Collecting German Skull Steins – In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, graduating from a German university with a medical degree was often commemorated with a truly unique artifact – a skull stein. These eccentric and morbidly fascinating mementos, bearing an uncanny hollowed-out model of a human skull, were popular graduation gifts, capable of holding up to half a liter of beer – a toast to the imminent professional life.
Crafted initially and primarily in the central German state of Thuringia, these skull steins became widely popular despite their unclear origins. Even today, they grace numerous beer stein auctions, signifying their historic popularity, while other stein types of the same era remain a rarity.
E. Bohne Söhne, a porcelain factory in the town of Rudolstadt, is the most closely associated manufacturer with these peculiar drinking vessels. They produced over a dozen distinct versions, making their mark in the annals of the skull stein tradition. The best-known iteration is the “skull on book” stein, which, as the name suggests, places the skull atop a book, specifically a “Kommersbuch”. This book, containing traditional student drinking songs, formed the base of the stein. A particularly intricate version of this stein included a music box that played the song, “Gaudeamus Igitur,” whose opening lyrics are inscribed on the book base.
“Gaudeamus Igitur, Juvenes Dum Sumus,” Latin for “Let us rejoice while we are young,” before our bones are buried in the earth, is a university student song dating back to the 13th century. The song, originally associated with German academia, transcended national borders and was embraced by students all across Europe. It carries a poignant message that mirrors the essence of the skull steins – to live, celebrate, and make merry while one can, for mortality is an inescapable reality.
The link between the song and the skull steins is best illustrated in the “skull on book” stein, where the base of the stein is a “Kommersbuch,” a book collecting traditional student drinking songs. The opening lyrics of “Gaudeamus Igitur” are inscribed on this book base, providing a tangible link to the song.
This representation is more than mere decoration or a nod to a popular student anthem. It connects the act of drinking from the skull stein with the simultaneous contemplation of youth, life, mortality, and the ephemerality of existence. The stein, in essence, becomes a physical embodiment of the song’s philosophy, a tangible memento mori.
Other designs from Bohne’s eclectic catalogue included a two-faced skull stein with a regular skull on one side and the devil’s face on the other, and another where the bone handle was replaced with a pair of coiling snakes. The latter was an apparent homage to the caduceus, the mythological snake-bearing staff of Hermes, which was being adopted as a medical symbol around this period.
The skull steins weren’t limited to medical graduates. Despite the anatomical allusions, they were popular graduation gifts across various disciplines, encapsulating a shared spirit of youthful camaraderie and the morbid reality of human mortality.
These skull steins belong to a broader category of “character steins”, that extend beyond human anatomy. These steins were molded to resemble various entities, from singing pigs and elves to radishes and political figures like Otto von Bismarck. The Milwaukee Art Museum, which displays a Bohne skull stein, suggests that the advent of the Industrial Revolution and its technological advances paved the way for such novelty in porcelain manufacture.
While the E. Bohne Söhne factory was renowned for its skull steins, other porcelain manufacturers also ventured into this domain, though none quite captured the market like Bohne. Some stoneware manufacturers in Germany’s Westerwald mountain range also crafted skull steins, albeit in fewer quantities and variations.
The skull steins of E. Bohne Söhne, if judged by their availability today, were clearly among the most sought-after figural steins of their time. Their distinctive charm continues to attract collectors today, preserving a legacy that intertwines the mirth of youth and the solemnity of mortality.