My original title for this post was “Nothing to Show; What Can I Say?” and began with a humorous lament over my family’s lack of family heirlooms. However, I’ll save my attempt at humor for the Family Heirloom meme and instead focus on the one heirloom that I do have! The theme of the 55th Carnival of Genealogy is: Show and Tell! Show us and tell us about an heirloom, a special photo, a valuable document, or a significant person that is a very special part of your family history.
My family isn’t big on holding on to things that may become heirlooms. I have very few things that belonged to my grandparents or great-grandparents. I cringed at the topic for this edition – the embarrassing lack of interesting things to show and tell about took me back to 3rd grade. I brought in my “teddy bear” while a classmate brought in his grandfather’s Olympic bronze medal (I’m not kidding).
Fortunately, as I dug deeper into my roots I met a second cousin, whom I’ll call “Sis”. We share the same great-grandparents, Joseph and Marie Bergmeister; her grandfather was my grandmother’s brother. Apparently my grandmother’s older siblings got all of the cool stuff. Sis showed me our great-grandfather’s regimental beer stein! All males were required to serve in the military for two years, and he served in the Bavarian Army from 1893-95. Regimental beer steins commemorated their service in a particular unit as a remembrance of their time in the military. Sis also had a large, nearly poster-size photo that showed each of the individual photos of his entire military unit! Of course, I did not have a camera with me at the time, and to this day we haven’t been able to get these artifacts in the same room as my camera. Hopefully we’ll both have time to get together soon, but until then they are only etched in my memory so there isn’t anything to show or tell about yet.
But, later that year Sis gave me a Very Special Christmas Present. Another beer stein that belonged to our great-grandfather! She was willing to give it up because of my love for the Bergmeister family. I’ll never forget her generosity and love for me with that gift. It doesn’t have the same “Wow!” factor as the military stein, but, to be honest, it’s a “wow” to me because it was his. I have only done a small amount of research thus far – I had no idea that German beer steins have such a multitude of scholarly studies! I’ve learned a little so far about steins in general, so for my “show and tell” I present to you…a Bavarian beer stein!
First, the basics…why are Germans so big on beer steins anyway? Because Germans are big on beer. Beer was brewed in Germany as far back as 800 BC.1 By the Middle Ages, German monasteries were brewing beer as a commercial enterprise. 2 With this much beer consumption, one needed a cup to drink it! Our usage of stein comes from the German word steinzeugkrug, meaning a jug or tankard. In the 14th Century, Europe was hit with both the bubonic plague as well as a swarm of flies. Some ingenious person came up with the idea of a cover for the stein to keep things out of the beer. Laws were passed in Germany in the early 1500s that required food and beverage containers to be covered. Hence, the beer stein as we know it today was born. When we think of a stein, it is not just a large tankard, but one with a hinged cover that you can open with your thumb. By the 1800s, the “covered container” laws were no longer enforced, but the lids were here to stay.3
From reading about steins, I learned that they are often difficult to date. Usually, as in the case of this stein, there are no markings at all to indicate where or when it was manufactured, or by whom. However, there were a few things to look for in order to verify that a stein is old enough to have belonged to my great-grandfather.
This stein is made from porcelain. The sole reason I could discern this was that the stein has a special feature found only in porcelain steins – a lithophane. A lithophane is a panel with a relief decoration that is visible only when light passes through it.4 It is found at the bottom of the stein. If you merely peek in at the bottom, you will not see anything at all, but the bottom will look textured and not smooth. The image itself is visible only when you hold it up to the light – presumably, once you have tilted your head back to finish the last of your beer! Lithophanes are created by the thickness of the porcelain. Thinner areas allow more light to pass through and are lighter in color; thicker areas are darker. The transparency of the porcelain creates a 3-dimensional image of intricate detail as light passes through the bottom of the stein.5 It is simply stunning, and these photos do not truly represent how beautiful it is.
The rust-colored lines you see underneath the deer are the result of a small crack at the bottom of the stein. The lithophanes are rather fragile and can be easily damaged.
The scenes depicted on lithophanes were quite detailed. Subjects included wildlife, as shown on my great-grandfather’s, or scenes from taverns, occupational life. They could also show romantic scenes such as a man and a woman holding hands. But beware – if the scene is erotic in nature, chances are it is a reproduction and not an original stein (1850-1914). Any lithophanes of naked women or couples were produced after World War II.6
The handle and the lid also have clues that indicate it is an original in lieu of a reproduction. The handle is smooth, missing the “bump” that newer steins have.7 The lid, likely made of pewter, is darker on the outside than on the inside. In newer steins, the lid is often treated with chemicals so that it is uniformly dark, or “aged”, on both the inside and the outside. But an authentic stein lid will be darker on the outside due to oxidation. 8
Amid the flowers, a banner reads “Zur Erinnerung“, which means “in memory” or “remembrance“. I have found other steins with this phrase at various online auction or memorabilia sites, but I haven’t been able to find a good explanation of its meaning. The only time I saw this phrase in the books I consulted, it was on a regimental stein. The main difference is the level of detail - regimental steins are decorated in a completely different manner and show scenes of military life or the unit’s information in addition to the phrase. This stein is more simply decorated. It may be an anniversary stein…but what is it in remembrance of? Did Bavarians offer steins in memory of people in addition to in memory of jobs, schools, or military service? Unfortunately, this is one question I won’t find the answer to, even with more research.
But, it’s a beauty, isn’t it? I’m not sure what makes it more special to me – the fact that it belonged to my great-grandfather, or the fact that it was given to me by my cousin. Thanks to her, at least I have something to Show and Tell! Hmm, I’m suddenly quite thirsty…I think I’ll go have a beer in honor of my great-grandfather!
[Written for the 55th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy: Show and Tell!]
1 “A History of Beer”, Concordia Enzian Schuhplattler, 2004, http://www.enzian.ca/history_of_beer.htm
3 Gary Kirsner and Jim Gruhl, The Stein Book, (Glentiques, Ltd., 1984), 7.
4 Ibid, 326.
5 Walt Vogdes, “Porcelain Steins with Lithophanes”, Stein Collector’s International, http://www.steincollectors.org/library/articles/Lithopha/lithos.html
6 Mark Chervenka, “Regimental Beer Steins”, Antique and Collectors Reproduction News, 2004, downloaded at www.repronews.com/web_pdf/samples/06_04_cv.pdf