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