What on earth is a puzzle jug? I asked that question last October, to which fifth-generation dealer at Aronson Antiquairs, Robert Aronson, replied via Twitter with an invitation to come visit PAN Amsterdam and find out. So, I took him up on his invitation.
Arguably the world’s leading dealer in Dutch Delft, Robert had certainly gone to every effort to present a stunning collection of these mysterious vessels at his stand at the PAN Amsterdam fair.
I wondered how these puzzle jugs worked, exactly. When you look closely at the pierced openwork on the neck of a puzzle jug, you realize that the intention could not have been to pour or drink from it like a normal jug or tankard. There seemed to be no feasible solution as to how one could pour from one of these jugs. It was time for a one-to-one with Aronson, which I hoped would solve my perplexity.
Elliot Lee: When did puzzle jugs first start being produced?
Robert Aronson: Currently, the oldest known puzzle jug is the so-called “Exeter Puzzle Jug,” which was produced in Saintonge, Western France, around 1300 and found during an excavation at Exeter in Devon, England, in 1899. After restoration it was given to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, where it can still be seen.
Mr. Lee: Where were these jugs produced?
Mr. Aronson: Through the centuries puzzle jugs have appeared in Italian, German, French, and English ceramics and occasionally in other mediums, but it wasn’t until the second half of the 17th century that they developed a certain popularity, and examples began appearing more frequently at that time.
Mr. Lee: What do you consider to be the rarest examples?
Mr. Aronson: Although models from other countries are very uncommon, Dutch puzzle jugs are particularly rare. Dutch Delft examples can be found dating from the 1650s onward through the 18th century, which was their most popular period, and during which they even inspired the Chinese potters to produce examples in porcelain.
Mr. Lee: They look very complicated to make. Was that the case?
Mr. Aronson: [Conservator] Marion van Aken-Fehmers writes that these jugs were difficult to produce, and based on the fact that they are often dated, they probably were produced on special order. This hypothesis is entirely plausible since the inventory lists of the factories and of the potters’ shops hardly ever refer to these jugs. Occasionally there is the mention of a so-called “suijgkan,” which translates to “suction-jug” and which probably refers to these vessels.
Mr. Lee: So how do they work?
Mr. Aronson: The name suijgkan, in fact, hints at the secret of solving the puzzle. The answer is in the trick of the construction. Generally the hollow tubular rim has one functioning nozzle?and two or more “dummy” nozzles, and it is connected to the hollow handle, which forms a siphon from the lower body.
The suction, however, is broken by a small hole beneath the top of the handle, and the solution to the “puzzle” is for the drinker to place his thumb over the hole in order to create the vacuum that allows him to suck the liquid from the jug up through the handle, around the rim and out through the one functioning nozzle.
Mr. Lee: Why would anybody have wanted to buy a puzzle jug in centuries gone by?
Mr. Aronson: You never know if a dinner party will be a success. Will the guests enjoy the food; will they like my house; will they have a good time? It is a worry that seems to have descended through the ages, and to ensure that the guests depart with a positive feeling of mirth and merriment—and even a spotted shirt—an entertainment and conversation piece has always been a useful prop. With the secret revealed, inevitably cheers and applause ensue, and the party is a success.
So there we have it, these remarkable puzzle jugs explained. For more on how these entertaining jugs were made and how they function, see a short video by the Victoria & Albert Museum: http://vimeo.com/56919225
Eliot Lee is the CEO, founder, and editor in chief of Art-Antiques-Design, the online meeting place for those involved in the art, antiques and design sectors. With 30 years experience as an antique dealer of international repute, in 2011, he moved into the online arena, and has successfully developed a community-based bridge for integration, learning and dialogue between these three markets.