As I write this post, the image of a man on a barrel sits before me. It is decoration on a small Doulton pottery cream jug from the Cheshire Cheese tavern off Fleet Street in London, similar to the bas relief Doulton figure shown here. “The man on the barrel” is a familiar figure to anyone interested in English pottery. Who is he and what does he represent?
First of all, the barrel is not just an empty keg convenient for sitting. It holds something alcoholic, rum perhaps or “sack,” a fortified white wine from Spain much favored by Shakespeare’s Falstaff or, later, bourbon whiskey. The man on the barrel is a drinking man — sometimes depicted as a drunkard. For example, here is Brussels faience jug from the late 1700s that depicts a man in a blue coat and yellow pantaloons who clearly has had one too many sips from that wineskin he has next to him.
Other men on barrels of that era could be local heroes. The one right is a reproduction of an original jug created in 1770 by Ralph Wood of Wood & Sons Pottery in Burslem, England. The figure is identified as Admiral Lord Howe, the much maligned leader of British naval forces in the American Revolution. This may have been made before the war with Howe looking benign and holding a foaming pot of beer. Was it done by friend or foe?
Skipping forward to the 19th Century is a wood engraving of the man on the barrel by Jean Frederic Wentzel, a French print-maker, born in Wissenbourg, France, in 1807. He specialized in images of ordinary life as seen in the France of his time and was very popular. Here he has captured a happy French peasant on a barrel with a spigot conveniently located from which to refill his bottle and glass of wine.
We are back in England with the next example, a flask of a jolly toper dubbed “Old Tom” sitting on a barrel, said to be ware from Rockingham. Given the inscription on the base, this item is from the Victorian era, about 1850. Also known as a “reform flask” it celebrates the Reform Act of 1832 in England.
Although he is similarly shaped and dressed, the next two fisted drinker with an all-over brown glaze is attributed to a pottery at Bennington, Vermont, dating from the early 1800s. Bennington was a convenient location for producing pottery because of the close proximity to local clay deposits, as well as deposits along the Hudson River. Bennington also had an abundant supply of waterpower from local streams, which was necessary to power the machinery used at the time. Around 1804 stoneware pottery was introduced and achieved notable success, eventually employing hundreds of people.
The late 1800s brought this depiction of a man sitting on a barrel while drinking a glass of wine. It comes from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire before its demise in World War One. My guess is the gent portrayed was a political figure who would have been recognizable to the people of the day.
In 1896, Gustav Schafer and Gunther Vater founded a factory in Thuringa, Germany, with the purpose of making high quality porcelain items. By 1910 the reputation of the pottery for craftsmanship and design had grown to international proportions and Sears Roebuck was importing and selling large quantities of Shafer and Vater ceramics in the United States.
Among the pottery’s products were a host of small figural liquor bottles called “nips.” The term is taken from an Old English word nipperkin, meaning a container of liquor holding a half pint or less. These German giveaways were always imported empty, then filled by a distiller, whiskey distributor, or saloonkeeper and handed off to favored customers. An example is the “Old Sedgwick” ceramic figural that carries the image of a jolly old Dutchman. It advertised a brand of whiskey from the A. Bauer Distillery of Chicago,
When National Prohibition was adopted in the U.S. in 1920, Schafer & Vater lost a major element of its business and retaliated by creating an image of Uncle Sam as the man on the barrel — a barrel that proclaims “What We Want” and shows Sam filling a glass from a bottle. This figure also came in brown on a tray with four cups.
The final man-on-the-barrel is a contemporary image of a pirate with an eye patch and wearing a bandana. He appears to be daring anyone to come close to tapping the keg on which he sits. Thus we have come full circle from the jolly toper who is sitting on the barrel in order to be as near as possible to the wine or liquor that fuels his joviality.