Some time ago the editors at Collector's Mart began talking to me about writing a column about beer steins. Start with the history, they said. In this installment, we'll explore a little of that interesting history, which is one of the qualities that attracts collectors to steins, and we'll begin to apply a definition to this unique collectible.
In my years of handling many thousands of steins, the question of definition--distinguishing a stein from any other sizable drinking vessel--has been one of the toughest to answer satisfactorily. I used to say that a stein is a decorated drinking vessel with a handle which, whether fitted with a lid or not, was intended to accommodate a lid. Anything else is a mug, cup, tankard or whatever.
A definition I like better--and now use more frequently--is that a drinking vessel becomes a stein if it has a handle and if it is an art object.
In other words, a stein, to be a stein, must express an art form. This can, naturally, be superlative art or inferior art or something in between. But, whatever the quality, art makes a stein. Art is also what makes a stein special, and why it is collected so ardently by those who enjoy it.
As for the lid, it is a feature that probably dates back to Medieval times in Germany, when health laws required tavern owners to serve all items in covered containers--to help prevent the spread of diseases.
But to uncover the history of the stein itself, one must go back even further. And as we do so, one fact becomes certain: the beer stein was never invented; it evolved.
Ancestors to today's beer steins date to a period between 800 B.C. and 1000 A.D. It was then that people of the time began to learn that clay deposits along portions of the Rhine River, combined with a degree of modeling skill and the right amount of heat in the early wood-burning kiln, would produce very serviceable, watertight vessels.
The clay could be fired to the point of vitrification, at which point it becomes glass-like in hardness. As the clay vitrifies, it takes on the composition of--in German, Steinzeug--in English, stoneware.
Stoneware differs from lower-fired, unvitrified forms of ceramic in its imperviousness to liquids. In drinking and food containers, for instance, unvitrified ceramic must be coated with an interior glaze to prevent the ceramic from absorbing the material it is holding.
Through succeeding centuries, stoneware was produced throughout Germany where suitable clay could be found, especially in the river valleys of the Rhine and Mosel. Over time, pottery centers with names such as Pingsdorf (7th Century), Siegburg (10th-17th Centuries), Frechen (15th-18th Centuries), Cologne (16th Century), Hoehr-Grenzhausen (17th Century-present), Raeren (16th-18th Centuries), Creussen (16th-18th Centuries) and Mettlach (late 19th-early 20th Centuries) were established throughout Germany.
But note that, of all of these centers of production, only Hoehr-Grenzhausen in the Westerwald region (about 60 miles north of Frankfurt) has remained since World War II as an important stoneware production center in Germany.
As a matter of interest, the first vessel which today would be recognized as a beer stein was likely produced at Siegburg between the years 1525 and 1550.
Also interesting is the fact that the old molds, some hundreds of years old, are the cornerstones for many contemporary steins. And many steins with traditional scenes of peasants, hunters, knights and heroes come from molds created before World War I.
So it does little good to speak of the "superior craftsmanship" of a century ago when the very same craftsmanship may be found in steins leaving a German factory today.