Modern mugs, which are most commonly used for coffee or tea, likely evolved from beer steins. Larger than tea cups, mugs are generally defined as handled beverage containers made out of stoneware, earthenware, porcelain, or glass, serving approximately 12 ounces. Mugs are not usually included in formal china settings, whose tea or coffee cups are traditionally daintier. Besides their size, mugs are differentiated from tea cups by their insulating properties; they have thick walls and flat bottoms.

The earliest drinking mugs date to the Stone Age and were carved out of bone. Ancient Greek ceramists attached handles to their drinking vessels, while early metalworking techniques allowed artisans to create bronze, silver, or even gold cups with handles for hot beverages. Wood was also used for ancient drinking mugs, but for obvious reasons, few examples have survived.

Since ancient Egypt, jugs have been made into the shape of human figurines—similar objects have also been found in English archaeological digs from Roman to Medieval times. Modern-day “character jugs” came about in the 18th-century in the form of “Toby jugs,” first made by Ralph Wood and his fellow Staffordshire potters. This seated British character, known as Toby, had a hat with three corners that could each form a separate spout for drinking.

John Doulton at Royal Doulton’s Lambeth art pottery took this concept and made his own line of political Toby jugs in the 1800s. In the 1930s, Doulton chief designer Charles J. Noke revived the idea of character jugs, but instead of showing the full figure, Noke's only featured the character's head and shoulders, like a handled bust. By the 1950s, Doultons’ character jugs included Dickens and Shakespeare characters, legends like Rip Van Winkle and Johnny Appleseed, and caricatures of Native Americans.

From the 14th century to 19th century, when mugs were used to serve beer in taverns all over Germany, England, and later the United States, clever potters came up with a way to use mugs for drinking games and betting. Puzzle mugs feature a trick that prevents the vessel from operating in the usual manner. Some have holes in the rim so that the only way to drink from them is through a secret opening in the handle. “Fuddling cups” are made of three mugs attached by their handles and each mug's walls—if the contents are not sipped in a particular sequence, the liquor will drain out. And a “Pythagorean cup” has a small syphon hidden in a center rod that prevents the mug from being filled any higher than the height of the rod.

The earliest reference to coffee dates to 10th century Ethiopia. From there, it spread to the Middle East, then to Italy in the 16th century, after which it was brought to the rest of Europe and the United States. In the mid-17th century, cafes and coffeehouses began to open around Europe.

In the United States, many credit the Boston Tea Party as the reason coffee became the favored hot drink of America over tea. That winter night in 1773, American colonists disgui...

Mochaware, a type of earthenware with dendritic (tree-like) slip patterns, was made in England starting around 1770. While the slip was still wet, the tree-like patterns were created by dropping bits of tobacco infusion, or even urine, on the pot. These pieces were made at British potteries in Staffordshire and Yorkshire to be exported to America. The ware was cheap, designed for lower- or middle-class households.

In the early 1800s, quart-size creamware, mochaware, and pearlware mugs were used in pubs and homes all over the northeastern United States. These mugs featured a wide array of geometric and abstract plant-like patterns. Nineteenth century pubs often sold beer in mochaware mugs.

Around the same time, mugs were also used for shaving, as most homes didn’t have hot water from the tap. These shaving mugs, also called scuttle, often can be distinguished from drinking mugs thanks to their brush rests.

After the turn-of-the-century craze for novelty advertisements took off, drinking mugs became an obvious place to advertise one’s wares. Some advertising or novelty mugs are thrown or carved into unusual shapes, but more often than not, the image is simply printed on the mug. Celebrated mid-century dinnerware company Fiesta even put out a line of advertising mugs called Sit 'n Sip. Today, common means for transferring images to coffee mugs include screenprinting, photographic emulsion, and decals.

In 1930s America, bars and restaurants inspired by a romanticized ideal of Polynesian culture produced so-called Tiki mugs, which were similar to Toby jugs, except that their inspiration came from Polynesian human figures called Tiki. Hugely popular in the '50s and '60s, these Tiki mugs usually contained fruity tropical-themed cocktails.

Glassware mugs were also prevalent in the middle of the 20th century. In the 1940s, Anchor Hocking's heat-resistant Fire-King line was popular for coffee-mug sets, particularly in the opalescent sea green Jadeite color.

Even the respected British pottery giant Wedgwood got into the coffee-mug act with its Queen’s ware line, which featured porcelain mugs commemorating major events in the royal world, including the Coronations of Edward VIII, George VI, and Queen Elizabeth II; the Festival of Britain; and the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

The Bowes Museum: Ceramics

The Bowes Museum: Ceramics

This gallery showcases highlights from the 5,000 items in the museum's ceramics collection dating from 1500-1900. I… [read review or visit site]

Feeding America

Feeding America

This archive of 76 influential American cookbooks from the late 1700s to early 1900s, assembled by the Michigan St… [read review or visit site]

Ceramics at The V&A

Ceramics at The V&A

A great reference on ceramics from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Learn about different ceramics techniques and st… [read review or visit site]

Tupper Diva

Tupper Diva

Kristian McManus’ fresh, airtight collection of Tupperware catalogs and related ephemera from the 1950s and 6… [read review or visit site]



Most watched eBay auctions    

Death Wish Coffee Mug St. Patrick's Day 2017 Rare! St. Patty's Paddy'sFkow Ah Fire King Blue Turquoise Delphite D Handle Used Mugs 4x LotVintage Green Jadeite Restaurant Ware Fire King Mug C Handled And 3 BowlsVintage Set Of 3 Jadeite Fire King "d Handle" Coffee Cups-mugsVintage Fire-king Oven Ware Jadite Yum Burger Hamburger Restaurant Coffee Mug Fire King Anchor Hocking Mug Cup Saucer Jadeite Ivory DemitasseFour Vintage Blue Fire-king Coffee MugsDeath Wish Coffee 2014 Valhalla Java Mug3 1940s 50s Fire-king Oven Ware Glass D Handle Jadite Jadeite Mugs All ExcellentLot Of 3 Jadeite Fireking Small Restaurant Mug C Handle 1950s Chinese Export Porcelain Tea Cup Mug Tankard 19th Antique Blue And White Nanking4 Vintage Fire-king Jadeite Green Coffee Mugs - D Handle - Rare! 1950s Diner2 Fireking Jadite Restaurant Ware Mugs With D HandleFire King Set Of 12 Vintage Blue Kimberly Coffee Mugs Anchor Hocking Mint Nos12 Fire King *mcdonald's Good Morning * Stacking Mugs* Lot OfVintage Taco Time Mexican Chain Fire King Anchor Hawking Advertising Coffee MugRae Dunn Cocoa MugRare Anchor Hocking Fire King Mug Strawberry Shortcake Orange Blossom MarmaladeDeath Wish Coffee Valhalla Java Odinforce Shot Glass Deneen Pottery Not MugFire King Anchor Hocking Mug Cup Mcdonald's4 Royal Albert Old Country Roses Beaker Coffee Mugs Original 1962-73 Vgc1 Mid Century Modern Fire King Jadeite C Handled Coffee MugVintage Wedgwood Rare Keith Murray Commemorate Tankard Mug Queen Elizabeth 1937Pair Of Fire King D Handle Jadeite Jadite Green Cafe Coffee Mug Cup Oven WareDeath Wish Coffee MugDeath Wish Coffee Mug Mad Max #137 Saratoga Traders Christmas Mug 20168 Blue Vintage Anchor Hocking Fire King Soda Mugs Cups Rare Royal Doulton Toby Count Dracula D7053 Character Mug 7 1/2" ExcellentVintage Fire King Restaurant Ware Jadeite Extra Heavy C-handle Mugs X 2 Pyrex No. 1410 "corning Medical" Coffee Cup Mug, White Milk Glass - Orange PrintNiagara Falls Starbucks Coffee Mug Global Icon Collector SeriesLarge 1996 Royal Doulton Toby King Arthur D 7055 Character Mug 7 1/4" Ltd Ed Emma Bridgewater "fig Series" Mug / Coffee CupAh Fire King Amber Kimberly C Handle Mugs 2x Lot Rare Vintage Fire King Anchor Hocking Jadite D Handled Mug Cup Mint CondThree Vintage Fire King D-handle Jadite Jadeite Coffee Mugs CupsVintage Jadeite Fire King "c Handle" Coffee Cup-mug17 Vintage D Handle Fire King White Milk Glass Mugs Lot OfVintage Fire King Jadeite Coffee Mugs D Handle Jadite Green 2 Pc UsaNee Rae Dunn Beauty And Beast Coffee Tea MugsFire King Anchor Hocking Mug Cup Bp British Petroleum Gas OilFire King Anchor Hocking Mug Cup Burger Chef Burger Queen Many Happy Returns Royal Doulton Toby "the Snake Charmer" D6912 2023/2500 Character Mug 6 3/4 Coffee Mug Signed With Incised Log Cabin Pottery Mark, Guilford County, Nc C1930Villeroy & Boch 3 Botanica Veronica Coffee Mugs Luxembourg Htf Vintage Messinger's Shenango China Restaurant Ware Coffee MugVintage Milkman Flyer For Fire King Jadeite Hot Chocolate Mugs ~ Luick Dairy WiLarge 1990 Royal Doulton Toby The Wizard D 6862 Character Mug 7" Excellent4 Buffalo China Roycroft Coffee MugsVilleroy & Boch Botanica Mug Camellia Sinensis2 Fire King Glass Oven Ware Jadite Slim C Handle Hot Chocolate Coffee Mug CupsSaratoga Coffee Traders Death Wish Dark Gray Shot Glass Deneen Pottery Not MugLarge 1997 Royal Doulton Toby General Custer D 7079 Character Mug 7" Open Box - Coffee Cup Mug Heat Transfer Press Sublimation MachineAnchor Hocking Burger King Aren't You Hungry Promotional Advertising Coffee MugFire-king This Is A Burger King Town Stacking Advertising Coffee Mug Milk Glass Vintage Snoopy Fire King Coffee Mug I Think I'm Allergic To Morning 2015 Death Wish Coffee Red & Black Shot Glass Deneen Pottery Not Mug2015 Death Wish Coffee Gray & Black Shot Glass Deneen Pottery Not MugEmma Bridgewater, "egg & Feather", Mug / Coffee Cup By Mary Feddeu