The tankard, or the traditional vessel for drinking ale or beer, is generally cylindrical, with a scroll-shaped handle, thumb-piece, and frequently, a lid. Originating in northern European countries, such as parts of Scandinavia, Germany and Great Britain, the humble tankard has a long history.
The first tankards
The etymology of the word “tankard” comes from the Old English word for broad, round, tub-like vessel. The world’s oldest example of a beer tankard is estimated to be nearly 2,000 years old. Made from wood with a capacity of approximately four pints, this ancient tankard was unearthed in Wales in 2007.
Tankards came into popular use in the 13th century. Still commonly made from wood, medieval tankards resembled a barrel in design. In Britain, these early tankards generally didn’t have lids. However, in Germany, lidded stoneware tankards – more commonly referred to as ‘steins’ – appeared in the late 1400s. There is much speculation as to why the lid designed first appeared – the most popular theory being that they were introduced to avoid spillages in rowdy taverns.
The Elizabethan tankard
As craftsmanship became more sophisticated, steins and beer tankards began being crafted in metal. Tankards were hewn in silver, pewter and later, glass. At this point, tankards became more ornate: many were engraved with delicate, continental-inspired patterns with the traditional scroll handle. Though most were metal, some were carved from carved horn, ivory, pottery or porcelain. It was at this point large tankards began to appear, commissioned by guilds for ceremonial use.
The 19th-century tankard
Domed lids began to appear in the 1800s. The shape of tankards also evolved and more elegant, tulip-shaped bodies began to appear. The 19th century also marks the moment when the glass bottomed tankard first became popular. There are many legends surrounding how this tradition came about: some say so it was so you could see an attacker coming through the base of your glass; another theory is that in Britain, it was a way of avoiding “the King’s Shilling”, a custom where if a coin was hidden in a drinker’s glass, they were conscripted into the British army.
The modern tankard
Glass tankards remain the beer vessel of choice, used in pubs across northern Europe and the world today. Furthermore, more traditional, metal tankards still have ceremonial significance; for example, a personalised tankard makes an excellent trophy, commemorative ornament or gift. For more information about how you can own a slice of beer-drinking history, browse our range of beautifully crafted tankards today.