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History Lesson: Stirrup Cups

Nov 28, 2012

by Jeni Sandberg

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

Jeni Sandberg is a dealer, appraiser and consultant in 20th century design. She has worked in museums, was a Senior Specialist at Christie’s, and also appears on WGBH’s Antiques Roadshow. She writes about fun objects on her blog. In this series, she will explore the history of decorative objects. Today’s subject: the animal-adorned historic cups integral to a good hunting party.

If you’re a fan of PBS’s Downton Abbey, you no doubt remember the episode in season 1 where the Earl of Grantham hosts a hunting party — the occasion where Lady Mary meets the handsome but ill-fated Mr. Pamuk. As guests gather on horseback to leave for the hunt, servants William and Thomas offer trays of punch and cake as refreshments. The punch is served to the riders in silver cups with what appear to be fox heads on the bottom, an appropriate motif for the event.

This type of specialized drinking vessel was called a stirrup cup. While the form had ancient Roman precedents, they were most popular throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries. This type of cup was often presented to a rider on horseback — while their feet were in the stirrups of the saddle — when they were departing or arriving home, often from the hunt. Since stirrup cups generally have no base, the presence of servants to hand the cup (sometimes on a specially fitted tray) to the drinker was necessary and the recipient was required to down the contents fairly quickly.

Thomaston Place Auction Galleries

Stirrup cups ranged from shot glass size to large, fist-sized cups. The beverage served in them was often a wine or spirit-based punch, watered down and spiced to taste. Alcohol was drunk by most on a daily basis, often at every meal, though drinking to excess was frowned upon. Still, puzzle jugs, toby mugs and other amusing cups were made to entertain those who imbibed.

Elaborate, detailed examples of stirrup cups were made in silver, but less expensive versions were available in ceramic, most often made in Staffordshire, England. “Staffordshire” has become a blanket term for the many types of ceramic wares produced in and around the town of Stoke-on-Trent from the 18th century to today. Manufacturers ranged from large-scale producers such as Wedgwood, Minton, Spode and Doulton, to small individual makers who utilized the same local materials to create their pieces.

Upcoming Legendary

19th century Staffordshire stirrup cup of a hound.

Staffordshire manufacturers produced a wide range of stirrup cups, most often in the form of the heads of animals related to the hunt. Foxes, dogs, rabbits and fish all found expression in the form of stirrup cups with the molding and glazes lending life-like character to each piece. Fanciful, grinning human heads can also be found, evoking the boozy high spirits of Bacchus and his Satyrs.  Political and erotic motifs were created, too  — no subject was off limits.

Christie’s

Group of Bulldog Staffordshire Stirrup Cups, 19th Century.

For more on antique drinking vessels, visit Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library’s exhibition Uncorked: Wine, Objects & Tradition on view until January 6, 2013 and online.

RESERVED - Nineteenth Century Staffordshire Stirrup Figural Fox Cup
RESERVED - Nineteenth Century Staffordshire Stirrup Figural Fox Cup
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Antique Bronze Deer Head Stirrup Cup Goblet
Antique Bronze Deer Head Stirrup Cup Goblet
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Nineteenth Century Staffordshire Stirrup Figural Hound Cup
Nineteenth Century Staffordshire Stirrup Figural Hound Cup
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54 comments

  • MegansMenagerie

    Megan from MegansMenagerie said 4 years ago

    These are so neat!

  • BambuEarth

    Amber from BambuEarth said 4 years ago

    These are so interesting!

  • ChilliPeppa

    ChilliPeppa from ChilliPeppa said 4 years ago

    Way better than Toby jugs!

  • AlisaDesign

    Alisa from AlisaDesign said 4 years ago

    Very cool!

  • SimpleJoysPaperie

    Lana Manis from SimpleJoysPaperie said 4 years ago

    How interesting! I has never heard of stirrup cups before this article. Thank you for the educational post!

  • LivingVintage

    LivingVintage from LivingVintage said 4 years ago

    Great info! I love the history behind an object, and try to research it whenever possible. Must be the ex art history major.

  • OuterKnits

    OuterKnits from OuterKnits said 4 years ago

    Awesome history!

  • ArigigiPixel

    Gina from ArigigiPixel said 4 years ago

    Very interesting story!

  • VintageLoot

    Jennifer Johnson from VintageLoot said 4 years ago

    Those are so cool! Never seen any. I want some for my next party :-)

  • mattyhandmadecrafts

    Matejka Max from NattyMatty said 4 years ago

    Great!

  • LittleWrenPottery

    Victoria Baker from LittleWrenPottery said 4 years ago

    Great pieces love the detailing on these, amazing that they survived for so long!

  • auntjanecan

    Jane Priser from JanePriserArts said 4 years ago

    WOW! Cool history and cups!

  • SoftForest

    Betty Heppner from SoftForest said 4 years ago

    Thanks so much for this informative post! I had heard of stirrup cups but not to this extant and certainly not the interesting shapes!

  • dantbunting

    dan bunting said 4 years ago

    TMBG cover a Walt Kelly song that involves a Stirrup Cup! http://youtu.be/zYGHpFC3TS4

  • dbabcock

    Deb Babcock from BlueSkyPotteryCO said 4 years ago

    Never heard of them before.....this was interesting and fun!

  • WalterSilva

    Walter Silva from WalterSilva said 4 years ago

    Interesting, never heard of this... so, so cool!

  • valeriephoto

    Valerie from valeriestitchery said 4 years ago

    Fascinating. I've never heard of this. But it seems totally impractical! Why not just have a regular cup on a pedestal? I mean, they're cool, but they could've been made standing up, and then the servants could carry a whole tray of them.

  • patspottery

    Pat Parker from PatsPottery said 4 years ago

    I would like to try and make one of those:>)

  • BicycleOcean

    BicycleOcean from BicycleOcean said 4 years ago

    How cool! I love the history lesson too!

  • MissHildebrandt

    Miss Hildebrandt from MissHildebrandt said 4 years ago

    They are darling! I've made a few in college of my own. People thought I was nuts but some of us cradle our cups never letting them down....especially the coffee ones...

  • VintageStarrBeads

    VintageStarrBeads from VintageStarrBeads said 4 years ago

    I love learning about curiosities!-R

  • CafePrimrose

    Amanda Gynther from CafePrimrose said 4 years ago

    such sweet dog faces!

  • EdelweissPost

    Patrick from EdelweissPost said 4 years ago

    This reminds me to start catching back up with Downton Abbey - my favorite show ~

  • DarkHorseStudio

    Jennifer Boyle from DarkHorseStudio said 4 years ago

    I've always loved the history of these items and am so glad to see a great article presented on them, especially when they're in such a niche market! Thanks!

  • bellasparty

    bellasparty from bellasparty said 4 years ago

    Cool items!

  • reginahodge

    Regina Hodge from Lifelooklens said 4 years ago

    Love these so much! Especially the fox. We're some animals more popular than others when these were first created? These are unique but the history is especially interesting!

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat from mazedasastoat said 4 years ago

    Back in my dim & distant youth I was friends with the son & daughter of the local hunt master & often helped handing round the stirrup cups at the meet. They were quite small, shaped like the heads of hounds & foxes & came in a special shaped tray to stand them in. They were filled with sherry, although several of the riders used to bring something a little stronger to add from a hip flask! After we'd collected them, we watched the hunt ride off then went home to do the washing up!

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat from mazedasastoat said 4 years ago

    By the way, you NEED someone to help the hunt riders to their drinks, otherwise you'd have to have REALLY tall tables, as they don't dismount! Also, the hunt meeting is a traveling affair & happens in different places each time, usually following a circuit, so people holding trays are the easiest way of getting everyone served.

  • dayslonggone

    Gwynne Collins from DaysLongGone said 4 years ago

    These are beautiful! Thanks so much for sharing this story!

  • BrianaEdelmanDesigns

    Briana from FoxburyAndCo said 4 years ago

    I collect stirrup cups, we drink out of them before we take off hunting on our horses in the morning....along with my flask filled with bourbon of course! What a great blog post. Cheers!

  • InnerWild

    Flora from InnerWild said 4 years ago

    Fascinating. Loving this history series. Thank you Jeni

  • pyewacket

    pyewacket said 4 years ago

    iss anyone making these? i have a couple of eighteenthcentury english stirrup cups and would be sooooo happy to have more- old or new. thanks, mary crowlell

  • 5gardenias

    kathi roussel from 5gardenias said 4 years ago

    what fabulously whimsical cups. i love the fact that they can't stand on their own and require the rider to drink up! quite the tradition! thanks for this charming history!

  • NestedYellow

    Anna Vasquez from NestedYellow said 4 years ago

    What a fun bit of history! I would love to see someone design and make a modern version incorporating our pets. Or even moose heads could be fun and quirky. They would definetly be a fun conversation piece at get togethers.

  • rarebeasts

    Brian McNamara from rarebeasts said 4 years ago

    I like the fish ones.

  • kgpaintings

    Kirsten Gilmore from PaintingsByKEGilmore said 4 years ago

    Thanks for sharing the history behind these. Although I like the designs, it bother me to have an object you need a servant to hold.

  • vinylclockwork

    Scott from vinylclockwork said 4 years ago

    Wolfs

  • Penelopeslinenloft

    Penelopeslinenloft from Penelopeslinenloft said 4 years ago

    How lovely to see more of these.. I have an 18th/19th century fox mask cup, almost identical to the redder one in the picture. Mine has rub marks on nose and ears from years of use. It is always a favourite with the grandchildren when they visit. Thank you so much for such an informative article.

  • shopgoodgrace

    Teresa from shopgoodgrace said 4 years ago

    Wow! Fascinating to hear the history on these -- I wouldn't have had a clue what they were.... Thanks for the expertise! :)

  • element5

    Miranda Wildman from MirandaWildmanArt said 4 years ago

    wonderful pieces of history and curiosity!

  • Gibsley

    Kirsty Smith from Gibsley said 4 years ago

    Hi Jeni Thanks for a greta article I didn't expect to find all this on Etsy. I wrote a blog post of my own earlier this year about a stirrup cup shaped as a potato! http://blog.frillipmoolog.co.uk/2012/05/potatoes-celebrities-and-ornament-in.html

  • FreakyPeas

    FreakyPeas from FreakyPeas said 4 years ago

    I love the history lessons I get on Etsy!

  • RomanceCatsAndWhimsy

    Darlene Jones from RomanceCatsAndWhimsy said 4 years ago

    What an interesting article -- I really enjoyed it. I've never seen these stirrup cups - thank you for the history on them - loved itl.

  • SavannahGuz

    Savannah Schroll Guz from SavannahGuzVintage said 4 years ago

    Fabulous post!! Thank you so much for all this great information--I didn't know about stirrup cups before!

  • RECCIEatETSY

    Clarice Booth from RECCIEatETSY said 4 years ago

    These are great pieces and I am glad to learn their history. I do not even drink and would love to find several of these under my tree. Blessings.

  • payMeNpeonies

    Shawna from CityGirlAntiques said 4 years ago

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge on antique stirrup cups! Who knew these little beauties had such a cool story!! "Cheers"

  • sweedishxbunnies

    Maria Turner from sweedishxbunnies said 4 years ago

    My father wouldlove these if they were deer!! haha :)cute

  • sandrostumpo

    Sandro Stumpo from GalleryDiModa said 4 years ago

    Would look interesting seeing people drink out of an animals head. I guess there are much stranger things. How about a monkey head cup where the ears are the handles- that one I would like haha.

  • HaveVintage

    Katie Holcomb from HaveVintage said 4 years ago

    fascinating! I love learning about pieces I've never heard, the history behind these is very cool.

  • kathatart

    Kathy from kathatart said 4 years ago

    Thank you. I Iearned something very interesting.

  • butikonline83

    Hendri . from butikonline83 said 4 years ago

    So cute!

  • Misspottery

    Melissa from MissPottery said 4 years ago

    Great article - I will have to go back and re-watch that Downton Abbey episode to see these cups in use. :-)

  • youngfolk1314

    Ribo Flavour from riboflavour said 3 years ago

    nice story!

  • anniekeith

    Annie Keith from AnniesArtPottery said 3 years ago

    This is a wonderful article. I love historical forms and many of my pieces are fashioned after forms I saw in London and Greece. I must try some of these stirrup cups. Thank you for the push toward more forms.

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