20th Century Pub pubs

FAQ: When did beer mats come in?

This is the first in a new series of short posts attempting to give straight answers to direct questions, all of which we’ll be collecting on a new permanent page.

This one, which we were asked ages ago by the folks at The Station House in Durham, turns out to be easy to answer. Sort of.

Beer mats, because collecting them is a hobby, are fairly well documented and have an established origin story.

Here’s a version from the British Beermat Collectors Society (BBCS):

The first beermats as we know them were cardboard based and produced in Germany by around 1880 by Friedrich Horn, a German printing and board mill company. Not only did they create small thin(ish) cardboard mats but they also printed messages on them, something that would eventually open up a whole new world of advertising! This was quickly taken to a new level by Robert Sputh, also in Germany who began to produce much thicker, highly absorbent mats…

So, printed cardboard beer mats arrived in Germany in the 1880s. But when did they hit the UK?

Consensus seems to be that it was in the early 1920s when Watney, Combe, Reid & Co. introduced two mats advertising Watney Pale Ale and Reid’s Stout.

The BBCS says this happened in around 1922, though other sources say 1920. The date can be estimated because the printers included their own names on the mats, says the BBCS.

We’d really like to find a contemporary document pinning this down – a note in the board minutes, for example, or a newspaper report. We’ll keep looking.

After Watney’s, says the BBCS…

A number of other breweries also began producing mats in the 1920’s, for example Massey’s… And by the mid-late 1930’s many of the recognisable ‘names’ in the brewing world were producing them and British manufacturers such as Quarmby and Regicor can be seen on many mats from this period.

We’d observe, though, that British newspaper articles in the 1930s still felt the need to explain what beer mats were, and associated them entirely with Germany and the Continent:

‘Absorbent cardboard discs as mats for beer glasses are a familiar object in nearly every German public-house…’ – Belfast Telegraph, 2 December 1936

‘The cardboard mat on which the German puts his pot of beer is a frequent cause of trouble…’ Liverpool Evening Express, 29 May 1939

‘Perhaps beer mats is not the official description, but you may know what they are; I saw them on the Continent years before they were used in this country; they are round and absorbent, and they protect tables from liquid drippings.’ – Leeds Mercury, 30 May 1939.

We did, after quite some hunting, manage to find this image of a 1930s pubs with beer mats in plain view, and another here, from c.1938. They’re in the posher rooms – smoke rooms and lounges – and perhaps that makes sense. Spit, slop and sawdust in the public bar; dainty drip-collectors for gentlemen and ladies.

Like many other aspects of UK beer advertising, beer mats seem to have taken off in earnest in the 1950s and 60s with the rise of competition between national brands.

There are lots of mentions of beer mats in 1950s newspapers, none of them feeling the need to explain what a beer mat is.

Many concern the new hobby of ‘tegestology’ or ‘beermatology’ as one report calls this particular collecting mania.

So, here’s our straight answer:

The modern beer mat emerged in Germany in the 1880s, reached Britain in the 1920s, and became common from the 1950s onward.

3 replies on “FAQ: When did beer mats come in?”

I’m not sure it’s true to say the “modern” beermat appeared in the 1880s. Robert Sputh patented the disposable cardboard mat capable of carrying printed advertising in Dresden in 1892, and this appears to be the first example of what we would recognise today as a beermat. (It has to be said that the French insist the first patent for an “undercup sponge” was indeed issued that year, but in Paris.) The first examples from Watney Combe Reid were simply the designs of the firm’s oval bottle labels printed on circular dripmats, one for Watney’s Pale Ale and the other for Reid’s Stout. I have seen these dated to 1925: there is a complete run of the Watney’s house magazine from the very early 1920s in Richmond Library, so there’s another item for the post-lockdown Things To Do list …

The other use of a German beermat is for the waitress to put ticks on it showing how much you have had, as part of their much more civilised system of running pubs – with the total bill being paid at the end and thus saving a lot of fiddling around with change. However, remember not to pocket the mat as a souvenir before asking for the bill, or let a small child rip it up and throw the remains in the bin – as I saw happen to a couple sat at the next table on one of my German pub visits.

I wonder if the BBCS is right in pushing them back to the 1920s. That 1939 Leeds Mercury quote – “you may not know what I mean by a ‘beer mat’, but you’ve probably seen them around” – is a proper smoking gnu for dating the name. I’d have thought that the thing itself wouldn’t have been in common use for very long before that (“pass me some of those absorbent cardboard discs for people to put their glasses on, I’ll put them out in the Lounge”). But maybe Leeds was behind the times.

Comments are closed.