Stein Collectors International
Featured Stein ~ March 2020

The English "Black Jack"

Provided by Walt Vogdes


Left,a sketch of a leather Black Jack once in the household of King Charles I of England (reigned 1625-1649 ("Drinking Vessels of Bygone Days," G. J. Monson-Fitzjohn, London, 1927). While the majority of Black Jacks are unlidded, the one at right, 16th-17th century, was actually fitted with a leather lid.

The history of leather drinking vessels stretches from ancient times to the time of the Crimean War (1853-1856). Britain has been the home of leather vessels for longer and in higher numbers than anywhere else in history and their existence is quintessentially British.

The Black Jack`s name is derived from the materials used in its construction. Leather that has been soaked in hot water and dried is known as Jack leather. The same source can be attributed to the name for German Jackboots and Medieval Arming Jacks. This is also the origin of the modern word “jacket“. Jacks were originally black because the black material used to line the inside, was used on the outside of the vessel thus coloring it.

In the 13th Century the Guild of Cordwainers was established to supervise the tanning and currying of leather. Specialization continued and in the early 14th Century the Company of Botellars or bottle makers, was established. Early ordinances of the Guild show that leather vessel making had been officially recognized from early times, recording in 1373 that the “mistery of botellars had been well and in order made from the time whereof memory does not run the contrary”.

Laws were passed by various Monarchs from Edward II (1284-1327) to Elizabeth I (1533-1603) which placed high export tariffs on leather. This resulted in a drastic reduction in price in England and so made it a popular choice for drinking vessels. Leather was also the material of choice for the transportation of liquids around the country because its light weight compared well with that of earthenware.

Responding to negative side effects of these duties, the tariffs were revised and leather prices increased, reducing its use for drinking vessels. It seems that such distortion of the markets is no new thing.

The history of the leather bottle, black jack and tankards continued through various fashion changes, including the widening of the base for stability in Tudor times, as shown by those found with the wreck of the Mary Rose (launched 1511, sunk 1545), so we are left with a multitude of shapes to represent the various periods.

During Elizabethan times, even wealthy merchant families would possess just one wine glass because of the high cost of Venetian glass. Placed in the middle of the table and used communally, it would be refilled by a man stood in the corner with a leather bottle and known as the botellar or, in modern terms, the butler.

Information in this article is adapted from the website for Hide Bound, an English manufacturer of Leather Drinking Vessels (https://www.hidebound.co.uk/page/history-of-leather-drinking-vessels/).

If you found this article interesting, you will probably also enjoy reading the following two news articles regarding a leather Black Jack purportedly made from the hide of Oliver Cromwell's horse, Blackjack:

Oliver Cromwell jug turns up on Antiques Roadshow and is worth 30,000

Antiques Roadshow’s Cromwell jug likely to be a fake, says expert


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