Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Delightedly Exploring a Museum Devoted to, um, well, Nice Jugs: The American Toby Jug Museum in Evanston, IL

Museum Visit Recap

The American Toby Jug Museum
910 Chicago Ave., Evanston, IL

I have a number of collections of decent sizes, including shot glasses, autographed photos, baseballs, books and Playbills, refrigerator magnets, neckties, various travel tchotchkes, art pieces, ticket stubs (from shows I've attended) and more.

Though always open to adding to these and other collections, I'm not currently an active collector of anything.

And while I've long fantasized (somewhat egomaniacally, yes) about one day opening a Seth Museum showcasing my collections and creations--pun cartoons, greeting cards, photographs, poetry books, paintings, calendars and more--not only haven't I ever had the means, it seems pretty likely that I never will.

So I was pretty tickled when I learned about the American Toby Jug Museum in nearby Evanston--just a couple weeks ago, through the Roadside America app--and even more so when I visited on a recent afternoon.

Showcasing over 8,000 Toby Jugs and other character jugs, mugs and related items, the museum comprises the personal collection of Stephen M. Mullins, purported to be the world's largest.

As per the large example shown nearby, a Toby Jug in its most specific sense depicts a full-bodied yet seated "Toby"--likely based on a character of song famed for his boozing, dubbed Toby Philpot.

With a jug principally intended as a pouring vessel, as opposed to a mug for drinking, the first Toby Jugs were created in England in the mid-18th century.

Character jugs depicting only the head & shoulders of a figure became popular in the 20th century, and it seems that a British ceramics company named Royal Doulton has long reigned as the world's largest producer of Toby and Character Jugs.

Now in his 80s, Mr. Mullins--who I have not met--became enamored by a Royal Doulton brochure at summer camp in his teens, and began a collection that has grown for 70 years.

A real estate developer by trade, Mullins created a large gallery for his jug collection under a storefront that is part of a condominium building he developed, and in November 2005 opened the American Toby Jug Museum at 910 Chicago Avenue in Evanston, after having run it in a shared space nearby for 10 previous years. (You can read a more detailed history here, on the museum's rather informative website.)

It seems a shame I've never heard of it until now, but am glad for the entry on Roadside America's app--though the photo shown on RA's website is rather unfortunate--and though after awhile all the jugs became a bit much to digest individually, a smile rarely left my face over the hour I spent there.

A museum attendant who preferred not to be identified provided a nice introduction to the collection, and kindly answered questions throughout my visit. (I was the only visitor for most of my time, but was eventually joined by what I assume to be Northwestern students, who were costumed in pajamas for some reason I never discerned.)

I was told the 8,200+ jugs and mugs on display represent Mr. Mullins' entire collection, with little space for more to be added even as he continues collecting.

The jugs, loosely displayed from oldest to newest, are the work of more than 200 potteries in 30 countries.

Each is hand painted.

As Toby Jugs were initially created in the United Kingdom, it isn't too surprising that even newer mugs heavily depict British subjects, with dozens of Winston Churchills encountered on various shelves.

Politicians and military leaders are strongly represented, including the Wilkinson World War II Allied Leaders Collection, recently commissioned by the American Toby Jug Museum, with sets available for sale. ($5,000 for 12 jugs, with a 20% discount if bought through the museum.)

Character jugs depicted just about every type of individual you can imagine, including kings & queens, commoners (well beyond Toby), authors, composers, musicians and numerous pop culture icons.

Elvis, the Beatles, Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, Humprey Bogart, Star Wars and many others were on hand, some many times over.

And in a case of cartoon characters, I noted a Tweety Bird mug I own (or once did).

Complementing the depth of information found on the museum's website, there is good wall text throughout the collection, explaining the name Toby, relaying the Royal Doulton story, highlighting certain potters and more.

So beyond simply appreciating the existence of a museum well after my own heart, I genuinely enjoyed and valued my initial visit.

While the Toby Jugs and character jugs/mugs may at first blush seem to be more in the vein of souvenirs than fine art, many do represent exquisite craftsmanship.

Perhaps on varying levels, a visit to the American Toby Jug Museum in Evanston, IL--just north of Chicago, with a Purple Line 'L' stop at Main quite convenient--should be quite enamoring for those of all ages.

As someone not only fascinated by history but sold on the emotional sustenance cultural literacy can provide, I can imagine bringing kids to the museum may not only generate numerous giggles over all the quirkiness of the collection and the humorous appeal of many individual mugs, it can truly be a way to lightly enlighten about great and important figures in history.

And us grown-ups should, like Stephen Mullins presumably, delight in coming face-to-face with characters from throughout our lives (or long before). Some may ring a bell, others may trigger old memories, while many may simply exist to pour a bit of ale.

Not on site mind you, but one should leave feeling quite refreshed--and even a bit tipsy, given the voluminous pieces to survey--regardless.

(I couldn't resist my cheeky headline, with no offense meant to anyone and apologies for being a tad sophomoric.) 

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