A tankard is a lidded drinking vessel. Unlidded drinking vessels with a handle are called ‘mugs’. Although it seems strange now to drink out of a lidded vessel this was the norm until the second half of the 18th century. Perhaps this was because ceilings were not plastered underneath, so without a lid you stood the risk of having dirt, straw and spiders dropping into your ale.
The earliest surviving pewter tankards date from the mid 17th century. They are straight-sided and have a lid that is raised with a flat top. These have become known to collectors as ‘flat lid tankards’, an unfortunate term because the lid as a whole is not flat. The thumbpiece on which the user presses to raise the lid is often of a very attractive design. The flange of the lid overhangs the body and may have decorative projections (‘denticulations’) on the front.
Around 1700 the dome lid started to appear. With these, the flat area of the lid is replaced with a second dome (which is why they are sometimes called ‘double dome lids’). A little later tulip-shaped bodies appeared, though straight-sided bodies continued as well. The production of tankards diminished towards the end of the 18th century as unlidded drinking vessels became more popular, but they enjoyed a revival in the 19th century when they were once more produced for trophies.
Many flat lid tankards are decorated with wrigglework, though beware – some wrigglework was added in the 20th century. Other styles of tankard are normally plain save for inscriptions and the like.
Capacities of pewter measures, tankards and mugs
Pewter measures used in trade for dispensing liquids had to conform to the prescribed capacity standard.
As tankards and mugs could sometimes be used for dispensing, they too conformed to the relevant standard. However, there have been many different standards over the years.