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Treasures: Mid-19th century ABC mug is a curious find

This fascinating mug has a transfer print. Is it of Abraham Lincoln?
This fascinating mug has a transfer print. Is it of Abraham Lincoln? MCT

Q: I work at an archaeological contracting company. We excavated a mug from a historic site in Mississippi and are having trouble identifying and dating it. We believe it to be ironstone with a black transfer print with what we believe to be the image of Abraham Lincoln and an unidentified man on one side and a strange game being played on the other. The phrase “We be loggerheads three” is across the top. The alphabet is molded along the rim. We are stumped! Can you tell me anything about this artifact?


A: This is one of the more curious requests we have received in our long career and it certainly intrigued and challenged us.

Perhaps we should begin by saying this is a child’s alphabet mug, or an ABC mug as it is more commonly called. These were made in the 1820s through the 1860s and again in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries.

The earliest of these were made from creamware (a whitish or cream-colored earthenware sometimes called “Queensware”), which was introduced in the 1740s and continued to be made well into the 19th century with production revived by Wedgwood.

Most ABC plates and mugs — the plates are far more commonly found than the mugs — were made from ironstone, which was introduced by Mason’s and was patented in July 1813 as Mason’s Patent Ironstone China. Many subsequent potters tried to copy this tough and durable ware and named it such things as “Stone China,” “Opaque China,” and “Granite China.”

This ware was most popular from the 1830s through the 1890s, and we believe this mug is from the earlier portion of this time spread. But does it have anything whatsoever to do with Abraham Lincoln? We doubt it, and it would have helped us to know why K.W. thought so.

The figure does indeed resemble the 16th president of the United States, but this cup is English in origin and was intended for use by a child, and we doubt a political contest would have interested most children of the day. “We be loggerheads three” probably does not refer to the election of 1860, in which there were actually four U.S. presidential contenders — Abraham Lincoln, John Breckinridge, John Bell and Stephen Douglas (the 1864 presidential election only had two candidates, Lincoln and George McClellan).

Other than turtles and tools, the term “loggerheads” refers to a blockhead or stupid person and comes from the English word “logger,” a block of wood. It also means to be in a state of quarrelsome disagreement. In addition, Loggerheads is the name of a village in Denbighshire, Wales and one in Staffordshire, England.

We are not sure what the actual game being played on this mug is (the contestants seem to be wielding large brushes), but we think the caption may be, at least in part, “contest of honor.” But too much is missing to be positive.

In summation, this is a really nice and rare child’s ironstone ABC mug from the 1850-60s, but we doubt that the image on the front is that of Abraham Lincoln. The value, of course, is historic rather than monetary.

Write to Joe Rosson, P.O. Box 27419, Knoxville, TN 37927, or email treasures@knology.net. If you’d like your question to be considered for the column, please include a high-resolution photo of the subject, which must be in focus.