Steins & Swag

A Brief History of German Steins

The word stein is a shortened form of Steinzeugkrug, which is German for stoneware jug or tankard. By common usage, however, stein has come to mean any beer container regardless of its material or size that has a hinged lid and a handle.

The word “stein” is of German origin. The etymology of the word is either from “Stein Krug” (meaning stone jug/mug) or from “Steingut” (meaning stone goods). Steins are mugs used for drinking beer. They can be made of earthenware, pewter, wood, ceramics, crystal, porcelain, creamware, silver, or glass. They have a handle and a hinged lid; are decorated and sometimes hand-painted. Steins may be traditional, regimental, occupational (depicting one’s occupation), character (figural), or relief (three-dimensional). They may be new, antiques, reproductions, or limited editions. Steins range in volume from: .03 liter (1 oz.) to 32 liter (8.4 gal.), the typical volume being .5 (1/2) liter (16.9 oz.). Steins often have a theme such as Christmas, wildlife, dogs, military, sports, game fish, etc. There may also be several steins in a series, within a theme. Europeans often engraved dates on the lids of steins to commemorate specific occasions, such as birthdays, anniversaries, sporting events, weddings, and retirements.

The Origin of Steins: Steins originated in the 14th century. As a result of the bubonic plague and several invasions of flies in Europe, Germany established laws to require beverage containers to be covered for sanitary purposes. Around the same time, techniques to improve earthenware were started by raising the firing temperature of clay, created stoneware. Thus, there was a presence of stoneware drinking vessels with attached pewter lids for the next 300 years. By the end of the 19th century, the stein was clearly defined as being made in Europe, primarily of stoneware and primarily with a permanently attached pewter lid. The history of steins includes the development and presentation of steins made with different materials. Pewter was the material of choice in some areas of Europe, especially England. Glass, porcelain and silver steins were introduced several hundred years ago. Many stein-decorating styles and techniques were developed over the centuries, offering further diversity to the stein. In recent times, the stein and tankard industry remained primarily represented by factories in Germany and England, where skilled craftsmen continue to create steins. However, during the 1980’s, Ceramarte, of Brazil, became the largest producer of beer steins in the world.

Character Steins: Character steins have a shape designed to represent a person, animal, or object. You might say they are novel and whimsical. A more relaxed way of life, combined with a German artist’s renaissance and a desire for beautiful, unique, and personalized drinking vessels, created the motivation to design, manufacture and use character steins.

Pewter Steins: The earliest known example of pewter-ware was found in Egypt and ascribed to the period of 1350-1580 B.C. Pewter finds have been made in Roman Britain dating from 200 A.D. Pewter became widely used in the 14th century when pewter trade guilds were formed in London and Edinburgh. The Worshipful Co. of Pewters, London, England, was granted a Royal Charter in 1473 to set standards throughout England. The development of new techniques in Sheffield at the end of the 18th century brought a revival of pewter. Resurgence occurred at the turn of the century because of Art Nouveau.  Yet another occurred around 1970 as a result of the formation of the Association of British Pewter Craftsmen, which promotes high standards. Its members are required to ‘touchmark’ their finished products – the touchmark being a symbol of quality and craftsmanship.

Stein Lids: A lid is one important factor in determining age, price, and quality of a stein. Lids can be categorized as.

Conical Lids: A cone or steeple shaped lid is most common and least expensive.

Flat Lids: Basically flat, made of pewter, and easily engraved.

Ornamental Lids: These are always made of pewter and are currently the most popular for limited edition steins. They usually have a glorified conical shape and a finial (a figural representation or common design at the top), and feature detail and handwork.

Inlay Lids: These Lids consist of a pewter rim, a pewter flange (lip), and a stoneware figurine or ornament inlaid in the center. The insert can also be made of glass, porcelain, or wood.

Stoneware Lids: The lid is made of stoneware and held in place by pewter fittings.

Pewter Fittings: Pewter fittings often help in the dating and pricing of the stein. Prior to 1680, they normally consisted of a domed lid with a tiered finial (a figural representation or common design positioned at the top of the stein), a large, closed, five- ring hinge and small thumb lift mounted over the hinge. Soon after 1680, fittings became more massive with large ball-type thumb lifts, lid rings, handle reinforcement straps, and five-ring hinge. From 1690 to 1748 fittings had foot rings, lid rings, large fancy lids, large ball-thumb lifts, and handle reinforcement straps. During the period 1850-65, pewter fittings were reduced to small diameter hinges, lids made of thin rings holding glass or ceramic inserts and fragile thumb lifts. From 1875-1914, less expensive steins (stoneware and glass) had fancy pewter lids and thumb lifts, while the more expensive ones (like Mettlach) were still made with ceramic inlaid lids. The closed hinge was used mostly until 1875, when the open hinge came into general use. A shortage of tin and pewter during WWI and WWII, caused many steins to be made with nickel-plated metal lids. Many kinds of hinges and fittings are being used today. Most pewter lids dating from 1960 to present have a velvety, sandblasted texture.

Regimental Steins: The conception of regimental steins was a result of the Franco-Prussian War (1840-1871). After the war, the newly organized Imperial German Armed Forces was broken into six divisions (Infantry, Artillery, Cavalry, Technician Troops, Colonial Guard, and Supply Train), plus the navy. Military service was compulsory and considered an honor. The successful completion of a reservist’s period of active duty was something to commemorate. Steins were produced for this purpose and competition developed within the stein industry to provide the soldier with his choice of stein, decorated to his individual specifications. Decorations usually depicted training or combat scenes. The pewter work was usually elaborate and meaningful.

Mettlach Steins: The Mettlach, steins are probably the most well known or prestigious of steins. Early ones were produced by the Villeroy and Boch Co. of Mettlach, Germany and usually carried the mercury, old tower, or castle trademark. Their golden age was from 1880 to 1910. They became famous for their etched and hand-painted steins. A great fire caused a 50-year lapse in the production of steins. Most Mettlach, products were made from stoneware. A white glaze was applied to the inside of most steins, except some marked BAVARIA, which were gray inside and out. The same type of stoneware was used to decorate the etched, relief, and mosaic items. Mold lines generally were not visible, due to careful cleaning. After 1970, collections of Mettlach, steins have been started at major museums in the U.S., Hamburg, Munich, Bonn, Amsterdam, and Zurich. Avid collectors will want to consult reference sources for information on trademarks, marking systems, and distinguishing characteristics to help determine age and value of Mettlach, steins. Starting in 1976, steins produced at Mettlach, are well marked as to year of origin.

Stein Value and Authenticity: In some cases, emblems, hallmarks, and trademarks, are used by factories to identify their steins as being authentic. Steins can be dated to a time period through the study of their markings, pewter fixtures, handles, body styles, designs, type of manufacturing, and the artist signatures. The value of a stein depends upon authenticity, condition, uniqueness or degree of rarity, age, and quality of workmanship. Other factors that help determine the value are patent marks and the reputation of the manufacturer and distributor. These further identifying steins as being etched, incised, relief, molded, blown, enameled, etc., aid in the process of valuation. Its unusual handles, hinge mounts, signatures, subjects, and materials enhance the value. Consult reference materials or experts for particular information to aid in identification, dating, and valuation. Most reference books on steins contain pictorial presentations. Steins are collectible, decorative, functional and true historical art forms. They tell stories, represent cultural eras, and often represent historical events

From about 1340 until 1380, a bubonic plague, or Black Death, killed more than 25 million Europeans! As horrible as this historic event was, it prompted tremendous progress for civilization. And, of interest here, it is also responsible for the origin of the beer stein.

Local brews in many other parts of Europe were still being made with rotten bread, cabbages, eggs, and anything else at hand. Soon the Bremen, Hamburg, and other clean northern Germany beers became famous and were exported throughout northern Europe, and even as far as the East Indies and Jerusalem. Such beers raised a new need for relatively inexpensive, but durable, large containers — the search for appropriate materials was on.

As for individual beer vessels, up to the 1400s, well-to-do Germans had pewter beakers. A few of the wealthiest even had silver vessels. These metal containers and those made of glass, remained too expensive for general use or for large containers. Some wooden beakers were used, but other than wood, porous earthenware was by far the most common material for beer beakers, mugs, and the larger containers. However, both the wood and the earthenware broke easily, which may have been a blessing because these materials absorbed beer, giving off a smell that got worse with each subsequent use.

The Black Death, by depleting the population, had created a surplus of food, especially grains. Much of this surplus grain made its way into local beers, making a fine, pure beverage really worthy of celebration. Eventually, large quantities of surplus grains made their way to the breweries in the north. (There were only a few cloister brewers in the south at that time.) In the 1500s, Hamburg had 600 breweries, producing 25 million liters of beer and directly or indirectly employing half of the population of that city.

In the 1600s, it was rather easy to determine a stein’s origin — every small region had considerable pride in its own typical form. The Bohemian, Austrian, and other southern tankards were wide and sturdy. Sleek and tall drinking vessels were preferred in the northern areas. The western steins were gray stoneware with blue decoration and the eastern steins were brown-glazed stoneware.

The quality and taste of beer — the flowing bread — continued to improve. Besides offering taste and fellowship, beer was considered to be important for the constitution, with the ability to induce strength, health, and relaxation. From the earliest times right up into the 1800s, many considered beer to be the most effective medicine known — the drink from the gods.

During the 1700s, shape became less important. The faience steins predominantly assumed a pleasing cylindrical shape about twice as high as wide. Stoneware, glass, porcelain, pewter, and other steins soon followed suit. Regional differences of shape and size were replaced by differences in materials and motifs.

Horn drinking vessels, so popular in Roman times, did not adapt well to the covered-container law and became rare. Ivory steins were made only for the exceptionally wealthy.

Antique stein collecting has been a major force shaping stein manufacturing in the modern period. First in about 1900, then again in the 1920s, good quality reproductions of antique steins were made, particularly in faience and pewter. Many of these early reproductions are clearly marked and are obviously not intended to fool antique stein collectors. The exceptions to this are some unmarked reproductions of Renaissance stoneware, early pewter, and some rare faience pieces that had reached remarkably high prices in the marketplace, even at the turn of the century. These are the steins that require the closest scrutiny to determine authenticity. It has really only been since the 1960s or 1970s that most types of antique steins have attained a value high enough to consider reproducing steins for the purpose of deception.

For the previous many centuries, the hinged lid on beer steins has permitted drinkers to dance and swing their arms without spilling a drop while acting ruckus and overly intoxicated in bars and pubs.

These days, beer steins and the preferred flip lid are thought to be novelties and are not frequently used in Germany. Several beer steins are adorned in painted artwork and are typically sold in Germany as souvenirs for vacationers. Collector’s steins are almost never employed for drinking and are frequently collected by enthusiasts for exhibit purposes.