pounds of liquid. From examining this piece, historians can see that early tankards were made of wooden staves–similar to the structure of barrels–and had no lids.
Tankards were commonly used in Northern Europe, especially in Britain, Germany, and Scandinavia, and in colonial America from the 16th to the end of the 18th century. Their shape is roughly cylindrical, they have a handle frequently in a scroll shape and they often have a flat lid hinged with an ornamental thumb piece.
The word tankard is mainly used to describe lidded drinking vessels from this period. It is believed that the there were lids to protect the drink from insects or dirt falling from the thatched roofs covering most of the homes and public houses back in those days. In the early 15th century, German authorities passed laws that all food and drink containers should be covered in order to protect them from flies.
Although tankards are known to be made from different materials such as carved ivory, pottery, porcelain, and even leather, most often they were made of precious metal like silver and pewter. Pewter is a traditional metal alloy used as far back as 400 BC, but the oldest surviving examples of pewter tankards are from the 17th century. The alloy was known as “poor man’s silver“ because silver was too expensive and pewter looked almost as good but was more affordable.
Unfortunately back in those days it contained lead so drinking from a pewter tankard could lead to heavy -metal poisoning. This was more common in cider drinking region, where pewter tankards were replaced by ones made of clay. Even though porcelain replaced metal as a material for many of the dishes used in the 18th century, pewter tankards remained in use and were quite popular. Some European pubs Europe would keep regular customers’ own pewter tankards behind the bar. Today they are still produced but are lead-free.
Many of the metal tankards come with a glass bottom and there are a few interesting stories to explain this style. The most commonly heard is that this was a clever way to refuse the King’s Shilling, which was a way the Royal Navy and British Army would force people into military service in the 18th and 19th-centuries. It was believed that the Armed Forces would trick people by slipping a shilling into their tankards, and if they finished the drink they were obliged to accept recruitment. The glass bottom was therefore said to have been introduced so it would allow them to see the shilling and refuse to enlist. However, this story is most likely apocryphal because the Royal Navy could press by force and did not need to resort to tricks. The other popular story is that it helped drinkers to avoid being punched in a bar fight. Usually, the first punch would be thrown when one had the tankard raised to the mouth so that the glass bottom would help him see the opponent coming and avoid the attack.
Near the end of the 17th century, lidless tankards made their appearance. They were designed for alehouses and many have the name of their tavern engraved. At the beginning of the 18th century, the dome lid was introduced, as well as new bell and tulip shaped tankards. Although the dome lid fell out of favor by the end of the century, the new tankard shapes continued to be popular. By the end of the 18th century, it was possible to get beer in a personal tankard which had your name on it. A servant of the tavern would deliver these tankards and collect them the next morning from every house.
Today tankards are still produced and are mostly made of pewter or glass. Modern metal tankards are usually engraved and are largely decorative, while the glass ones are used for drinking beer.