Tucked away on a glass shelf sits a ceramic jug bearing the likeness of Steve Mullins, the 82-year-old owner of the world’s largest Toby Jug collection. Resting comfortably next to President Obama, the object is a symbolic representation of Mullins’ dedication to the Toby Jug, a historical curiosity most have never heard of.
Toby Jugs are a type of ceramic jug featuring the full-body likeness of an individual. Along with the character jugs, which depict only a figure’s face, they’re a phenomenon that began in mid-18th century England, eventually reaching more than 30 countries.
The museum lies just a 30-minute walk south from Northwestern’s campus, on the corner of Main Street and Chicago Avenue. It houses nearly 8,000 jugs, drawing in Toby Jug collectors from around the globe. Spanning from 1765 to present day, the collection includes both the world’s biggest (40 inches) and smallest (3/8 of an inch) jugs. In between are jugs of all backgrounds, from the political (Karl Marx) to the pop culture (the Mighty Ducks) to the inexplicable (a lizard monk).
The museum is the brainchild of Mullins, who has developed the collection over nearly 70 years. He bought his first six jugs while in summer camp at the age of 15, bringing them home as a present to his mother.
After making several more purchases while traveling through Canada en route to Dartmouth – where he attended college – Mullins’ collection picked up steam when he returned from military service in Europe in 1956 with a trunk full of jugs.
“That’s when we realized, this was my collection, not my mother’s,” he says.
"I’m convinced there will be collectors out there forever ... They’ve gone on for 250 years, they’re going to go on." – Steve Mullins
Today, Mullins works as a Chicago real estate investor and developer, a job that gave him the financial ability to purchase thousands of jugs, some of which are as valuable as $40,000. But his real passion (and the majority of his time) lies in the collection, the history of the jugs, that insatiable collector’s mentality that drives collector’s markets of all kinds. Twenty years ago, Mullins moved his collection from his downtown Chicago office to Evanston, and in 2005, he moved the jugs to their present address, just north of Main Street, giving the collection room to grow into its current form.
The number of Toby Jug collectors has declined over the past several decades, dwindling to the low thousands, Mullins says. But he remains an active member of the community, traveling every winter to a ceramics conference in Florida. While the market has shrunk considerably in the 21st century, Mullins remains optimistic about the object’s future.
“I’m convinced there will be collectors out there forever,” he says. “They’ve gone on for 250 years, they’re going to go on.”
Mullins estimates that approximately 1,000 people visit the museum each year, learning of the museum via word of mouth. While Mullins’ real estate work helped fund the collection, the museum is now self-sustaining. As a non-profit, it accepts donations of smaller collections to resell. The museum has also begun to commission its own jugs for sale, including a 12-piece collection of World War II figures (set to be completed this year) costing $5,000.
While Toby Jug manufacturing continued successfully into the new century, the 2011 closure of Royal Doulton, the company that manufactured Mullins’ first six jugs, put the industry in decline. Today, only one manufacturer remains. Despite the uncertain future of Toby Jugs, Mullins’ efforts have proven instrumental to the jugs’ survival. With the museum bequeathed to his children, Mullins hopes that Toby Jugs will live on long after he’s gone.
“Will it just become something of the past that people will still collect? It’s really hard to predict that,” Mullins says. “I’m hopeful, but I suppose I won’t know the difference.”