Antique Sterling Silver Cups and Goblets

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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Chicago Silver

Chicago Silver

Paul Somerson's incredible reference on handwrought metalwork from the American Arts and Crafts movement of the ear… [read review or visit site]

Silver Marks Encyclopedia

Silver Marks Encyclopedia

An extensive reference guide to silver marks, hallmarks, trademarks and maker's marks found on antique and vintage … [read review or visit site]

Silver at the Victoria and Albert

Silver at the Victoria and Albert

This is a great reference site on silver, courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum. You can view silver items acc… [read review or visit site]

The Gilbert Collection

The Gilbert Collection

The late Sir Arthur Gilbert's collection of European silver, gold, enamel, and other items is now housed at the Vic… [read review or visit site]

Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj

Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj

“Delight in Design: Indian Silver for the Raj” was the title of a 2008 exhibition at Columbia University’s Mi… [read review or visit site]

Scott Perkins is an enthusiastic evangelist for The Stieff Company, a significant Baltimore silversmith and maker o… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Most watched eBay auctions    

Nice Antique Chinese Set Of Enamel Gilt Silver Teapot And CupsRarec1805 John Mcmullin Philadelphia Pa American Coin Silver Ale Beaker Form CupRare C1830 Jehu & W L Ward Philadelphia American Coin Silver Ale Tankard Cup MugBeautiful Larger C1860 Gorham Co Coin Silver Repousse Wine Ale Tankard Cup MugLovely Antique Style Solid Silver Pint Tankard 1973 Sterling Silverware Ltd 322gVry Rare C1810 A & G Welles American Boston Coin Silver Wine Ale Tankard Cup MugVery Nice Dated 1877 Gorham Co Sterling Silver Ale Tankard Christening Cup MugFine Antique Russian Silver Cup HolderExcellent C1828 William Forbes New York American Coin Silver Ale Tankard CupVictorian Silver Pint Tankard, 1892, 246gmVintage Solid Sterling Silver Tankard / Cup Full Hallmark 1946 Monogrammed RlcNice Antique Solid Sterling Silver Pint Beer Mug/ Tankard 1913/ H 12 Cm1815 Sterling Silver Presentation Cup Coggeshall England 776 Grams, 24.95 OzQuality Heavy Solid Silver Ltd Edition Aurum York Gothic Minster Goblet 517 GramAntique Solid Silver Beaker / Cup Extending Telescopic By Sampson & MordenAurum Blackburn 1977 Medium Silver Goblet 294 Grams Gilt Interior Hector MillerVery Fine 19th Century Indo-persian Solid Silver Engraved Wine Goblet.Antique Solid Silver Gilt Lined 22cm Chalice Cup Goblet Wbj W & J Barnard 1894 Antique Sterling Silver Mint Julep Cup International Sterling 138.1 Grams P699Ornate Circa 1868 R&w Wilson Coin Silver Repousse Grape Designed Goblet Philada (7) Old Silver Russian Polish Judaica Kiddush Vodka Beaker Shot CupsReed Barton Sterling Silver 925 X210 Double Handled Child Baby Cup Original Box V.fine Pair 1922 Lee & Wigfull English Sterling Silver Brandy Wine Cups GobletsManchester Sterling Silver Mint Julep Cup No Monogram 3759 124.9 Grams Vintage Frank M Whiting Old Kentucky Sterling Mint Julep Cup 131.6 Grm ExcellentTwo Chinese Woshing Shanghai Silver Presentation Goblets With Bamboo & BirdsRobert Glover 1985 Medium Silver Goblet 265 Grams Gilt Interior With LidEarly! Antique 1919 Frank W Smith Sterling Silver Monogrammed Goblet Cup Nr YqzAntique Sterling Silver Signed Russian Beaker Vodka Cup Victorian C1880 Simpson Hall Miller Figural Silver Plate 6 Egg Cup Cruet SetAntique Art Nouveau Edwardian Solid Silver Cup - Gilded Interior - Floral ShapeAntique Tiffany Sterling Silver Toothpick Matchstick Holder Cup Candlestick BagAntique Mint Julep Cup Coin Silver Hudson & Dolfinger LouisvilleAntique Silver Plated Egg Cup Cruet By Martin, Hall & Co. C.1877-1897Very Nice Victorian Simpson Hall Miller Figural Silver Plate 4 Egg Cup Cruet Set8 Etched Vintage Silver Goblets Solid Silver Mug/cup (sarah Jane) B'ham 1956 By Charles GreenStunning Solid Silver Arts & Crafts Hand Hammered Tea Cup Circa 1947Caldwell Sterling Cup Philadelphia C1890 1-3Antique Royal Crown Derby Imari 2712 Coffee Cup/can Hm Silver Holder 1912 VgcVictorian Hunt Races 1865 Huge Silver Goblet 585 Grams Gilt Interior WilliamsVintage Solid Silver Tankard - Commemorative Royal Wedding 1981 Princess DianaGorham #272 Sterling Silver Water Or Wine Goblet - No Monograms - 188 GramsEarly Goergian Antique Solid Silver Cup 1729 London By John EckfordVintage Sterling Silver Tankard Mug MonogrammedPretty, Victorian Silver Christening Mug, 1893, 91gmAntique Silver Plated GobletAntique Sterling Silver Golf Trophy Cup Fishers Island Club 222 Grams "special"Fine Antique Indian Cow Horn Silver Plated Wine Cup Vessle India Raj PeriodGorham Sterling GobletsMappin Webb 1933 Medium Silver Lidded Trophy Cup 463 Grams With Lid Art DecoFine Victorian English Silver Tankard By Walter & John Barnard C.1880 Persian Silver Tea Set Cups Saucers Liners Persian Lion Amazing Large Hallmarked Antique Solid Silver Goblet Chalice Cup Very ElegantChinese Export Silver Cups Dragon & Pearl Lh90Mark J Scearce Presidential Sterling Silver Mint Julep Cup Lyndon B Johnson 6ozHallmarked Silver (christening) Tankard 1868 Lias & Son 95 Grms No MonogramA Superb Collection Of Vintage Silver Plated Trophy Cups K Vintage R Wallace Sterling Silver Over The Cup Tea Strainer No Mono #3221Antique Russia Imperial Russian Solid Silver 84 Tray & 6 Beaker Cups Set 380g