You’re a young, healthy man in 1850 America. You work hard on your farm and enjoy a bountiful harvest, with plenty of grain. You want to reward yourself for your hard work – rightfully so – so you set out to make moonshine. You ferment part of your harvested grains with sugar and yeast, producing moonshine. And you stored it in stoneware jugs.
What you just read is the typical life of young Americans in the 19th century. Glass was rare back then as we didn’t figure out a good way to mass produce it yet. Everyone had to make do with pottery, and stoneware jugs were a key part of storing alcohol. These jugs stored all sorts of products, not only alcohol. Anything you’d store in your fridge today would have gone in a stoneware jug back then.
Nowadays, stoneware jugs are considered a relic of the past. Which makes them prime material for collectors. Pottery is a lost art, which makes these antique stoneware jugs very valuable. Collectors are ready to drop a pretty penny to buy rare pieces.
In this article, you are going to learn everything you need to know about antique stoneware jugs. You will learn about their history, how to evaluate one, and some historic auctions.
The History of Stoneware Jugs
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact origins of stoneware jugs. Sources suggest that salt-glazed stoneware saw its birth in the Rhineland, a region of Germany, around 1400. This style of stoneware spread throughout American households way later – a few years before 1800, and was a household staple until 1890.
In the U.S. they started as moonshine jugs. They were used to store the moonshine produced by farmers fermenting their grain. Moonshine production was an intelligent way of reducing waste, as it came from overproduced grains that would have been tossed away.
Eventually, these jugs started to get used to store all kind of food and drinks. They helped keep both in good hygienic conditions and delayed spoiling. These jugs – also called “crocks” – were very easy to keep cold. They acted like a precursor of modern fridges.
Editor’s note: You can try this yourself. Place a jug inside a bigger pot, fill the pot with sand, and pour water on the sand every morning.
Stoneware jugs maintained the monopoly on household wares until 1890. It’s no coincidence that 3 years earlier, in 1887, a company called Ashley developed a system to mass produce glass. And then the first refrigerators were invented only a few years later – 1913. These all contributed to the decline of stoneware jugs.
And that’s why they are so valuable today. Original jugs are very rare, and collectors love anything that is rare.
Evaluating a Stoneware Jug
If you’re on the market for an antique stoneware jug, or you’re thinking of selling yours, knowing how to evaluate it is crucial to guarantee you’re not getting scammed.
Unfortunately, the world of collectibles is breeding ground for all kind of dishonest people. They often make a quick buck off unsuspecting people who don’t know better. We don’t want that to happen to us, so let’s see how to properly evaluate a stoneware jug.
You’ll need to check a few key factors:
- Condition: These jugs are quite sturdy, but time grinds even mountains to dust. Any sign of damage like chips or scratches will negatively affect the jug’s value. The same goes for the jug’s decoration. Anything that shows the time’s toll on the piece will drop the piece’s value. The best jugs are those that look as good as if they were new.
- Decoration: The more ornate the decoration, the higher the piece’s value. Simpler designs and monochrome crocks fetch lower prices compared to crocks with more intricate designs.
- Rarity: Rarer pieces command higher prices. It’s simple supply and demand economics. The lower the supply relative to demand, the higher the good’s value. Collectors will be happy to drop thousands of dollars on unique pieces, knowing that they are getting something no one else in the world owns. The rarest pieces often are those that have been owned by famous people. Imagine getting your hands on a jug that was used by Lincoln to drink to cope with the civil war’s death toll.
- Authenticity: We already mentioned the existence of dishonest actors in the world of collectibles. Some will go as far as forging fake jugs to extort money from unsuspecting collectors. There are a few details to check. The age of the cobalt paint is the main telling sign. If the cobalt paint is new, then you’re dealing with a fake. Another sign is a fake date added to the piece to make it feel older.
If you want to learn a little more about the value of jugs based on their decoration, here’s a great video showing off a few for each style, and how much you should pay for an authentic piece:
Let’s now see a few jugs that sold for a lot of money.
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The Most Valuable Antique Stoneware Jugs
Original pieces in good conditions with ornate designs make collectors go crazy for them. These are the kind of items that elite collector hunt for. If you’re in the market for a unique piece, the jugs on this list are what you’re looking for.
Or maybe you’re just interested in learning about how some pieces become so valuable.
Whatever the case, keep on reading.
Martin Brothers Stoneware Barrister Double Sided Face Jug – $5,975
Beginning our list, we have this stoneware jug from around 1880. The peculiarity is in its design. The jug has a face carved in it. The details are still quite visible, even though there is some discoloration present. The smug face has a lot of love put into it. You can tell from the wrinkles around its eyes and on the forehead that the makes worked very hard on this piece.
This jug was made by R.W. Martin Bros, an English company that specialized in stoneware. It’s 6-3/4 inches high (around 17.1 centimeters), and conditions-wise, it is rated “Fine”. While the jug itself is still in good shape overall, there are a few cracks around the mouth, and it’s losing its original coloration. Still, the face is well visible, the craftmanship put into the jug is remarkable, and the design is quite unique. That’s why it commanded a price of almost 6 thousand dollars at auction.
Large Westerwald Stoneware Jug with Original Pewter Cover – $3,750
This jug was made in the last few decades of the 17th century. Westerwald pottery (not to be confused with the modern American company) came from the area known as Westerwald, in Germany. It has a round design with daisies raised on a blue background. The pewter cover makes this piece peculiar – back then, most jugs came without one, as people covered the jugs themselves.
Beyond that, the piece is so valuable thanks to its great conditions. There is some discoloring, especially around most daisies and on the jug’s base, and the jug’s top is slightly dented, but those are minor flaws that don’t impact the value much.
Imagine pulling this jug out at a dinner you’re hosting. With some practice in using the cover, you can look like the most sophisticated individual in town.
Rare Antique Whites Utica Salt Glaze Stoneware Jug, Blue Decorated Horse, 19th C – $7,600
White’s pottery, in Utica, started producing its first jugs in 1839. Funded by Noah White, who was already working in other potteries around 1834. Unfortunately, the seller doesn’t give us much information about the jug beyond its age. But we can figure out why it’s so valuable just by looking at the picture.
First off, the conditions of the jug are pretty good. There are a few chips here and there, but for the most part, this is how the jug looked when it was just built. The horse decoration is also still looking as good as new. And last, the “Whites Utica N.Y.” logo also looks brand new.
While the jug might look a bit too minimalistic, especially compared to other items on this list, that helps with keeping the item’s value intact over time. Simpler designs have less parts that can go sour with time. And also, they are easier to blend in with other styles of furniture, making them more versatile.
Abraham Lincoln: Dated “Old Abe” Stoneware Jug From Vermont – $4,750
This is the most recent sale on our list, as it happened in February of 2022. As Heritage Auction tells us, political stoneware is extremely rare. And rare this piece is. Aside from the excellent conditions with only minor flaws around the jug’s neck, the text painted on it is what makes it unique.
Abraham Lincoln is one of the most influential figures in American history, and having a dedicated jug of him is something even the most eccentric collector will want in their collection. The jug was made by S. Johns/Stoneware, and the text decoration includes the year of building, 1862, and a reference to President Lincoln. We can guess that this jug was sent as a gift from the company to Lincoln, who became a president a year before, in 1861.
John Tyler: Cobalt Decorated Stoneware Jug – $4,500
Continuing our list of political stoneware, here’s a John Tyler jug. John Tyler was president of the United States from 1841 until 1845. The style is the same as many other jugs from this era, with cobalt blue decorations. The text on this jug says “Tyler”, and the logo indicates that the jugs’ maker is “Fox Athens”.
It was built in Athens, New York between 1841 and 1843. It couldn’t have been made afterwards, because the company Fox Athens stopped operating then. It also doesn’t make sense that they’d build a jug like this before John Taylor became president.
This jug’s design is also slightly different from most other jugs on this list. It grows in size at around half of the jug’s height in order to improve its capacity. The conditions of this piece are excellent, with only minor flaws around the top and on the sides. It’s only minor flaking though, nothing to worry about or that affects the price that much.
William Henry Harrison: Large Stoneware Jug – $3,750
We know, we said that political jugs are rare, and yet our list is showing plenty of them. It’s not our fault that these are the most valuable and sought-after jugs on the market.
Anyway, this is yet another jug that was built with a president in mind – William Henry Williamson, the 9th president of the United States. It was built by “Fox Athens”, the same company that built the John Tyler jug right above.
Fox Athens operated from 1838 until 1843, and used the same design for both of its jugs on our list. The jug progressively gets larger until around half of its height, to then tighten again. Heritage Auction speculates that this model was filled with hard cider, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented apple juice. This is the jug in best conditions on our list, it’s basically as good as new, as you can see from the picture.
Set of Two-Headed Face Jugs from Lanier Meaders, circa 1975 – $8,125
These don’t technically qualify as antique, depending on who you ask. They’re less than 50 years old, whereas most people agree that for an item to be antique it has to be at least 100 years old. Still, this couple of jugs made by Meaders is worth of attention.
The glazed stoneware comes with original folkloristic designs of 2 heads. The jugs are in great condition, and the details of the carvings are all still visible. These factors contribute to the jugs’ prices – they sold for a little over 8 thousand dollars at auction.
Because of their distinct look, they aren’t as flexible as other jugs on this list. These fit a very specific style of furniture, but when they do, they look great.
Martin Brothers Glazed Stoneware Grotesque Double-Sided Face Jug, Ca 1911 – $4,250
Rounding up our list is another jug made by Martin Bros. The design follows the same idea as the other jug on this list, with a face carved on it. However, the details on this specific jug are more pronounced. Plus, the brown patina, despite being a sign of the jug’s age, helps with the overall appearance.
The only flaws holding back this jug’s value are, as Heritage Auction itself tells us: “errant seams mimicking crazing to clay inherent to manufacturing, light fleabite to black glaze border to handle, otherwise displaying very well.”
Still, this is an incredible piece for any collector. The eyes’ angle and the mouth’s position give off strong craziness vibes, which fit the typical contents of these jugs quite well.
Stoneware Jugs for Sale
Let’s now see a few jugs that you can buy right now. If you’re in the market for a stoneware jug and want a unique piece to show off, you’re in the right place.
- We’ll start with this 19th Century Decorated Stoneware Jug from Keene, New Hampshire that sells for $1,495. It follows the design style that was popular at the time – blue cobalt decoration on a white background. The floral decoration is very elegant, and the jug is in great condition, except for the logo that’s faded away.
- Going on we have this Royal Doulton Christopher Columbus Commemorative Jug going for $3,450. This is a commemorative jug that was built to commemorate the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. The jug is decorated with busts of Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and an American eagle. That is the most American thing ever.
- Completing our list is this Large Stoneware Jug that sells for $550. It has a simple design, with only a number 5 in blue cobalt for decoration. There are a few imperfections caused by the dripping of glaze, but overall, the condition is fine. This is a great entry point in the world of stoneware jugs, as it’s cheap and minimalistic, but still quite beautiful and functional.
Stoneware jugs used to rule the household. Nowadays, they’re mostly used as decoration, but if you’re feeling nostalgic, you can still use them to store your alcohol.
FAQs about Antique Stoneware Jugs
How do I care for my antique stoneware jugs?
Store them in a dry place outside of direct sunlight’s reach.
Can I use antique stoneware jugs today?
Absolutely. Make sure to clean them every time you use one though. They are still safe and hygienic.
How do I recognize a fake jug from an authentic one?
The easiest way is by checking the blue cobalt paint’s age. If it looks too new, you’re dealing with a fake jug.
Collecting antique stoneware jugs might seem weird. We don’t really have a use for them now (though it’s still possible to do so), and they are a weird mix of mundane and exotic item. Still, they are quite valuable for collectors thanks to their rarity and aesthetic value.
If you’re in the market for a jug, make sure to first learn how to appraise one. You don’t need to become an expert, but you should at least be able to give a ballpark estimate of their condition. Though we must also say that conditions don’t matter as much to most buyers compared to other things.
If you fall in love with a piece that looks worn down, you should still buy it. While you might feel like displaying it is in poor state, collecting items is supposed to make us feel good about purchase, not just some eccentric art magnate.
So, now that you know more about evaluating and buying antique stoneware jugs, happy hunting and good luck!