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    

Puiforcat Large Antique 1880s French Sterling Silver Tea Cup Rococo Style 10,2ozHandsome Large English Antique 1955 Solid Sterling Silver One Pint TankardFine Rare Early Dated English Antique 1868 Miniature Sterling Silver Tankard MugAntique Islamic Persian Hallmarked Solid Silver Cup Inscripted Lt.col.t.w.haig Fabulous Large Heavy English Antique 1862 Solid Sterling Silver One Pint TankardAn Exquisite English Antique Solid Sterling Silver Hallmarked Tankard 1869Sterling Silver Table Egg Cup With Egg Shaped Nutmeg Grater London 1802-03Handsome Large Heavy 182g English Antique 1927 Solid Sterling Silver Wine GobletAntique Silver Cup/saucer, Tasse à Chocolat Chaud Argent Massif, A Wagner, 1890Vintage Piana Sterling Silver Religious Catholic Chalice Goblet, 19.30 Troy OzAntique Georgian Silver Pint And Half Mug / Tankard London 1769 – John King 459gLovely Heavy English Antique 1940 Solid Sterling Silver Wine GobletHandsome Large Heavy 353g English Antique L1927 Sterling Silver One Pint TankardAntique 1880s French Guilloche Sterling Silver Coffee Cup Napoleon Iii StyleFine Antique 1890s Pair Of French Sterling Silver Coffee Cups Rococo Style Superb Antique Georgian Sterling Silver Half Pint Mug, 220 Grams, 1769, F Crump175.7g Antique Sterling Silver Tiffany & Co. Cup W/ Cupids Plaque (#701)Vtg. Lot Of Six X6 Gorham #272 Sterling Silver Water Goblets 1127 Grams Norsv!Superb Japanese Sterling Silver Sake Wine Decanter & Cup 106 Grams 3.7 Oz JapanFine Quality Hallamrked Solid Sterling Silver Gilt Washed Tot Cup, BoxedSet Of 4 Sterling Silver Mint Julep Cups Manchester 3759Rare Georgian Sterling Silver Tankard London 1825Antique Indian Solid Silver Animal Decorated Shot Cup/ Goblet/ H 8 Cm/ 54 GSuperb ~ Sterling Solid Silver ~ ½ Pint Tankard Cup ~ London 1895 By WhitehouseQuality Georgian Styie Baluster Solid Silver Pint Mug, 233 Grams, 800 GradePair Exquisite Vintage Japanese Solid Sterling Silver Sake Tea Cups 58 Gr 2 OzExquisite Antique Persian Islamic Isfahan Solid Silver Tumbler Beaker Cups 56 GrA Fine Aspreys Of London C1900 Telescopic Silver Plated Stirrup Cup & CaseGeorgian Silver Tankard Hallmarked Thomas Whipman 17501931 Superb Solid Silver Baluster Pint Mug Tankard Unpersonalised 420g/13.50ozsJob Lot Vintage Silver Plate Items Teapot, Fruit Basket Cutlery Goblet Card Tray(#3) Antique Solid .925 Sterling Silver Baby Cup 52gGood Pair Of Solid Sterling Silver Goblets 1977/ H 13.4 Cm/ 344 GChinese Export Silver Tea Cup & Saucer My Collection Wonderful Antique 925 Hallmarked Sterling Silver Goblet TrophyFine Antique Islamic Solid Silver Telkari Filigree Zarf Cup Ottoman Turkish Antique Deities Decorated Indian Solid Silver Shot Cup/ Goblet/ H 7.6 Cm1552 Grams Magnificent Silver .900 Cup Persian Vase The Shahnameh By Ferdowsi Russian Silver 916°. Enameled. Vodka Cup.1958. (pp10)Rare Heavy 17th? Century Irish? Silver Two Handled Cup, Dublin? 1685-87. 21 Oz.Lot #172 Three Sterling Silver 141g Vtg Baby Cups Reed & Barton Rlb MonogrammedRare & Beautiful Solid Silver Crested George Ii Tankard William Grundy 1751Chester 1952 Solid Sterling Silver "just A Thimbleful" Shot Cup/ Beaker/h 5.2cm"8 Squadron 1930" Solid Sterling Silver Trophy Cup/ H 7.5 CmAntique Silver Mustard Pot Tankard Shape & Glass Liner William Hutton Circa 1890Pair Of Soild Silver Cup Holders + Wedgwood Coffee Cup & Saucers - 1934 W&h (2)Large 1930s Dutch Sterling Silver 833 Goblets Gerritsen & Van Kempen 367g Scrap?Antique Islamic Solid Silver Zarf Cup Ottoman Turkish Marked6 Antique Gorham Sterling Silver 955 Cordial Goblet Cups (124 Grams) Imperial Russian Silver 84 Zol. Vodka Cup.1896-1908. (oo223) Russian Silver 875°. Enameled. Vodka Cup.1946-1958. (pp46)Antique 1878 Solid Silver Stella Cricket Club Award Plaque For Trophy CupPs Co Sterling Silver Cup 140 GramsSilver Jubilee Queen Elizabeth The Second Sterling Silver GobletA Vintage Sterling Silver 'just A Thimble Full' Shot CupLovely Antique Army And Navy Co Op Silver Plated Egg Cup Holder And Spoons10 Sterling Silver Floral Design Cup Holders 900 Grams Not ScrapTiffany Sterling Goblets Art Nouveau Tulip Rare Solid Silver Serpent Handle Early Victorian Tankard Roberts & Belk 1848Antique Solid Silver Half Pint Tankard