Georgian Dwarf Ale Glasses

It’s an oft-repeated trope in our musings that glass collecting is afflicted by the modern urge to categorise and sub-divide things in groups, and to define items by association with other, similar pieces. However, it should be remembered that when Georgian glassware was being commissioned and produced, there were far less well-defined categories. It has been recorded, for instance, that a particular type of glass would have originally been produced in different sizes for use with different drinks – there are notes made on orders submitted to glass manufactories as early as the 1670’s for one type of vessel to be made to different dimensions to accommodate beer, French table wine and sack (a fortified wine) with the sizes being inversely proportionate to the strength of their intended contents; all three glasses would look identical in form and structure, simply being made to differing scales.

The first readily identifiable group to emerge from this informal hodgepodge had however begun to appear by the end of the 17th century, with a degree of clarity emerging about what the accepted form should be for an ale or beer glass. We’ll leave the distinction between these two drinks for a moment (having already discussed it at length previously), and hazard a guess that this was the case simply because ales and beers were already considered to be a staple of British drinking culture by this time, and it was a natural that if anything was going to be afforded the distinction of having a peculiar type of glass assigned to it, then it would be this acknowledged “sustenance of the common man” which would earn the accolade.

By 1700, beer and/or ale glasses would generally have a stem that was considered relatively long in proportion to their bowls, which were for the most part of the extended trumpet. conical, bell or bucket variety. To have the bowls made wider rather than less deep would have required the foot to be made larger to maintain balance, giving the glass as a whole a rather unwieldy form, singularly impractical for the hurly burly of day to day use in the ale houses and taverns of the day. That said, the elongated glasses were similarly rather delicate and therefore found themselves confined to use in a less noisome environment and for the taking of finer, stronger ales. To suit the needs of the aforementioned common man, ale glasses retained their popular shape but saw stems become shorter to the point where they would be merely vestigial or almost disappear completely, thus giving us the classically proportioned glasses with full sized bowls and minimal stems which became known as dwarf ale glasses.

It’s worth noting that there was a considerably range in quality and strength from tavern or bottle house ales to the stronger, better quality varieties which would approach the strength of fortified wine in some instances. The price – which was entirely proportionate to strength and quality, with none of the affectations or witless fancies of modern marketing ploys – could be as much as six times as much for the higher end product as for that of the brews for common usage. These cheaper varieties were universally known as “quarter” or “small” ales – and what more appropriate to use for their consumption than a dwarf ale glass ? As an aside, and just to humour the contemporary collector who revels in specifications, classifications and exactitude - it seems to now be the commonly accepted standard that for something to be termed a dwarf ale glass, it should not exceed more than five inches (125mm) in height, with a capacity of around three and a half fluid ounces at most.

However, it does not do to be too dismissive with regard to these drinking glasses so beloved of John Bull and his stolid cohorts amongst the British working class, ale drinking cognoscenti – just because they were everyday working glasses for everyday working folk, they were not without their adornments. Obviously, though, having only minimal stems there was simply no scope for the spiralling twists, coloured enamel strands, multiple tears and myriad knops of more elegant wine glasses – the bowl was the most significant element of their construction and, by design, therefore, that is where decoration would be applied. Originally, such embellishments were restricted to simple wrythen, twisted effects applied as the bowl was drawn and then, from the 1740’s, moulded or impressed patterns were applied. Sometimes, both effects were combined to give a composite finish. There were also a great many plain dwarf ale glasses made, with those that had slightly longer stems (barely an inch or so) being elevated from being entirely plain by having a single knop of the basic annular, drop, round or occasionally bladed variety – and the less common inclusion of a single tear.

However, from the mid 1700’s, what is perhaps considered the classic dwarf ale glass came to the fore – engraved versions, bearing a minimalist interpretation of the classic hop cone and barley ear motif. Before elucidating further, I am beholden to climb about my most favourite of hobby horses and proclaim that: if an engraved glass shows ears of barley but no hops, then it is an ale glass – if it bears both, then it is a beer glass, as you cannot have beer without hops; this pedantic distinction has been verified by an irrefutable source and I will – no doubt – have it included on my gravestone in the fullness of time – ahem…..

So – dwarf ale glasses and their engravings. The quintessential form of this incised decoration - peculiar to this type of glass - is made up from two crossed ears of two-row barley on one side, with the awns (hairs) hanging down. On the reverse, there will invariably be a single hop cone, with two leaves and two spiralling tendrils. The quality of the engraving is a fairly accurate indicator as to the age of the glass which bears it; earlier, higher quality versions will include veins on the hop leaves, and inverted, triangular bracts on the cone numbering up to a dozen or so; less worthwhile incarnations will have fewer, round bracts and simple crosshatching on the leaves, and the lowest quality examples will have just crude shading within a simple outlined trefoil leaf, and a vestigal cone of six round bracts which looks far more like a bunch of grapes.
It should also be noted that dwarf ales did not exist in isolation, and all the time that they were in use, so were standard “tall” ale glasses, tankards and tumblers – and they were still extant to a lesser extent by the time that larger Victorian ale glasses began to appear. They do, however, have a particular niche, being the first readily recognisable form to be associated with the British preoccupation of beer drinking, and as such, they should be afforded a proper place in our affections – regardless of stature !

site search results for dwarf ale glasses




The Hoard Limited (scottishantiques.com ) © 2023 | Designed by Jarilo Design