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The Humble Mug: A Special Piece of History

by Amelie J Rose published on 03 Jan 2017

The mug has always been seen by polite society as the poor relation to the teacup. But its history is longer and richer; and it's now the UK's receptacle of choice. Here we take a look at the history of the humble mug, from its earliest origins to its place in today's tea etiquette.

Image by Adam Bindsley on Flickr

Rarely do we celebrate the mug. It's probably one of the most taken-for-granted items in our kitchen cupboards. But where would we be without it? As a nation of tea (and increasingly, coffee) drinkers, we owe a lot to our ancient ancestors, who recognised the need for a receptacle from which hot and cold beverages could comfortably be drunk. They wouldn't have realised at the time just how much more comfortable and convenient this seemingly simple invention would make the lives of Generations X, Y and Z, a few thousand years down the line.

The Earliest Origins of the Mug

The need for mugs was discovered as far back as the Stone Age, when the very first mugs were fashioned from wood and bone. Mugs carved from bone have been found in China and Japan, dating back to approximately 10,000 B.C. These are rather unsophisticated affairs with no handles, but their purpose is clear.

By 5,000 years later, pottery was the material of choice for drinking vessels. The Ancient Greeks are known to have used hand-fashioned, ornately decorated clay mugs, still without handles, between 5,000 and 4,000 B.C. Handles would have been facilitated by the invention of the potter’s wheel at around this time.

An example of a clay mug with a snake design, dating from around 4,000 B.C. This mug is displayed at the Louvre, Paris.
Finding the Right Materials

While the addition of handles made the mug much more comfortable to hold, it was still far from the ideal drinking vessel. The big problem was that clay was too thick a material; it could not be fashioned into a fine enough shape to fit easily inside the mouth. Drinking from these clay mugs would have been a clumsy and undignified experience.

As craftsmen developed newer and more varied techniques for working with metals, they began to experiment with them in order to find the perfect material from which to make the mug. Metal was easier to shape and therefore mugs could be constructed with thinner walls, for greater ease of drinking. Examples have been found of mugs fashioned in lead, bronze, silver and even gold, dating back to approximately 2,000 B.C. However, the problems with metal mugs are immediately apparent. Even though in those days the harmful properties of lead were not known, the obvious disadvantage of metal mugs is metal’s ability to conduct heat. This made them hugely unsuccessful and uncomfortable as receptacles for hot drinks.

The main advancement in the mug's history came with the invention of porcelain in China, in around the year 600. Porcelain was ideal; it was thin enough to be shaped into a comfortable drinking vessel, and did not conduct heat well, so could easily be used for hot drinks. Porcelain is still a standard material used for making mugs today, along with earthenware, bone china, and, more recently, glass.

The Mug and Modern Society
Image by Dano on Flickr

The mug waned in popularity over the years, particularly with the affected sensibilities of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. No polite host or hostess would have dreamed of serving their guests tea in mugs; only fine china cups and saucers, and all the rituals that went along with them, would do. However, while this may still be the case amongst the increasingly obsolete upper classes, us humble folk have reclaimed the mug, once more giving it pride of place in our kitchens. This is largely to do with the popularity of teabags, which now account for a huge 96 percent of tea sold in the UK. Over the last decade, sales of mugs have trebled, while teapot sales have halved. Comfort and convenience are once more the order of the day, just as they were for our ancient ancestors.

So let's raise a mug to them on our tea breaks today. Humble mug, we salute you.

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