My form has puzzled many a fertile Brain
The brightest Wits my Liquor could not gain
And still profusely spill it on the Ground
The Reason is no Suction they have found
Now honest Friend advance thy Genius try
Spill ne’or a Drop and strive to drink me dry
Drinking games conjure up images of college students, Ping-Pong balls and red plastic cups. As the verse above suggests, though, this was not always the case. The puzzle jug was at the center of a humorous drinking game popular from the 16th to the 19th century. The jug, examples of which can be seen in the Hidden Dimensions exhibition on the Lower Level of the Milwaukee Art Museum, was meant for use in inns and public houses.
The game is straightforward: drink from the puzzle jug without removing it from the mouth or spilling any of the contents. This would be easy if it wasn’t for the puzzle jug’s form. The vessel, usually containing an amusing verse challenging the game’s participants, is bulbous with a neck pierced with geometric designs. There are usually three or more spouts sprouting out of the neck’s upper rim. If you try to drink in a conventional manner, by tipping the jug over, the contents would spill everywhere.
So, how do you drink from a puzzle jug? The verse above, which is written on one of the puzzle jugs in the lower level gallery provides a clue. There is a hidden tube that runs around the rim and down the handle with an opening inside the jug. You need to suck on one of the spouts, yet as the puzzle jug proclaims, “the Reason is no Suction they have found”. For the spout to work, the drinker has to cover up the other two holes so that one of the holes functions as a straw. This was still deemed too easy at the time, and a small hidden hole was usually added underneath the jug’s handle. This hole also needed to be covered in order for the “straw” to work.
The jug would be passed around as each person took his/her turn trying to drink from the puzzle jug. The game required good hand and eye coordination, and momentary distractions increased the risk of a finger moving from the hole it was meant to cover, causing the drink to spill. I imagine that it was entertaining to watch the participants as they attempted the challenge. As one of the labels in Chipstone’s If These Pots Could Talk exhibition stated, “They say there’s no fool like an old fool. But the fools who spilled their liquor while trying to figure out which spouts to close on a puzzle jug had to shoulder the idiocy of the ages.”
Now you know the puzzle jug’s playful secret. Come down to the gallery to listen to the puzzle jug challenge you to a game.
Claudia Mooney works for Chipstone, the Milwaukee-based foundation dedicated to promoting American decorative arts scholarship. She researches objects and creates relevant programming for Chipstone’s exhibitions at the Milwaukee Art Museum and in the community.