Credit: Sandra Lachler

S
helved to the left of Barack Obama and directly below a scowling Clint
Eastwood sits a hand-painted mug bearing the image of collector Stephen M.
Mullins. The 85-year-old is recognizable in mug form because of the
bespectacled face and balding crown. A smaller, bathing-suit-clad version
of Mullins perches on the figure’s right shoulder. The placard below the
mug announces his title: Curator, American Toby Jug Museum. The white label
is equal in size and grandeur to those identifying Obama and Eastwood, a
hint at the lack of hierarchy found among the nearly 8,300 figural pieces
in the Evanston-based collection.

Toby jugs are ceramic pitchers in the shape of a well-known popular or
generic characters, an art form that dates back to 1760s England. Their
form was originally inspired by a notorious Yorkshire drunk named Toby
Philpot, and they were intended to serve copious amounts of ale. The art
has evolved in the 250 years since its invention, most notably to include
character jugs-vessels that depict a character only from the neck or
shoulders up. Mullins first purchased six of the latter at age 15, though
he no longer remembers who they specifically depicted. In the six decades
since, he’s collected enough to outgrow both his home (800 works), and his
office (1,500 works). In 2005 he finally opened up the museum in the
basement of a corporate building, where it remains. Currently the
collection fills 100 uniform display cases and includes jugs that bear the
likenesses of everything from pop stars to mythical creatures.

“I scroll on eBay about once a week,” explains Mullins. “It used to be
every day, but I figure now I have better things to do with my time. I will
get on there for a couple of hours on the weekend, and can scroll through
about 1,000 of them in about 20 minutes.”

As we walk through the aisles, Mullins stops every now and again to subtly
rotate a jug, microadjusting to a degree imperceptible to anyone’s eye but
his own. His brain is an extensive catalog of inanimate faces that he
easily recalls when either collecting new works or appraising old ones.
Sixty years of collecting has also given him a sixth sense for knowing when
a new vessel will go on the market. The night before our interview Mullins
had a hunch that Black Panther might inspire a character jug. Sure
enough, there was one in the shape of the superhero’s helmet for sale on
eBay that he quickly purchased for $20.

Mullins isn’t exactly thrilled by his own mug. The piece wasn’t his
decision but rather a gift he was given 11 years ago by his family, who
modeled the vessel after his two passions-Toby jug collecting and
competitive swimming. (He is a recent world champion in 800-meter freestyle
in the 85-plus age group.) The curator quickly turned my attention to the
classifications and origins of the other, less personal characters filling
the display case, notably the rows of English prime ministers and American
presidents. Mullins collects for completion rather than interest: new
Theresa May and Donald Trump character mugs should arrive at the museum
later this month.   v