Bertie Wooster went out of his way to grow one (much to the displeasure of Jeeves, his wise butler), Salvador Dali’s pointy concoction became as iconic as Mona Lisa’s smile, and who can forget Hitler’s hairy smudge on his upper lip, the “toothbrush” style according to moustache aficionados? The moustache maketh the man. So too, apparently, did it maketh a teacup invented in the 1830s by Harvey Adams of Longton, Stoke-on-Trent. This was the moustache cup that combined the Victorian taste for tea with the vogue for sprouting fashionable whiskers.
For connoisseurs of fine porcelain tea things, Stoke-on-Trent is a historic center of English ceramic production where the likes of Wedgwood, Spode, and Minton established their factories in the late eighteenth century. Invented in this hub of craftsmanship and innovation, the moustache cup might be seen as belonging to a hefty linage of pottery production. At first glance, it looks like any other teacup: a small, delicate porcelain bowl with a handle attached to it. Until one looks inside where a semi-circular porcelain ledge or guard appears to be suspended from the circular rim of the cup. A clever design meant to cushion the most swashbuckling of moustaches as the cup is tipped to sip hot tea, the ledge often mimics the graphic contours of a moustache just in case one misses its intended purpose. A subtle nudge, if you will, to the whiskered man that he should avail of this well-placed cradle to prevent his prized hairy upper lip from making contact with the steam exuding from his cuppa tea, or worse still, from dipping into the hot brew itself, scenarios that could be physically painful and potentially embarrassing (especially when trying to impress a paramour).
An artful accessory, the Victorian moustache was trimmed, combed, clipped, plumped, curled, waxed, and coaxed into sculpted shapes that could border on the dramatic. The “Handlebar” and the “Walrus” styles were particularly eye-catching, bestowing a sense of grandeur and gravitas upon the men who sported them. A well-groomed moustache signaled manliness and power, prompting even the British army to require its officers to grow their whiskers (some historians have gone so far as to suggest close links between growing a moustache and building an empire). Woe betide if a moustache failed to sprout or was accidentally removed, for its loss could instantly cast a dark cloud over even the most reasonable of men.
So Charles Dickens bemoaned that without the “glorious” moustache, “life would be a blank.” And the head office babu in Sukumar Ray’s brilliantly witty Abol Tabol, threw a tantrum when he discovered his whiskers were “stolen” (Ray’s son, the acclaimed film-maker Satyajit Ray, went on to include some splendid mustachioed characters in his movies.) Grooming manuals and etiquette guidebooks together with lotions, potions and pills that promised one’s whiskers would bristle in all their glory, ensured that the Victorian moustache was not to be taken lightly. Then there were handy gadgets like moustache combs, curlers, trainers, and protectors, to tame those errant hairs. Lest a moustache failed to grow properly, or in case you felt the need to indulge in “a little harmless masquerading” (as one Victorian advertisement put it), there was the option of attaching a false moustache to your face with a “wire attachment.” Science and innovation had clearly kept pace with whiskers.
Which brings me to the moustache cup, a unique invention in the history of porcelain teaware that also relied on the chemical concoctions of pomades and moustache wax, all of which were inextricably linked with the pleasures of drinking tea. A glossy, waxed moustache was precisely what the moustache cup was designed to protect and indeed, to sustain. Imagine a carefully tended “Handlebar” moustache dipping into a teacup, its meticulously curled tips steadily drooping as the wax that holds its shape melts in contact with heat and steam. Accidentally plunging one’s whiskers into hot tea ran the risk of a stained moustache. The ignominy attached to soiled or sloppy whiskers threatened a loss of face in more ways than one. “If a man wear the hair on his face which nature has given him, in the manner that nature distributes it, keeps it clean, and prevents its overgrowth, he cannot do wrong.” So reflected a Victorian etiquette manual devoted to such things as morals, politeness, conduct, and the essentials of moustache maintenance.
I first encountered the moustache cup, a few hundred to be precise, in a museum in Athens, Georgia, more than a decade ago. Amused and intrigued as I uncovered box after box of moustache cups nestled in their archival paper cocoons, this unique invention hidden in storage opened up a whole new world of tea drinking that revolved around men and manliness. How many tales of whiskers and male vanity were embedded in these cups? Who did they belong to before they ended up in the basement of a museum? Often bestowed upon male relatives by women, moustache cups were tokens of affection that signaled strong or growing bonds. As if to reflect the relationships in which they were enmeshed, they might be inscribed with such pithy sayings as “Love the Giver” and “Remember Me.” Newlyweds could avail of matching tea cups. As far as ornamentation goes, moustache cups were very much in tune with the stylish design preferences of the day. Ornate floral patterns (roses were especially popular), transfer printed designs, and Chinoiserie and Japanese-inspired decoration, all made their way onto their porcelain surfaces. Here was a striking combination of art and science embedded in tea utensils designed specifically for discreet gentlemen.
But the moustache cup that caught my attention unexpectedly and more recently, resides in Kolkata, in the collection of the world’s oldest and largest tea brokers, J. Thomas. This particular example of porcelain transferware is ornamented with images of East Indiamen, ships that shuttled tea and other Chinese luxuries between China, India, and Britain. By the middle of the nineteenth century, ship building technologies had advanced considerably and the speedy tea “clipper” was born, giving rise to celebrity ships like Fiery Cross and Ariel that raced across the high seas, competing with each other to reach their precious cargos, the first seasonal crop of tea, to London. One of the few commodities that could be carried at high speed across great distances, tea, especially the fresh sort, fetched high prices once the clippers reached London. To be more specific, the first ship home from China could command a premium of at least 10 percent for her cargo. Clearly, tea races were serious business. The most thrilling of these was undoubtedly the Great Tea Race of 1866 that was widely reported in the British press thanks to its nail-biting, close finish. Three tea clippers, Taeping, Ariel, and Serica left China on the same high tide and reached London 99 days later, after sailing across nearly 16,000 miles of ocean and sea. Taeping docked only some 20 odd minutes ahead of Ariel, followed by Serica. Fiery Cross and Taitsing arrived a few days later. So close was the finish that the prize was shared by Taeping and Ariel. By the time the Suez Canal was opened in 1869, the thrill of oceanic tea races had come to an end. And it is this multi-pronged history of sailing vessels, so vital to the history of tea, that lies buried in the moustache cup in the Kolkata headquarters of J. Thomas.
As my eye glides over its contours, I imagine the ship’s image inside the cup slowly revealing itself as a whiskered gentleman sips his tea, his moustache still intact. At some point, when the tea diminishes to a certain level, a discerning viewer might spot the ship “sailing” across the liquid brew, a suitable homage to the maritime journeys that ushered the beverage into drawings rooms, gardens, and parlors. An accidental shake of the hand and a veritable storm in a teacup could just as easily ensue. The visual possibilities were as dramatic as they were entertaining.
All this makes me wonder about how the moustache cup embodies so many histories—of technology, art, taste, fashion, gentlemanliness, and the aesthetics of drinking tea. It even produced new types of deportment and self-presentation.
A few weeks ago, these thoughts resurfaced when I was in London, the city of the mustachioed Hipster, that modern day dandy who has singlehandedly carried forward the Victorian vogue for fashionable whiskers into our times. Might he signal the revival of the moustache cup? The only way to answer this question was to seek out a café known to appeal to the Hipster crowd. Feeling a bit like a spy, I made my way to one such venue in east London where much to my delight, a “gloriously” whiskered hip young thing was sipping his brew. Needless to say, it was impossible to ascertain if he was drinking tea or coffee. “Take a selfie,” urged one of my co-conspirator friends who had accompanied me on this jaunt, in the best espionage-worthy whisper she could muster. “We can all pose and the Hipster and his cup will be captured behind us in the picture.” The plan failed. But I left the café with a renewed appreciation for the moustache cup, and the mustachioed pride and glory it managed to nourish over so many decades.
In an age when chai latte can be swapped for café latte, and when the uniform and somewhat drab china cup leaves very little to the imagination, a small hidden ledge still stands out. A slender cradle that forever changed the fate of a moustache in a teacup.
Featured banner: Moustache cup from the collection of J Thomas & Co Pvt Ltd