Beer steins have long been considered collectible by many enthusiasts around the world, but its origins have more to do with simple survival than decor.
The Black Death
Between 1340 and 1380, 25 million Europeans succumbed to Bubonic Plague - The Black Death. The times were fraught with fear and filth. Despite the rise of Christianity, primitive beliefs held more sway with the average person regarding this disease. It became clear as disease started to decline and panic stared subsiding, that 95 percent of deaths occurred in dirty areas. Only 10 per cent of deaths occurred in clean areas. This led to people believing that hygiene might have had some bearing on the spread of the disease.
Those in public health, such as it was in medieval times, decreed that all food stuffs be kept in sealed containers. This was to keep them clean from insects, and beverages were no exception. That is why the lid was created for the beer mug. It was a practical solution to a fearsome disease which no one wanted to see return. Eventually, every German had their own stein, further enforcing a more hygienic option.
The rise of hinges
The lid was hinged and typically made of pewter. The stein was modified so that the lid could be flipped up by the same hand holding the mug. The word stein comes from the German word Steinzeugkrug. This means a stoneware tankard or jug. Commonly, however, a stein is any beer container that has a hinged lid.
Beer steins started out primarily as earthen ware or wooden beakers, but both were porous and tended to absorb the beer, which began to smell frightening after a while, and they deteriorated or broke easily. Clearly a better material was required to make a stein that would last. The firing temperature for the earthenware was raised by creating a different kiln which would allow for higher temperatures. A well-crafted beer stein used many cords of wood and took many days of firing. As is the way with human progress, the steins were decorated with images reflecting the owner's history or biblical scenes, and owning a fancy one was a status symbol.
Technology to the rescue
As popularity for the product increased, different materials were used to create them. Pewter tankards were preferred in England, but silver and glass were also used. Porcelain was a coveted material but was only available in China. It was also difficult to work with, so German manufacturers came up with a unique porcelain substitute: faience. Faience is an earthen-ware material with a porcelain-like white glaze made from tin oxide.
Eventually, each region had a style of stein which was recognizable. Shapes became less important, with a cylindrical design predominating, but the images and colors became the primary concern in styling steins. In addition, mass production began to take place. Since extreme heat, meaning many cords of wood, and many days were required to fire earthen ware properly, it was more economical to fire multiple steins made from a mold. This method rendered the steins no longer unique. It did allow painstakingly carved and beautiful designs on many dozens of steins at once, and it didn't take away from their desirability.
Beer stein designs started to change in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Scenes of towns and military emblems became favored over the old historical and religious patterns. World War I slowed stein production to a halt since the materials used were being used for military uses.
Stein production increased during the 1930s and 40s, and collectors revived the interest in them especially the historic Renaissance products. Beer stein collecting actually shapes stein production. Unfortunately, many manufacturers have stopped making steins due to high costs.
America is the primary market for steins. Ceramarte, of Brazil is the largest producer of collectible and decorative steins in the world.