In an earlier article, I mentioned that the first beer stein dates to sometime between 1525 and 1550. As we pick up the history of the stein, we'll pass over 300 years' worth of history--jumping to about the year 1870--and consider how Reinhold Hanke became the "Father of the Modern Beer Stein".
Though the wide time span between 1550 and 1870 is meaningful to museums and handsful of stein purists, the period is important to today's collector only in "ancestral" terms. The steins before the late 1800s were, almost without exception, individual creations. That is, they were produced in what we would term a cottage industry. Many of Germany's most spectacular and valuable steins were produced during this time--carved ivory steins, crystal steins with inlaid gold and jewels, silver steins with real inlaid coins, porcelain steins from a time when porcelain was nearly as valuable as gold, and fabulous stoneware creations.
But not all of the truly old steins were fancy, or even attractive. And the motifs most commonly used tended to be simplistic. Reproductions of steins from the period seldom prove to be very popular in the U.S. So let's get back to Reinhold Hanke.
Hanke, you see, was the first to mass-produce the stoneware stein. His molding system, which was probably patterned on some of the glassmaking techniques of his native Bohemia, allowed him to create a large number of stoneware steins from a single master mold. Thus, not only could a stein maker produce more steins, but the artist could justify spending more time on the artistic design. The "Golden Age of Beer Steins" was thus begun.
This age lasted until 1915, when Germany's preparations for World War I interfered. Nonetheless, in the 30-plus years encompassing the turn of the 20th Century, beer stein production reached new highs and manufacturers emerged who are still producing steins today. Export to the U.S. flourished. And today's "antique" steins appeared on the market. My guess is that at least 80 percent of authentic antique German steins now in the U.S. were made between 1880 and 1915.
Prominent stoneware stein producers of the period--other than Reinhold Hanke--included the firms of Albert Jac. Thewalt, Simon Peter Gerz, Reinhold Merkelbach, Marzi & Remy, Merkelbach & Wick, Matthias Girmscheid, Duemler & Breiden and others--almost all of them within shouting distance of each other in the Westerwald region of Germany. Along the relatively distant Saar River resided the renowned firm of Villeroy & Boch, producer of the well-chronicled Mettlach steins.
Though most of these firm produced steins late into the 20th Century--and Thewalt, for one, continues its production today--others dropped by the wayside much earlier. It is important to know that some of the works of Reinhold Hanke and Peter Duemler are reproduced even today by Albert Thewalt, grandson of the original Thewalt founder. Duemler, incidentally, worked for Hanke before founding his own firm, and he is recognized by some in Germany as perhaps the finest stoneware stein modeler (artist) of all.
Much of the foregoing applies almost exclusively to the stoneware producers of steins. That's because only in the stoneware/earthenware field does one tend to find manufacturers who truly specialize in the production of steins. Interestingly, this generality applies equally to both modern and antique steins.