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A Cup by Any Other Name: Collecting Teacups

by Jana L. Jopson

Years ago, in answer to a job interview question about the books currently residing on my reading table, I said that I was re-reading Norwood Pratt’s A Tea Lover’s Treasury, trying to absorb yet more of its richness the second time through. This led the interviewer to make polite inquiries about my interest in tea and he then shared a little story told him by a friend from the Emerald Isle. This friend said that his granny, when visiting the local pub, always paid the extra penny to have her tea served “proper” in a cup and saucer. Not a wealthy woman, this was nonetheless important to her.

The story has always stayed with me and I’ve thought of that woman on many occasions while sipping tea from a cup and saucer. It’s never the same as from a mug and I can’t quite tell you why, only that it is. I collect teacups and matching saucers and do so with an eye toward their beauty and functionality, not to collect a particular type or make of cup. I buy intuitively for pleasure rather than “by the book.”

Whatever it is that draws you to collect teacups, remember that not all handled cups with a matching saucer beneath them are teacups! There are coffee cup and saucers and chocolate cup and saucers - to mention two, both with handles. So how do you know you have a teacup? Dinnerware services up until the second half of this century typically included two sizes of cups and saucers - the larger ones with a wider rim for coffee and the smaller ones for tea. A set of ironstone that was my grandmother’s dating from the 1920s has both sizes. Chocolate cups typically have straighter sides than a teacup and include a matching lid, but if the lid is missing, the resulting cup and saucer may be marked “teacup” by its unsuspecting seller. Knowledgeable dealers who routinely buy and sell dinnerware and porcelain teacups and tea services will know their cups.

If you’re inclined to more of a purist approach to collecting, you may want to do your library research both before and after your antiquing forays. Educate yourself about the styles, makes, and period of cups to which you’re most drawn. Take paper and pen shopping with you to write down the pattern and maker’s name of cups you admire and want to learn more about. You may enjoy collecting cups of one color scheme - say, all pink - or colors that blend with a set of dishes you already have. I particularly enjoy collecting teacups from American dinnerware collections from approximately the 1930s through 50s, in colorful floral motifs. However, my all time favorites are the charming English teacups of old Spode china.

While I enjoy a fancier cup now and then for tea parties, most of my teacups have no gold decoration or ornate silhouettes. I look for a pleasing shape to the bowl, the rounder the better so as to cradle it with both hands in cold weather, and always a handle through which my finger can fit - nothing worse than a tiny, practically useless handle. Examine the saucer to be sure it is the mate of the cup. Sometimes a similar-looking saucer will be substituted if the original is missing. Visually inspect the cup carefully for any signs of repairs. Pay close attention to the places where the handle joins the body of the cup. Run your finger around the rim to check for chips and cracks. Do the same with the saucer. Be sure you have a saucer and not a butter plate posing as a saucer.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of collecting teacups is bringing home a real “find” and then researching more about it in guide books. Teacups with added sentimental value passed down to you from a family member or close friend add meaning to the research. Be sure to write down anything you already know about your cups. I wish I’d recorded where and when I acquired each of mine. My small display areas are spilling over with teacups and I say to my antiquing buddy, “The last thing I need is another teacup!” but if that exceptionally beautiful, splendid teacup catches my eye on a weekend foray, chances are it’s going home with me.

About the Author:

Combining a family gift for writing with her work in spiritual life coaching and information design, Jana Jopson enjoys writing on the pleasures of tea, the venerable camellia sinensis. An avid antiques mall browser, teacup and eclectic antiques collector, she particularly enjoys items that combine function and beauty. Visit Jana at


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