Stein Collectors International, Inc.


by Steve Breuning

Being of German heritage and raised (in the U.S.) in a fairly strong German culture, it was probably inevitable that that I would have a fascination for German beer steins. My first steins were Post World War II steins I inherited from my grandfather. When he passed away in 1978, my grandmother had each of the eight grand children pick a few of his items to have as keepsakes. My eyes were immediately fixated on these two steins. I knew nothing of modern vs. antique, Mettlach, Thewalt, Merkelbach, Remy, etc. I just thought they were beautiful and reflected my grandfather’s view of German culture. I can’t say that having these two steins stimulated any real interest in my now passion for collecting beer steins, but subconsciously I believe it played a part. And I guess that like many stein collectors, I started with non-antiques.

The first steins I purchased were on a business trip to Europe in the early 1990s. We were in Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, and Hungary. Every one wanted souvenirs of their trip and I thought I should too. The only thought I had was to get a beer stein at each stop that I thought reflected the local culture we experienced. I know that while not “tourist” steins per se they were again Post World War II steins. Yet, I still love to look at them and recall all the fond memories of the cultural stops.

Shown at right: ½ Liter Wurfel & Müller/King Werk fox handle stein #1032C; 3 Liter Gerz #3262 "After the Hunt." Monetarily not very valuable—emotionally priceless.

At this point I still was not giving any thought to stein collecting. But as I look back, I realize that I always had these steins prominently displayed and  when asked about them I loved telling stories about my grandfather and the various parts of Europe we visited.

Everything changed in 2008 when I was having a meeting with a friend and he suddenly looked at his watch and said. “Sorry, I have to go, I have an auction about to start.” I asked what kind of auction and he said that he collected antique beer steins and there was an online auction about to begin. I remember saying. “There’s that big a market for collecting beer steins?” He added. “Oh yes, there are actually world wide groups and societies.” I was immediately fascinated and told him I love the beauty of beer steins and that I had never even thought about seriously collecting them. We agreed to get together in the next week and talk about this.

We got together and he brought with him Gary Kirsner’s The Beer Stein Book, Ron Heiligenstein’s Regimental Beer Steins of the Imperial German and Royal Bavarian Armies and the Imperial German Navy, 1890 to 1914 book, and pictures of the incredible number of Regimental steins he focused his collecting around. He let me borrow the books which I read cover-to-cover over the next few weeks. I remember that I was getting pretty excited.

I did some searching and found the Stein Collectors International website. The non-member section of the Reading Room was enough to convince me that I was about the venture into a new world of collecting.

I began to collect seriously in July, 2009. I immediately became a member of SCI and was excited to receive my introductory packet of Prosit magazines. These arrived just before I was leaving on a trip. I now had my reading  material for on the plane and where I was staying. By luck of the draw, three of the issues with me contained articles on the Villeroy & Boch Russian Fairy Tale Steins. I’m not sure why, but these four steins just struck me right. I found them beautiful and being a lover of fairy tales their stories kept me captivated. And,so it began. Unbeknownst to Walt Vogdes who wrote these articles, he is one of the two people who brought me  nto stein collecting.

The four steins Walt had written about (pictured above) were centered on four Russian tales: The Snow Maiden, Vassilissa the Fair, The Firebird, and Maria Morevna. Each of these steins displayed three paneled illustrations for a given fairy tale. Each stein is an 8 inch tall (at the top of the thumb lift), ½ L stein with an inlay lid, and a limited edition of 5,000 worldwide. They were produced Villeroy & Boch in 1978. The thumb lift is a pewter Mettlach Abby and the bottom also contains an impressed tower.

The first tale shown on these steins is The Snow Maiden.

This story tells the tale of an old man and woman lived in the woods. They were good, hardworking people now feeling the lowliness of never having had a child. One day, to cheer themselves up, they remembered the games they used to play in their childhood and began to make a snowman. They shaped the snow into human form and when they were finished they had created the frozen image of a young girl that was beautiful beyond description with her snow white skin, deep sky-blue eyes, and curly fair hair.

The immortal gods Father Frost and Mother Spring saw the joy in the man’s and woman’s faces  and decided to bring their ‘Snegurochka’ or snow daughter to life. The couple watched in amazement as suddenly Snegurochka’s lips turned red and her eyes began to open. She smiled warmly at the old couple, shook the snow off her body, and emerged from the snowdrift in stunning beauty.

All went well until the spring began to warm the land. Snegurochka became quite depressed. When the summer arrived, she became even sadder. She prayed to Mother Spring who then gave her the ability to go outside and play. She had a good time for the first time since the winter when she joined a group of village girls to pick flowers. On one of her outings she met Lei the Shepard boy. She was now sad again as her heart was not capable of feeing love. Once again Mother Spring joined in, against the feelings of Father Frost, and gave Snegurochka the ability to feel love. But as soon as she begins to feel love her heart warms her and she melts and evaporates into a white cloud.

As she was melting away, her spirit was caught by Father Frost who took her spirit across the stars to the frozen lands of the north where once again she took the form of a beautiful young woman and could play all through the summer - on the frozen seas.

And each year in winter, on the first day of the New Year, Father Frost and the Snow Maiden return to Russia in their troika (sleigh) where they continue to work their magic, as they did for the old man and his wife, they bring gifts, and help make dreams come true.

The second tale shown on these steins is Vassilissa the Fair.

This story tells the tale of a merchant and his wife who had a daughter known as Vassilissa the Fair. When the girl was eight years old, her mother died. On her deathbed, she gave Vassilissa a tiny wooden doll and told her if she were in need give the doll a little to eat and a little to drink and then it would help her. As soon as her mother died, Vassilissa gave it a little to drink and a little to eat, and it comforted her.

After a time, her father remarried; the new wife was a woman with two daughters. Vassilissa’s stepmother was very cruel to her, but with the help of the doll, she was able to perform all the tasks imposed on her. When young men came wooing, the stepmother rejected them all because it was not proper for the younger to marry before the older, and none of the suitors wished to marry Vassilissa’s stepsisters because they were so ugly.

One day the merchant had to embark on a journey. While he was gone his wife sold the house and moved them all to a gloomy hut by the forest. One day she gave each of the girls a task and put out all the fires except a single candle. Her older daughter then put out the candle, whereupon they sent Vassilissa to fetch light from Baba Yaga’s (witch) hut. The doll advised Vassilissa to go, and she did so.

While she was walking, a mysterious  man rode by her in the hours before dawn, dressed in white, riding a white horse whose equipment was all white; then a similar rider in red. She came to a house that stood on chicken legs and was walled by a fence made of human bones including skulls. Now a black rider rode past her, and as he did night fell and the eye sockets of the skulls began to glow. Vassilissa was too frightened to run away. In the morning Baba Yaga found her by the fence.

Baba Yaga said that Vassilissa must perform tasks or be killed. She was to clean, do the laundry, and cook. She was also required to separate grains of rotten corn from sound corn, and separate poppy seeds from grains of soil. Baba Yaga left, and Vassilissa despaired, as she worked herself into exhaustion. When all hope of completing the tasks seemed lost, the doll whispered that it would complete the tasks for Vassilissa, and that the girl should sleep.

At dawn, the white rider passed and at about noon the red rider passed. Later the black rider rode past and Baba Yaga returned. Baba Yaga was surprised she found nothing to complain about. Baba Yaga took the corn and had three pairs of disembodied hands squeeze the oil from it and then asked Vassilissa if she had any questions.

Vassilissa asked about the rider’s identities and was told that the white one was Day, the red one the Sun, and the black one Night. But when Vassilissa thought of asking about the disembodied hands, the doll quivered in her pocket. Vassilissa realized she should not ask, and told Baba Yaga she had no further questions. In return, Baba Yaga enquired as to the cause of Vassilissa’s success. On hearing the answer “by my mother’s blessing,” Baba Yaga, who wanted nobody with any kind of blessing in her presence, threw Vassilissa out of her house, and sent her home with a skull-lantern full of burning coals, to provide light for her step-family.

Upon her return, Vassilissa found that, since sending her out on her task, her step-family had been unable to light any candles or fire in their home. Even lamps and candles that might be brought in from outside were useless for the purpose, as all were snuffed out the second they were carried over the threshold. The coals brought in the skull-lantern burned Vassilissa’s stepmother and stepsisters to ashes. Vassilissa buried the skull according to its instructions so no person would ever be harmed by it. She then went to find shelter in the nearest town.

In town, Vassilissa met an old woman who took her in. One day the old woman gave Vassilissa some flax. With it Vassilissa spun the most beautiful thread, so fine it was like hair. Then she weaved the thread into the most exquisite cloth. It was brilliant white, soft, and so beautiful. Vassilissa gave it to the old woman and said: “Grandmother, you have been so kind to me, sell this cloth and keep the money.” The old woman looked at it and said, “My child, this is too fine to sell. I am going to take it to the Tsar. “So she brought it to the Tsar as a gift. The Tsar thanked the old woman and gave her many presents before sending her home.

Impressed with the beautiful cloth, the Tsar tried to find someone who could make shirts from it. However all the tailors declined the work, as the cloth was too fine for them to handle. In the end the Tsar called the old woman and said, “You must also know how to sew the cloth as you made it.” The old woman replied, “No your Majesty. It was not my work. It was done by a girl I took in.” So the Tsar asked the old woman to see if Vassilissa would make the garments. Vassilissa made the shirts and the old woman took them to the Tsar.

As she waited for the old woman to return, one of the Tsar’s servants entered. He said loudly, “His Majesty wishes to see the needlewoman who has made his wonderful clothes.” So Vassilissa went to the palace.

Vassilissa and the Tsar were captivated by each other and eventually they married.

When Vassilissa’s father returned, they invited both him and the old woman to come and live at the palace. Also at the palace was the little doll, for Vassilissa carried it around in her pocket until the day she died.

The third tale shown on these steins is The Tale of Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird,and the Gray Wolf.

This story tells the tale of a powerfulTsar whose pride and joy was his apple orchard. One tree in particular for it bore only golden apples. A problem arose when a large Firebird discovered the special tree and each evening swooped down and left with several  apples. Furious, the Tsar commanded his three sons to catch the Firebird alive and bring it to him.

As his two older brothers laid down and went to sleep in the shade of the trees, Ivan waited patiently and when the firebird appeared he was stunned by its beauty: Her wings were golden, eyes like Oriental crystals, and tail feathers so brilliantly red they appeared to be illuminated by the sun. Ivan grabbed the bird by the tail but in his awe he underestimated the bird’s strength. The bird freed itself from Ivan’s grip leaving him holding a single bright red tail feather.

The Firebird was never seen in the orchard again.

Even though the Firebird was now gone, the Tsar was so enchanted by the glowing feather that he sent his sons out again to find the bird and bring it back alive. Filled with jealousy the two older sons rode off without Ivan, leaving him to do his search alone.

As Ivan rode across the countryside he came across a pillar in the middle of an open field. It had the following words on it: “He who goes straight will be hungry and cold. He who passes to the right will be safe, but his horse shall die. He who passes to the left will be killed, but his horse will be safe.” Choosing the lesser of three evils, Ivan decided to go to the right and rode for three days.

Suddenly a gray wolf appeared out of nowhere and ate the horse. Ivan wept and continued his journey on foot. Suddenly the gray wolf reappeared and said: “I’m sorry I killed your horse, jump on my back and I’ll take you where you want to go!” Ivan trusted the wolf and told the animal that he needed to find the firebird. He climbed on the wolf’s back and they sped off like a flash.

Ivan, assisted by a “gray wolf’ not only caught the firebird but also a obtained a new horse and met a princess named Tsarevna (daughter of a Tsar) Elena the Fair. As they traveled, Ivan and Elena developed a true love. At the edge of Ivan’s father’s kingdom they stopped to rest. As they napped, Ivan’s two older brothers, returning from their unsuccessful hunt for the firebird, came across the two and killed Ivan. Elena was told they would also kill her if she told what had happened.

Ivan lay dead for thirty days until the gray wolf found him and revived him with the water of life. Ivan came to his home palace at the wedding day of Elena the Fair and his brother. The Tsar asked for an explanation and Elena told him the truth. The Tsar was furious and threw the elder brothers into a dungeon. Ivan and Elena the Fair married, inherited the kingdom, and lived happily ever after with his friend the gray wolf on guard nearby. The three scenes from left to right are: In Search of the Firebird, Ivan and Tsarevna Elena on the Gray Wolf, and The Wedding of Tsarevna Elena the Fair.

The final tale told shown on these steins is Maria Morevna.

This story tells the tale of a young Tsar named Ivan. Ivan was in charge of the Kingdom and his three sisters following the death of their mother and father. On their way home from the funeral the sky turned black and a terrible storm arose. Suddenly a white falcon appeared out of the sky. He landed, turned into a handsome young prince, and asked Ivan for Maria’s hand in marriage. Ivan gave his blessing and the two were married.

The same thing happened with his other two sisters: One year later during a violent storm an eagle appeared, turned into a handsome prince and wed Olga. Another year passed, another horrific storm appeared, and this time a raven arrived and also turned into a handsome prince. He wed Anna. All three girls now lived away in their husbands’ kingdoms.

Missing his sisters, Ivan decided to visit them and on the way he came across the battle camp of Maria Morevna, a beautiful warrior-princess. After two days at the camp they fell in love and got married. Ivan was now staying at her kingdom.

After some time Maria had to leave to go to war. She left Ivan in charge but forbade him and to go into one dark cellar room. But out of curiosity Ivan  went into the room, where he found Koshchey the Deathless in iron chains. Ivan felt sorry for him and gave him some food to eat and wine to drink. Koshchey got his power back, broke the chains, and in a whirlwind he flew away. He caught up with Maria Morevna, over powered her, and carried her off with him.

Ivan wept for days but then began to search for his beloved wife. In his search he passed through the kingdoms where his sisters lived. Their love and encouragement kept him going.

On his third day into his resumed search he found Maria Morevna alone and safe. Koshchey was out hunting and they used this opportunity to escape. But eventually Koshchey on his powerful horse caught up with them. He cut Ivan into small pieces and left with Maria. Ivan’s brothers-in-law sensed that something evil had happened and searched until they found Ivan. They sprinkled him with the water of life and revived him.

Prince Ivan now knew that the only way to outrun Koshchey’s horse was with a horse from Baba Yaga (the witch) who lived beyond the Fire River. On the way to Baba Yaga’s he became very hungry. He wanted to kill nestlings, but the mother bird begged him not to. Then he wanted to take honey from a beehive, but the bees asked him not to destroy it. When he wanted to kill a lioness’ cub, the lioness begged him to be kind. Prince Ivan did not hurt anybody.

In gratitude these animals helped him be a herdsman for Baba Yaga’s horses for three days, which saved him from Baba Yaga’s wrath. Ivan took the wise advice of the bees to take one scruffy small horse and run away from the evil witch. Prince Ivan took good care of the horse and when it became strong he returned to Koshchey’s house to take his beloved wife home. Koshchey overtook them, but was over powered by Ivan’s horse. Ivan killed Koshchey, bur ed his body, and scattered his ashes in the wind. Ivan and Maria Morevna visited his sisters and thanked their husbands, the raven, eagle, and falcon. Then they returned to their kingdom where they lived out their lives happily and in peace.

I thoroughly enjoyed (and still do) the beauty of these steins and the dramatic visual presentation of the tales. But I became curious, of all the available Russian fairy tales, why pick these four?

And now the rest of the story – As I began researching everything I could find on these four fairy tales I came across a limited edition book about these, and only these four Russian fairy tales. In 1978 the Viking Press published a book “The Firebird and Other Russian Fairy Tales (ISBN 0-670-31544-3, front and back covers seen below). This book was a tribute to the great Russian illustrator Boris Zvorykin (1872 – 1942). It contained the complete story of each of the four fairy tales a well as the 26, 5-color illustrations prepared by Zvorykin. The fairy tales having their stories told were The Firebird, Maria Morevna, The Snow Maiden, and Vassilissa the Fair.

Boris Zvorykin was one of the last and most impressive artists in the Russian tradition of book illustration. Zvorykin was born and raised in Russia in an upper middle-class family. He attended the prestigious Russian High- School for the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. Zvorykin left Russia after the Revolution and settled in Paris, where he began to work at the publishing house of H. Piazza. At some point in the 1920s he made the original of this book as a present for his employer, Louis Fricotelle.

Zvorykin himself translated his four favorite Russian fairy tales into French, writing them in calligraphy, and illustrating them on heavy vellum paper which he then bound in red Moroccan leather embossed with Russian motifs. Fifty years later, Andreas Brown of the Gotham Book Mart brought Zvorykin’s manuscript to the attention of Jacqueline Onassis, an Editor in the Russian Style. She was connected with The Viking Press, who decided to issue the book in a format that would make it accessible to the public. All the illustrations were reproduced from Zvorykin’s original artwork which is now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

It turns out that the Villeroy & Boch Russian Fairy Tale steins described above were produced by Villeroy &  Boch in 1978 in conjunction with Viking Penguin, Inc. and the publication of the book by Zvorykin. I spoke with staff at both The Viking Penguin Press and the Mettlach Museum but no one found any existing records talking about how the collaboration was actually conceived or any other history between the two companies.

Because of the success of the 1978 series, a second set of steins was produced with a date of October 1, 1989. Since the 1978 series was a limited edition and all molds had been destroyed, the new series had to have its own unique look. Also, Villeroy & Boch told me they did have records of wanting a lower cost. The 1989 edition of the Russian fairy tale steins consisted of four sets of three steins with each stein having only one of the illustrations (scenes) displayed on the initial series.

For example, the initial series of Vasillissa the Fair had one stein with three panel scenes of different illustrations. In the second stein series of Vasillissa the Fair there were three steins, each having one wrap around scene from the three illustrations. The example of this stein is from the second (1989) series. This is one of the now three steins showing Vasillissa the Fair. The scene from the left side panel of the original stein is displayed here twice - once on each side with a gold band separating them down the middle of the stein.

These steins were now only 6.25 inches tall and 1/3 L capacity. The new lids were pewter and domed. The 1989 series was a much larger limited edition of 12,500 worldwide.

Each stein in the second series also had matching plates produced. Thus, there are 12 steins and 12 plates each having one of the original scenes. Here is a sample of one of the plates.It shows the center panel scene from “In Search of the Firebird, Ivan and Tsarevna on the Grey Wolf, The Wedding of Tsarevna Elena the Fair.”

The Curator at the Mettlach Museum I was communicating with consistently referred to this second set as “The little FairyTale steins.” Many companies like Kovals and Replacements LTD often refer to the two series as Russian Fairy Tales–Large and Russian Fairy Tales–Small.

Moral of the story – modern steins can be of exceptional quality, exciting design, vividness of color, and have an interesting history. And, one day they will be old. Maybe then some of them will get the attention they deserve.

Note: Like all fairy tales, there are many versions to these tales. I described these closely to how they were translated by Zvorykin.