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Documented Use of Cup Plates in the Nineteenth Century

All About Glass

Cup plates are an example of the specialized items in ceramics and glass with which Victorian ladies liked to clutter dinner and tea tables. Later in the century, these small plates were joined by a host of other "special" items: ice cream sets, berry sets, lemonade sets, and dishes for every conceivable course and type of food; but the three-inch plates which came into use in the 1820s were the first items of this kind produced.

Because they represent an obsolete custom, they have interested collectors of Americana and of antiques for some time. It was only a year or so ago that this writer realized that no modern research documenting the use of these plates exists. The plates occur in two main forms: in underglaze printed Staffordshire pottery, made in England for the American market, and in pressed glass, made in New England and in Midwestern glass factories in great quantities. Blown and mold-blown glass plates do exist, but in very small numbers; the use of cup plates seems to have coincided with the invention of the pressing machine, so that the production of these plates in glass was almost entirely due to the new method of manufacture.

It is difficult to pin down their first use to any one year, but cup plates seem to have originated in the 1820s. The earliest Staffordshire ones appeared in the early 1820s and the glass ones around 1827. The Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore owns a number of invoices (from the New England Glass Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the Mayhew firm of Baltimore) which list cup plates as follows:1

#1311 53 1/2 Doz. 3 1/2" Star bott plates 40/13
#1312 50 Doz. 3 1/2" Star bott plates 37/50
#1313 35 2/3 Doz. 4" Star bott plates 35/67

There were ten boxes of cup plates in this shipment of July 26, 1828; and H. Whitney, the agent of the New England Glass Company, commented:2

These goods, with the exception of the 10 first packages [the cup plates] are intended for exportation and those are equally well calculated for that market tho we have never sent or made any before—The plates we hope you will dispose of immediately, as the So. Boston Co. has already copied our patterns and Mr. Jarves [Deming Jarves of the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company] will do the same probably.

The New England Glass Company shipped cup plates to W.E. Mayhew & Co. on August 9, 16, September 20, 1828, April 18, May 2, and June 6, 1829, so apparently the plates were selling well.

The Boston & Sandwich Glass Company had already been making cup plates for a year, according to Ruth Webb Lee, who says that the first mention of cup plates in Sandwich records appears in an account book (now in the Henry Ford Museum) under the date April 20, 1827. They are listed as number 1, number 2 and number 3 and priced at 4¢, 5¢ and 6¢ apiece.3 This listing leaves no clue concerning their patterns. The Mayhew invoices mentioned above describe the New England Glass Company plates as "star bott," "planet bott," "scallop plates," "scallop star bott" and "scallop planet bott." These descriptions are not precise enough to allow identification of these patterns.

It is possible to find advertisements for cup plates, by that name, in American newspapers over a wide span of years in the nineteenth century. A limited search of periodicals resulted in the following:

Poulson's American Daily Advertiser; Philadelphia, April 5, 1827, "cup plates 4 inches."

Nantucket Inquirer, September 29, 1827, under New Goods, "a lot of glass cup plates."

Eastern Argus, Portland, December 16, 1828, "SPLENDID SALE OF GLASS WARE ... 51 packages of plain, pressed and cut GLASS WARE ... cup plates."

Nantucket Inquirer, May 28, 1830, "50 dozen glass cup plates."

Philadelphia Daily Chronicle, March 3, 1831, "prest glass ... new and approved patterns ... cup plates."

Niles National Register, Baltimore, April 25, 1846, "cup plates, 25¢ per dozen."

The following advertisements indicate that some of these plates were imported from the Continent as well as from England:

Rhode Island American and Gazette, July 8, 1831, "1 case superior French Gold Band China, viz: ... Cup plates."

Manufacturers and Farmers Journal and Providence and Pawtucket Advertiser, Providence, October 10, 1833, "MORE NEW GOODS ... German Tale and Flint Tumblers; do. Wines and Decanters; Lamps ... and Cup Plates."

The plates in the first four advertisements were probably made in New England, but it is likely that Midwestern glass factories started producing them at the same time or very shortly afterwards. A billhead of the Wheeling Flint Glass Works, dated October 12, 1837, advertised four different kinds:4

CUP PLATES per dozen
3" cable edge .25
3" scalloped, assorted patterns .28
3 1/4" scalloped, assorted patterns .33
3 1/2" scalloped, assorted patterns .37

From these advertisements, we know that cup plates were made and sold and therefore presumably used in this country from 1827 on; but we still do not have documented evidence as to how they were used. So far, no print or painting from the nineteenth century showing cup plates in use has been discovered, although a number of secondary sources attest to the fact that the plates were used to hold a teacup while the tea was being drunk from the saucer. No foreign traveller, not even the very critical Mrs. Trollope, commented on this peculiar American custom. That the use of cup plates was a peculiarly American custom is evident from their rarity in Europe where, except for the Staffordshire ones made for the American market, they are virtually non-existent.

We know that tea was drunk from the saucer in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, both here and in Europe, by a number of contemporary paintings and prints.

A French print, "The Woman ta King Coffee," (Fig. 1) by Louis Marin Bonnet, dated 1774, is one of a series on English customs done by Bonnet. This print illustrates an obviously well-dressed gentlewoman pouring the coffee from her cup into her saucer. No cup plate is in evidence, but it seems likely that she intends to drink the liquid from the saucer when it has cooled sufficiently. The saucer is a large, deep one and her cup has a handle, so it is not the inconvenience of drinking hot liquid from a handleless cup which is causing her to cool her coffee in this manner.

Fig. 1: "The Woman ta King Coffee," Louis Martin Bonnet, French, 1774, The Corning Museum of Glass..
Fig. 2: "The Chelsea Pensioner," Joseph John Jenkins, English, after a painting by Michael William Sharp.

An English print, "The Chelsea Pensioner," (Fig. 2) depicts an elderly man about to sip tea from a saucer. His cup, also with a handle, sits, with the spoon in it, on the bare table beside him. This print was engraved by J.J. Jenkins, after a painting by M.W. Sharp, and probably dates from the early nineteenth century, although the exact dates of Sharp's work are not well established.

Two German paintings, "Familie Remy in Bendorf bei Koblenz," by Januarius Zick, 1776, and "Ländliche Familie beim Teetrinken," by Jan Josef II Horemans (1714-ca. 1790) show family parties in which one or more people are sipping from saucers.5

Two more English prints, "The Old Maid," published in 1777,6 and "Tippy Bob," a mezzotint by Robert Sayer, 1792,7 show saucer-drinking by an old maid and a fop. Since both of these works are caricatures, it is possible to theorize that by the 1790s drinking from a saucer was going out of fashion in England.

A German watercolor, "Karikature auf die Kaffeeleidenschaft der Damen," by Georg Emmanuel Opiz, ca. 1800, also indicates by ridicule that the custom was obsolete.

Per (Peter) Kalm, a Swedish traveller, in his Travels into North America, published originally in the 1750s, comments under November 30, 1748: "When the English women [in North America] drank tea, they never poured it out of the cup into the saucer to cool it, but drank it hot as it came from the teapot."8 So at that time, the Americans drank from their cups, unlike their compatriots in England. As "saucering" became unfashionable in England around 1780 or 1790, it seems to have grown in popularity in the United States. "Dregs in the Cup," by William Sidney Mount, painted in 1838, shows that by this time, Americans poured their tea into saucers to cool it.

The phrase "a dish of tea" occurs in nineteenth-century sources, and this saying frequently has been cited as evidence for “saucering." The following comment by an English traveller in 1833 makes its meaning doubtful: "We found chests of drawers still called bureaus, dress-makers manteau-makers, sofas sittees, cups of tea dishes of tea; and a number of other things designated by names long out of fashion in genteel society in England."9 Unfortunately, this traveller to New York did not see fit to comment on the use of cup plates.

A search of books on household management produced instructions for the use of cup plates in several instances but none earlier than 1840. A thirteen-year time lag is probably not remarkable for a custom to become well established. Miss Eliza Leslie's Lady's House-Book: A Manual of Domestic Economy, published in 1840, has the following instructions:10

After you have set the cups, place around the table the plates, knives and forks, leaving a few extra ones on the sideboard. If they are used in your family do not forget to set round the little cup-plates.

On page 290, under instructions for buying china, the author comments:

If possible, avoid buying cups with handles; as the handles are rarely used and soon knocked off, and the cup then looks shabby and defaced. Many of the saucers now made are but very slightly concave, and turn outwards towards the edge which makes them useless to persons who do not like to take their tea out of the cup. As there are many who prefer drinking out of the saucer, it is well to buy them of a convenient shape, and also to have a set of little cup-plates or cup-mats.

This book went into at least nineteen printings (the nineteenth in 1863, with the above directions unchanged), so the custom of using cup plates can be documented for those years at least.

Catherine E. Beecher, another Victorian instructress for housewives, has much to say about the use of cup plates in her two books. A Treatise on Domestic Economy, for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School mentions cup plates under etiquette and under table settings in the revised edition of 1845:11

Another branch, under this head, may be called table manners. To persons of good breeding, nothing is more annoying, than violating the conventional proprieties of the table ... Reaching over another person’s plate; ... setting cups, with tea dripping from them, on the tablecloth, instead of the mats or small plates furnished; using the tablecloth instead of the napkins; ... all these particulars, children should be taught to avoid.

Table-mats are needful to prevent injury to the table from the warm dishes. Teacup-mats, or small plates, are useful to save the tablecloths from dripping tea or coffee.

RULES FOR SETTING A TABLE ... 4. Lay the plates around the table, at equal intervals, and the knives and forks at regular distances, each in the same particular manner, with a cup-mat, or cup plate, to each and a napkin at the right side of each person.

In her Domestic Receipt Book, published in 1846, Mrs. Beecher becomes more explicit and gives a diagram as well as instructions on how to set a table using cup plates:12

The proper way of setting a tea-table is shown at Fig. 8. In this drawing of a tea-table, small-sized plates are set around, with a knife, napkin and cup plate laid by each, in a regular manner, while the articles of food are to be set, also in regular order. On the waiter are placed the tea-cups and saucers, sugar bowl, slop bowl, cream cup, and two or three articles for tea, coffee, and water, as the case may be. This drawing may aid some housekeepers in teaching a domestic how to set a tea-table, as the picture will assist the memory in some cases. On the dinner table, by each plate, is a knife, fork, napkin and tumbler; on the tea-table, by each plate is a knife, napkin, and small cup-plate.

Figure 5 shows Miss Beecher's tea table with a cup plate at each place. One other etiquette book which was checked, The House Servants Directory,13 seemed to deal with larger, more formal households with a full complement of servants and a lady of the house who merely supervised. No mention of cup plates was found in this book; consequently, one may speculate that their use was confined to the middle classes. On this head, it is interesting to note that cup plates do not occur in cut glass or in the art glass of the late nineteenth century. The latter observation can be held as proof that they were no longer fashionable in the 1880s, but the former would seem to indicate that they were not used by the class of citizen who used cut glass but by those who could only afford pressed wares and the comparatively inexpensive Staffordshire.

Having documented the use of cup plates up to at least 1863, the year of Miss Leslie's nineteenth edition, one notes that few cup plates appear in glass catalogues of later years. A M'Kee & Brother catalogue of 1859 lists a "3" dia. cup plate,"14 but a later catalogue published in 1864 lists the same piece merely as a 3" plate.15 An 1868 catalogue of the New England Glass Company's pressed wares does not list cup plates.16

As a final note on the demise of this custom, Caroline Cowles Richards, during a visit to New York City, writes in her diary under November 9, 1863: 17

They are very stylish and grand but I don't mind that. Aunt Emily is reserved and dignified but very kind. People do not pour their tea or coffee into their saucers any more to cool it, but drink it from the cup, and you must mind and not leave your teaspoon in your cup. I notice everything and am very particular.

This article was published in the Journal of Glass Studies, Vol. 13 (1971), 128–133.

1. William E. Mayhew & Co., invoices, November 25, 1826 to September 19, 1829. File Box 300, #50820, Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore.

2. Ibid., invoice of July 26, 1828. I am indebted to Kenneth M. Wilson for calling these to my attention.

3. Ruth Webb Lee, Sandwich Glass, Northborough, Massachusetts, 1947, 4th ed., pp. 104–105.

4. "Prices current of Glass Ware Manufacturcd by F. Plunket & Co. at their Glass Works, Wheeling, Va.,” Wheeling, October 12, 1837. The Corning Museum of Glass Collection.

5. Günther Schiedlausky, Tee, Kaflee, Schokolade, Munich, Prestel Verlag, 1961, Pls. 41, 47.

6. Rodris Roth, "Tea Drinking in 18th-century America: its Etiquette and Equipage," Washington, Smithsonian Institution, Bulletin 225, 1961, p. 82.

7. Louise Belden, "Table Settings of the Eighteenth Century," The Delaware Antiques Show, Wilmington, Delaware, 1966, p. 39.

8. Peter Kalm's Travels in North America, rev. from the original Swedish and ed. by A.B. Benson, New York, Dover Publications, 1966, Vol. 1, p. 189.

9. [James Boardman], America and the Americans by a Citizen of the World, London, printed for Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green, 1833, p. 19.

10. [Eliza Leslie], Lady's House-Book: A Manual of Domestic Economy, Philadelphia, 1840, p. 276.

11. Catherine E. Beecher, A Treatise on Domestic Economy, for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School, New York, 1845, pp. 144–145, 306, 308.

12. Idem, Domestic Receipt Book, New York, 1846, p. 246.

13. Robert Roberts, The House Servants Directory, Boston, 1828 (2nd ed.).

14. M'Kee and Brother, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Prices of Glass Ware Manufactured by M’Kee & Brother, Pittsburgh, W.S. Haven, [1859]. The Corning Museum of Glass Collection.

15. M'Kee and Brothers, Pittsburgh, Prices of Glass Ware Manufactured by M'Kee and Brothers, April, 1864. Collection of Lowell Innes.

16. Patterns of Pressed Glass Manufactured by the New England Glass Company [1868]. The Corning Museum of Glass. Lura Woodside Watkins, "Pressed Glass of the New England Glass Company," Journal of Glass Studies, XII, 1970, pp. 149–164, there erroneously dated 1869.

17. Caroline Cowles Richards, Village Life in America, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1913, p. 156.

Published on July 12, 2013