If you can think of a drink, there’s probably a sterling silver cup for it. Throughout history, silversmiths have made handsome silver wine goblets, sturdy silver beer tankards, ceremonial silver beakers, and, of course, sterling silver baby cups, a beloved and longstanding tradition.
Scandinavians are thought to have made the first sterling silver drinking vessels. They produced tall and slender silver beer steins in the late 1500s. The Germans started producing wider and squatter silver drinking tankards in the early 1600s. And one of the earliest examples of American silver is a tiny cup made by Robert Sanderson and John Hull in 1651.
English and German tankards from the mid-1600s look a lot like the designs we’re familiar with today. These vessels were wide and tapered outward at the top, with a skirted base at the bottom. Many were engraved, hammered, or molded with scenes from the Bible or Greek mythology. Other tankards saluted coronations, or were emblazoned with the seals of aristocratic or royal families. Simpler tankards were decorated in pastoral, floral, or other nature-based designs.
The sides of these cups were one place for these decorations, but the bases were often treated, too. Silversmiths had particular fun with the handles, which were fashioned into serpents or twisted vines. On tankards with lids, the thumb pieces were another important visual component. Some resembled the heads of lions or snakes; others depicted cherubs, masks, or faces.
The mug, a smaller and lidless version of the tankard, was another popular form. Many of us probably even have a silver mug-like cup that was given to our parents as a present not long after our birth. This tradition goes back to a time when tableware wasn’t mass-produced and a cup was a practical, sensible gift. Baby mugs in silver have an added layer of meaning as symbols of good luck and prosperity.
In general, mugs are more elegant than tankards. Those made in America in the 18th and 19th centuries commonly featured embossed patterns and scenes that complimented their floral or serpentine handles. Mugs often sat on a foot, giving them a much lighter look than their hulking tankard counterparts.
The cup is perhaps the most common drinking vessel; it descended from beakers, many of which were made out of silver. A beaker is essentially any cup that’s taller than it is wid...
Despite their simplicity, beakers have been made in an enormous number of styles. In Russia and Eastern Europe, engraved shot-glass-sized beakers were prized as must-haves for drinking vodka. Some were perfectly cylindrical, but most tapered out at the top. Other beakers swelled in the middle (think of the shape of a barrel) or were designed to stand on an embossed foot.
By the 20th century, craftsmen favored sterling silver for all sorts of home decor and furnishings, but its practical use for drinking vessels was less common. The silver vessels that were made tended to be highly ornamented in the Art Nouveau or Arts and Crafts style, and were meant for either limited or special personal use.
The beaker is a good example of this evolution. In the 19th century, affordable ceramic or glass beakers overtook sterling silver ones for everyday use. Thus, sterling silver beakers were either used as armatures, if you will, for elaborate decorations, or they were saved for special occasions and beverages.
One drink for which sterling silver still rules is the mint julep. A mint julep is a refreshing, bourbon-based concoction that’s popular in the American south, especially at the Kentucky Derby where it’s the official drink. Julep beakers are tall and generally cylindrical, and the metal keeps the drink cool in the hot southern sun. But an event like the Kentucky Derby is all about ceremony, which is why a lot of attention is paid to the engraved or embossed initials, family crests, or another sorts of monograms on Derby-day beakers.