Before the Victorian era, tankards were made from pewter, most commonly with glass bottoms, and occasionally with lids, like the German stein. Served at public and ale houses across Britain, the tankard is a symbol of the everyman’s history. Numerous quirks, trivia and legends abound regarding what was once a familiar sight in this country.
Pewter tankards, much to the dismay of contemporary publicans, used to contain high quantities of lead, which caused lead poisoning and gout in those who supped from them. The lead poisoning was worst in areas of high-cider intake, as the acidic quality inherent in cider leached into the lead. Clay tankards were very quickly made once this problem was identified!
Lead poisoning wasn’t the only thing to fear in a public house of yesteryear by any stretch. The glass bottom of the traditional tankard has two purposes, according to the legend. The first was, believe it or not, to ensure that you weren’t accidentally (and against your will) conscripted into the army. If a recruiter bought you a pint in those days, and slipped a shilling into the bottom of it, accepting the pint was accepting the ‘King’s shilling’ meaning you had been successfully recruited into the army. This is, of course, where the expression ‘taking the King’s shilling’ originated. The second, and slightly less historically centred, reason for the glass bottom of a tankard was purportedly so you could see a fight coming through your glass…
You’ll be pleased to hear that modern tankards are now made from lead free pewter, and can be personalised and engraved in many cases, making them the perfect gift. In keeping with tradition, these personalised tankards can be gifted to someone to commemorate a special day, such as a 21st or a graduation. Many people opt to have them made in memory of a beloved deceased. For a real piece of British history, you’ll find that the answer lies at the bottom of a pint.