More so than is the case with most other collectibles, history is a matter of importance and interest to stein collectors. Typically, the stein lover wants to know the origin of steins. He wants to know how they are made and who makes them. He wants to know the wherefores and whys behind the designs.
There have been and are today producers of steins made of crystal, pewter, silver, ivory and a variety of other materials. But almost without exception the actual manufacturer produces steins as some smaller part of a broad product range. So when I speak of steins, I speak of steins of all materials, but when I speak of stein makers or production techniques, I am referring to the stoneware and/or earthenware firms who specialize in the production of steins.
To understand and appreciate the steins of today, we need to briefly examine what I have called the "golden age" of steins--that period between, say, 1870 and 1915, when so many of the developments and characteristics of importance to today's collectors gained prevalence.
Because of the popularity of the stein at the time--both at home and abroad--there was great diversity and experimentation among all makers. This was true even to the extent that most, but not all, of the steins produced today incorporate design elements borrowed from the period. An example is the design most persons would associate as "typical" or "traditional" for German steins, that of a "peasant" scene with men clad in lederhosen and the ladies in dirndl dresses. These designs actually date to the late 1800s and reflect the popularity of then-contemporary painters such as Defregger and Brueghel.
All of the authentic German regimental steins were produced during this period, mostly in porcelain but also in stoneware/earthenware (stoneware is fired to a higher temperature than earthenware). The true regimental steins commemorate a reservist's tenure in the military (normally two years), and have been reproduced in more recent decades. Simpler in appearance, but usually scarcer, are German military steins relating to the World War I period and some examples of steins of the pre-World War II period.
Except for minor production after WWI, all of the antique Mettlach steins were produced during this "golden age", and these steins form the nucleus for many of today's more valuable collections.
It was during the "golden age" that German steins, for the first time, were exported in great quantities to the U.S. I have owned numerous steins dating to circa 1900 which have American motifs and English-language text.
The techniques for multi-coloring on stoneware/earthenware steins were refined during this period and came into widespread use for the first time.
Perhaps most important of all, hundreds and hundreds of master molds were created by the real master artists of the period--and many of these have survived two world wars and the 20th Century to be re-used in complete or partial form today.
It is also interesting to point out the one key beer stein ingredient that the "golden age" was definitely not responsible for: the lid. Hands down, the most common question asked by the neophyte stein collectors has to do with the origin of the lid.
Most stein historians agree that the stein lid probably originated due to post-Medieval health laws requiring that food and beverages be served in covered containers. The thought was that covers might prevent the spread of plague and other diseases by pests such as flies and lice.
Obviously, not all serving vessels survived with their lids intact. But the stein did, and fortunately so. Most collectors find the lid to be an important and fascinating part of the steins they cherish.