I’ve never shied away from kitsch. In fact, I’m drawn to it. I love the humor of kitsch, the silliness, but also how clever it can be. Think of a snow globe, with an entire city shrunk into its minute bubble top, most of a culture’s icons in the palm of your hand. Or think of a honey pot, shaped like a beehive, safe and cozy when made in glass. Kitsch – to my mind – must not be tacky. There’s a difference. Tacky is always just tacky, but the right bit of kitsch is definitively chic. I think any room benefits from a touch of kitsch, providing the kitsch is of good quality, bringing me to Toby Mugs, among my favorite kitschery.
According to Toby expert Steve Mullins, today’s collectible Tobys are named for Toby Fillpot, a boozebag character in “The Brown Jug,” a popular drinking song of the late 1700s.
They evolved from standard pottery jugs used in English taverns since the early 18th century. Used to serve sligo, an early ale still produced, they often incorporated crude faces and figures in their designs. One John Peel, Master of the Hounds, seems to have been the first real person popularized as a Toby.
Though many factories produced them, and continue to, I especially like Tobys made by the British firm Royal Doultan. They are perfectly made, expressive and detailed, elevating them beyond pure silliness. I also appreciate the company’s venerable history, which begins in 1815, in Lambeth, on the outskirts of London, with the life savings of John Doulton, already a master potter at twenty-two.
He produced exemplary household stoneware, and his firm grew through generations, initially by the mid 19th century, when cholera was widely spread through water, and Doulton produced a ceramic sewer pipe that improved the quality of water in a time of mass epidemics.
Later, Queen Victoria knighted the founder’s grandson, John, for innovation in the ceramic arts. The firm became Royal Doulton in 1901, with a charter from Edward VI. Doulton’s Tobys reached wide popularity when house artist Charles Noke introduced John Barleycorn, of whiskey lore, in 1934. Tobys were popular again in the 1960s, with some peoples’ nostalgia for the past. I can’t resist their charm. Don’t you think it’s Toby Time?