Although originally used as “a large drinking vessel”, you’d probably be hard pressed to find someone drinking out of one now (at least in England – that’s as far as my knowledge extends), unless you were in an olde worlde pub. Their use now is primarily commemorative. Tankards are given as presents to commemorate an event, or as prizes. In fact, the only proper one in my house commemorates a victory of the Reading University Boat Club (I hasten to add that it isn’t mine).
Tankards which were originally used for drinking can still be found, but mostly in collections, or in the aforementioned pubs. A huge variety of designs have been made over the years, which makes them highly collectible. If you happen to watch the Antiques Roadshow on television, you’ve probably seen some examples.
The lid that was mentioned in the above definition came about, as I understand it, because of a group of people called press-gangers. These men, employed by the royal navy, would roam the pubs around ports, “persuading” people to join the navy. The rule was that if you accepted the King’s money, you were obliged to join the navy to serve him. Thus, a press-ganger would drop a coin into an inebriated sailor’s drink, and once he choked on it, he had taken the King’s money. If still alive after this, he was carted off to the nearest ship. In order to prevent a coin (and, I suppose, anything else) being added to your drink, the lid was introduced.
Another feature of some tankards introduced to counteract press-ganging was glass bases. A normal tankard was made of an opaque material, I think pewter was traditional, and if a coin was dropped into your beer, you wouldn’t have a chance of seeing it. However, if the base were made of glass, the light entering the tankard from the bottom would show up the coin so you could carefully avoid “accepting” it. Clever, eh?
If you wish to buy a tankard, either for your own interest or to give to someone else, a variety of places exist that still make them. www.really-good-gifts.com does them, and a google search will reveal a few thousand more sources. For a slightly less conventional tankard, you might try “The amazing freezing gel tankard” (recently given to me for my birthday – hence this contribution), available at The Gadget Shop. This plastic tankard is double walled, the space between the walls being filled with a sort of gel. The idea is that you place the tankard in the freezer for a time, then when you take it out, the gel remains cold, and cools any drink you put in the tankard. I have yet to try it out (it being December while I write this, the last thing I want is to cool my drinks down), but it sounds like a clever idea to me.