Saturday, August 28, 2010

Simple Solutions From The Past

I used to run a museum, and recently they asked me to write something for their newsletter. It's been published now, so I figure I can re-run it here.


I still give tours.

It’s been three years since I returned to teaching, but there is just something about the place that stays with you. So every spring when the school tours rev up again, there I am with my stories and my white cotton gloves, ready to go through the museum again.

After you’ve led enough tours you end with a stack of favorite stories, moments and artifacts.

One of the objects I love most in the building is a small white china cup with pink markings. It doesn’t look like much from the outside – one more teacup in a world of teacups, just slightly out of place among the sturdier items on the table in the dining room of the Inn. It’s only when you look inside that you realize that there is anything out of the ordinary about it.

Inside there is a small ledge that runs across one side of the cup, with a gap right in the middle where the liquid can come through when you tilt the cup that direction. This is why it is called a “mustache cup” – so you can sport one of those glorious nineteenth-century mustaches that became immensely popular in the United States after the Mexican War in the 1840s and not have it filter your coffee or drip tea onto your cravat, or – worse – have the steam from your tea melt the wax holding your mustache in place.

Who knew drinking could get so complicated? Or so technologically demanding?

The mustache cup was invented in 1830 by an English potter named Harvey Adams who clearly had time on his hands. His cups caught on quickly, though, and soon potters across Europe were making the things. Eventually the idea came to the States, where most of the potters who made them put deceptive marks on them so people would think they were buying English china rather than American goods. Even back then, imports had a certain snob appeal.

They were still being made in the early 20th century, though the end of the Golden Age of the Mustache eventually relegated them to the dust-bin of history. By the time of the Great Mustache Revival of the 1970s and ‘80s, the mustache cup had long been forgotten.

This is a shame, really.

The mustache cup was an admirably simple solution to a concrete problem, and every time I show it to a new group of visitors they gasp. We often forget that the people who came before us were every bit as clever as we are and possibly more so, and the fact that we no longer use the solutions they came up with for problems we still have probably says more about us than it does about them.

I need a mustache cup.

1 comment:

Becky said...

A very interesting article!