What I Learned from a Vintage Teacup

 

So I inherited this pretty vintage teacup and saucer—a charming little set, evoking Old World elegance.

But what does this cup actually say? 

low res_chr teacup

As I do for everything that I am curious about, I first googled the cup’s description—and came up with nothing. So I conducted my own admittedly nonprofessional analysis!

The straightforward elements: 

This set, with no maker’s mark, came to me with other teacups and saucers, so I assume that it was for tea, obviously for seasonal use. The straight-walled cup makes it appear deeper than it is (height and diameter are almost the same), and presumably would keep the tea warmer for a longer time than would a shallow teacup.

When held up to a light, you can see the shadows of your fingers through the material, which probably means bone china (Noritake has a succinct explanation of china, bone china, and porcelain). The cup shape includes molded sets of scallop-like elements along the lower edge. In fact, when you tip the empty cup toward a light, you can more clearly see a lovely composition of flower-like elements between and below the scallop-like design.

cup motif

 

 

 

 

There are imperfections in the china itself, plus debris fell onto the cup before it was glazed or during the firing process. The cup’s handle features two flowers, and its decorative shape and small size would make holding it a challenge.

The combination of soft deep pink and the gold decoration add to the visual appeal. Multiple elements conjure the image of a long-ago time, so it is easy to assume that the scene depicted accurately represents an actual setting or a real time period.

However—

The very traditional script, a variant of an Old English-type font, uses an umlaut over the “y”—maybe a bit of foreign branding here, making the English words seem Germanic? The illustration includes a generic small village with a Russian-style church tower topped with a cross, so now the motifs have made this cup’s depiction less tied to a specific place.

The obvious symbolism:

The bearded medium-build man carries a lantern, hung on his arm, and has a pine tree slung over his shoulder. He walks on grass (no snow here), and, using a magnifying glass, it looks as though one of the lines of grass is actually a signature (perhaps of the artist). The man is lighting the top of his wooden staff as you would a candle, and the staff sends golden swirls and stars (light) to the village. One star that overlooks the entire scene has extra rays of light. The man’s garb is fur-cuffed, but lacking a robe; it seems to suggest something between Father Christmas and an early Santa Claus. But look past all this!!

Vs what else is there:

The gold gilding could be either stamped or painted, and it is not centered on what would be the front of the cup while drinking nor is it centered on the cup itself. Rather, the cup seems meant to be displayed so that the decorative handle is visible but toward the rear, sort of an artistic stance. Further, if a right-handed person drank from this cup, the top of the figure would show wear. Which suggests “display” rather than “use.”

So is this a teacup or is it a marketing device?

The pretty style catches your attention. But the seemingly historical representation is not so much historical as it is a reflection of what a “traditional” or an “old-fashioned” holiday ideally might look like or what we might wish it to be.

The cup’s ornate and diminutive handle perhaps romanticizes an earlier age, as single handles came into use in Europe in the late 1700s, requiring the drinker to hold the small handle with only the tips of their fingers and ensuring that they handled the delicate cups with care (Maldini 1012). Thus, we might unconsciously associate graceful living and etiquette with this teacup.

The mid-20th century brought modernism to teacup design, emphasizing bold and clean lines, stackability, and durability. If this teacup isn’t really all that old, it certainly does import you into an age before modernism and it invites you to believe that there really was a time when villages slept peacefully under the sparkling stars and a grandfatherly figure, carrying a simple staff and pine tree, signified peace.

And is this still done today? Duh!

And this brings me to wondering what our brains do when we see a mug or cup that depicts sentimental imagery. Studies have shown that holding a hot beverage can positively influence a person’s view of a stranger or situation (see my earlier post). When we look at a cup, do we envision its contents?

So is that somehow a winning marketing combination? That is, we see an idyllic scene that we want to believe can be real, and then we imagine that we are holding a warming beverage, and then our subconscious nudges us to think well of, or purchase, the cup??

Hmmm, just wondering here!

But no matter what, it has something to say!!

So we come back to “It’s more than tea” because it always is—whether the tea itself or how we brew it or what we drink it in or who we drink it with. Everything has meaning. Everything has a story. And because our choices both reflect and advance those meanings and stories, it is important to make the right ones.

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