Leather Drinking Vessels

by St


Leather Drinking Vessels

by Stephen Roberts and Gillian Sewell of 'Hidebound'

Leather drinking vessels and water carriers have been in use since Neolithic times, but it was during the Medieval and later Tudor periods that they became particularly popular.

Leather is usually worked wet so that it can be shaped. When it is air dried it is called jack leather and medieval leather vessels therefore became known as jacks.

Later fashion, particularly in Tudor times, added a wider base, presumably to promote better stability (see those discovered with the wreck of the Mary Rose).

Use of the Jack continued until Nelsons time when they became known as Boots, hence the naval phrase "Fill your Boots" meaning "have a drink".

Jacks, or tankards as they became known, were then used during the Crimea. They are lightweight, do not make a noise on the fighting front and can be easily repaired in the field.

Leather jacks and tankards were even used during the 20th Century, particularly in the mining and steel industries, where copious amounts of drinking water were necessary because of either the dusty or hot atmospheres.

In the Barnsley mining area they became known as Jingle Boys because of bells attached to the base of the handle which were rung to attract the water boy.

In West Midlands steel mills Jacks were known as Piggins and had a whistle attached to the base of the handle which was blown to, again, attract the water boy. From the Piggin Whistle arose the popular pub name; nothing to do with animals!



During the Tudor period, leather jugs became known as Bombards because the body shape resembled the barrel of the bombard gun. Leather bombards were very popular to vast sizes because leather is very light in comparison to its strength and durability.

Such vessels were used throughout society from the man in the street to royalty. The only difference was that the higher your rank, the more decorated your jack or tankard would be.

There is ample evidence of English royalty giving leather jacks to continental royalty because they were only ever made with an integral inner waterproof lining in England.


Why leather

Leather drinking vessels were in use at the same time as glass, pewter and pottery. However, glass was excessively expensive, pewter ran a very close second and pottery easily broke.

Leather was relatively cheap, available and strong and was therefore widely used.

Glass was so expensive that even 'well to do' middle class families often owned just one glass goblet which stood in the middle of the table as a communal wine cup.

A servant with the leather bottle stood in the corner to replenish the glass when needed. He was known as the Bottler which was eventually corrupted into Butler.

Waterproofing of the finished tankards was accomplished in several ways. It was discovered early on that the skin side of the hide is most naturally waterproof. Thus it was used as the inside of the vessel.

The outside of the jug would be the flesh side which would be rubbed with animal fat in earlier periods and later with either beeswax or boiled birch tree sap.

Birch sap turns black when boiled and from its application to the outside of a jack came the phrase "Blackjack" which was adopted as a generic name for this kind of drinking vessel.

As time progressed only the inside of the vessel was waterproofed. Again beeswax was used, but beeswax was very expensive and had to be replaced at regular intervals. Birch sap was used until, more recently, it has been replaced with Brewers Pitch, a material used to caulk wooden beer barrels.

Leather drinking vessels are still made today in the High Pennine region of Upper Teesdale by specialist leather vessel makers 'Hidebound'.

For more information please click here out. to go to Hidebound's web site

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