Sunday, February 24, 2013

So, What's This About Coffee "Cans," Reggie?

Not too long ago, Dear Reader, I published a post about an early-nineteenth century gilt-decorated porcelain saucer that I described as being part of a coffee service.  In it, I said that we drink our coffee at Darlington House from what are correctly-termed "cans" and not "cups."  A number of my readers wrote to me and asked me to explain what I meant by that.  One or two even wondered, incredulously, did I mean we drink our coffee from the metal cans that coffee is sold in?

No, not at all, Dear Reader.  We do not drink our coffee from metal cans.  The "cans" I am referring to from which we drink our coffee are can-shaped cups, as shown in the following photograph:

The early-nineteenth century gilt-decorated
coffee service that started it all . . .

Can-shaped cups were the preferred form used in Western Europe for drinking coffee in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, at least among elegant people who could afford such things.

. . . this is a coffee can and not a coffee cup!

As many of us know (or at least those of us who have spent time looking into such matters know), the consumption of coffee as a beverage originated in Ethiopia in around 800 A.D., spread to Arabia around 1000 A.D., and then into Venice via Turkey in the early 1600s.  Once it arrived in Europe, the consumption of coffee quickly spread like wildfire into Holland, France, England, and ultimately America.  

A 1668 illustration showing a contemporary London coffee house
Photograph: Lordprice Collection/Alamy
Image courtesy of the Telegraph UK

By the 1700s coffee production had begun in the New World, first by the French on the island of Martinique and then in Brazil.  It was in Brazil that favorable growing conditions and industriousness soon began to produce the mammoth harvests that transformed coffee drinking from an indulgence of the privileged elite into the everyday drink of the average man.

An early-nineteenth century  depiction of a South American coffee harvest
Image courtesy of Coffee General

Not surprisingly, a complicated and (initially) codified system for drinking coffee emerged as the beverage gained popularity, and then ultimately eclipsed tea as the preferred drink of stimulation.  Craftsmen produced pots and cups that were designed expressly for holding coffee, and which are (and remain) readily distinguishable from those designed to hold tea.

An English mid-eighteenth century tea bowl and saucer

The first European-made tea cups were modeled on those produced in and imported from China, as seen in the bowl and saucer shown in the preceding photograph.  Such cups are correctly termed tea "bowls," because that is what they are—diminutive bowls.  Soon, though, tea bowls began to sprout handles to protect the fingers of the person(s) consuming tea from them from being scalded.

An early-nineteenth century English tea cup and saucer

When coffee entered upon the scene in Western Europe and the Americas it was initially drunk from the same bowls and cups as was tea.  Soon thereafter, however, a new form of cup was invented for the consumption of coffee.

The service comes with both tea cups and coffee cans!

It was shaped like a small canister, or a miniature version of the mugs used at the time to consume water and beer, and it is the form that is correctly known as a coffee can.  Over time such coffee cans lost their associated saucers and have since evolved into what is today known as a coffee mug, the popular vessel used for drinking coffee that can be found in nearly every kitchen cabinet today the world over, including ours at Darlington House.

A trio of English Spode coffee mugs from the 1980s
These are our "every day" coffee mugs at Darlington House

And with that, Dear Reader, I both conclude my little history lesson of the vessels used in the consumption of coffee and initiate a new series here on Reggie Darling—the Coffee Can of the Week!

I hope you like it . . .

All photographs (except where noted) are of cans, cups, bowls, and mugs in our collection at Darlington House, and were taken by Boy Fenwick

52 comments:

  1. Well, now that you've explained all that, Reggie, readers will most certainly want to know WHAT coffee you put in your cans? You can see where this is all heading...

    April

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    1. Thanks April, Lately i've been buying Starbucks blonde, and liking it well enough. I usually buy my coffee at Grace's Marketplace on Third Avenue on the UES, where I most often choose the house's tasty breakfast blend, and where they grind it for you. BTW, I long ago dispensed with buying coffee beans and get the stuff either ground at the store, or buy it in preground bags (or cans!). Grinding coffee beans is more bother than I care for in the morning! Reggie

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    2. Oh Reggie! in Sydney Starbucks is considered very non U

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    3. Dear smr -- really? Has Dunkin' Donuts coffee made it to your side of the globe? One (speaking personally) doesn't go into a Starbucks or drink their horrid chai-pumpkin-whipped cream-nougat calorie bombs. And I didn't realise it was a "U" thing at all! However, on does (or at least has) buy (bought) their coffee in bags at the grocer, which is sufficiently "U" for Reggie's humble, non-U circumstances... RD

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  2. Hello Reggie, Was it the habit of early coffee drinkers to drink from the saucers, or was it drunk directly from the cans?

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    1. Hello Parnassas, please see Blue's comment below...

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  3. Reggie, a beautiful coffee can – just exquisite!

    Parnassus, my grandfather, born in the 19th century and who still spoke with "thee" and " thou" as part of his regional dialect, drank his tea as did many of his generation from his saucer. I was told long ago tea and coffee were drunk in this way when first introduced – witness the deep-sided saucers. Something I'd forgotten until I read Reggie's post was that the modern development in tea drinking for him was the "pint pot" (Imperial 20oz pint) for men and a "gill pot" (half-pint) for women. They eventually developed into the mug we know today.

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    1. Hello Blue, Thank you for that fascinating and informative bit of cultural history. It is much appreciated! Reggie

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  4. As usual dahhling Reggie, your post about the history of porcelains are always my favorite. Great post.

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    1. Thank you HRH -- as are mine of the posts you write about the doings and carryings on in the Garden. Won't you please resume them? Reggie

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  5. Hmm I wonder where the word can came from? Tins containers for tea and other foods but the word can I shall google the term.

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  6. I was one of the readers who posed the can question. This was what I envisioned.
    I have an antique set (partial) of cans and smaller cans, both with saucers. They are English and I have always assumed one for tea and one coffee, but which? Do you know?

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    1. Dear Kerry -- at the end of the day, the designated use of a vessel is arbitrary, don't you think? I suspect, in your case (and this is cimplete conjecture here) that the larger can is meant for coffee drinking during the day and the smaller for a demi tasse at night... Reggie

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  7. I NEED A CAN NOW!Where do you suggest I look for an elegant one?!!

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    1. Dearest La Contessa -- I have found most of the cans we have (and that I shall be featuring) individually at group shoppes and antiques stores, typically found in a case with other "stuff." An individual, pretty can looks quite sweet holding a spring posey, and years ago when I still smoked was the perfect container for a rash of cigarettes (stay tuned -- more on that later). Reggie

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  8. By mug, we must assume you really meant beaker.

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    1. Hello Anon -- I don't believe so, please see Blue's definition below...

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    2. Not according to our Hyacinth . . . .

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  9. Anonymous, herewith from Oxford English Dictionary

    Origin:

    early 16th century (originally Scots and northern English, denoting an earthenware bowl): probably of Scandinavian origin; compare with Norwegian mugge, Swedish mugg 'pitcher with a handle'

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    1. Thank you, Sir, for clearing that one up! Much obliged (as always). Yours, Reggie

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  10. As to be expected, another informative post, Reggie. While I drink coffee from a can as well, mine are not as chic as those from which you consume. However, my Dunkin Donuts tastes splendid in whatever vessel I choose. As to china, I definitely prefer the can shape over the bowl. Now off to brew a can of my own.

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    1. Thanks Anon -- I used to buy the DD bagged coffee from time to time at my local supermarket, as I had done some work with the company years ago at the time of its LBO. I was recently informed by Boy that I was to stop buying it, as he didn't care for it and preferred a higher quality coffee. I thought he was being snooty, but went along with it (in the interest ofmarital harmony). Turns out he was right, and I have been enjoying the better quality coffee I've been buying (exclusively now) since then. RD

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  11. Very fun and informative! Thank you-

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  12. Anonymous at 9:04 might have been referring to the 1990s British TV comedy "Keeping Up Appearances" where Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced BOO kay) would remark that her bone-idle brother in-law Onslow will take his coffee or tea in a beaker, which is what we call a mug.

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    1. Dear TDC -- thank you for that bit of information. I do remember that comedy, which I used to watch every now and then (I particularly liked the lowbrow in-laws. Interesting calling a mug a beaker. On his side of the pond the former most often is used to refer to a fluid measuring container used in a science lab. Reggie

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  13. Oh, Reggie....
    By the time I'd passed my orals (including certificiation in French fluency)I'd spent years reading Foucault, Derridas, and every French deconstructionist-theory critic imaginable (there were more of them, at that time, than a sane, healthy, & happy person should care to know about).

    That said?....

    I'd never actually BEEN to France or, for that matter, known an actual French-person.

    Predictably enough (in a world characterized by predictable ironies)I ended up marrying a Frenchman, and I went to France, for the first time, in 2003 (for his brother's enormous wedding in Tours).

    Among all the surprises and delights and wonders of that first trip?....the one I most distinctly remember came that first moring, when his parents and we sat down for breakfast. I should emphasize that his parents are retired...a former professor of 17th century literature and a physicist....all in all, a perfect example of quite-comnfortably situated, haute-bourgeoisie with more than plenty of connections/inter-marriages with folks-with-titles (my in-laws have got one of their own, which they "use" about as often I would use a pair of stilleto shoes...which is to say, never...).

    The big surprise was sitting around the breakfast table, in tht elegant house, as everyone drank his or her coffee out of what, in America, would be considered breakfast-cereal bowls.

    I've grown used to this...and happen to like the custom, even as this house fills up with all-too-many of the French grandmothers' unused, Limoges Demitasse cups (and entirely different creature, meant for an entirely different purpose at the opposite end of anyone's day).

    Robert Arbor (he started and owns the Le Gamin restaurants) introduced the "coffee bowl" to New Yorkers. you can buy coffee bowls (with "Le Gamin" and its rooster logo stamped on the outside) at any of his restaurants. apparently, the man has made many converts.

    this is far too long a response......suffice it to say that, as someone who for ten years has referred to my "french famly" and my "American family", I love/admire/enjoy the French approach to drinking coffee.....which is in utter contrast to the American tradition (since 1960 or so) of simply making an enormous, ill-brewed (remember the percolators that were in every office for a too-long time?) "pot" of coffee....and swilling it down, all day-long....

    thanks for the evocative posting....

    David Terry
    www.davidterryart.com

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    1. Hello David Terry,
      Thank you for this thoughtful and lengthy comment. I am familiar with Le Gamin and its bowls, as well as the French practice of consuming their morning coffee from such vessels, with lots of (heated) milk. I'm going to Paris on holiday in two weeks and I shall be interested to see if such bowls appear at breakfast where I am staying. RD

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  14. Dear Reggie,

    At a local thrift shop I once found a perfect set of four coffee cans and saucers--for $5.00! Unmarked, with apple-green and black sprigged trim and pink luster bands, they were clearly English porcelain from the early 1800s. I think it's worth noting that coffee cans have a very clean, modern look which can lead to confusion with later demitasse cups. If I hadn't noticed the deep saucers, "broken ear" handles, and delicate hand-enameling, I might have walked past my beautiful little cans, and missed an unusual bargain!

    C.

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    1. Dear C: Now, that is a score! Lucky you! RD

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  15. Oh Reggie, your gilded coffee cans are beautiful, and Boy did an outstanding job catching their brilliance in the first photograph. This essay was so much fun to read, and so very informative. Thank you.

    My eyes melted on viewing the images of your bat-printed wares. I have a number of pieces myself, and always marvel at how much detail is packed into their decorative images. My very favorite tea bowls, sans handles, are bat-printed with images in the style of the Regency painter Adam Buck. I was out of my mind when I spotted a set of six, with their corresponding saucers, and had to have them.

    I'm happy to read this is the first of a new series of posts on coffee cans, and I wait, with baited breath, for more.

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    1. Dear LizaE: Thank you, do stay tuned, as I shall be featuring a number of transfer ware coffee cans with delightful Regency scenes upon them. I hope you'll like them! Reggie

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  16. I can't stop laughing thinking of you and Boy drinking your morning coffee from Starbucks cans!

    Blue finally solved the mystery for me as to why those saucers were so deep. Makes all the sense.

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    1. Dear One: Thank Goodness for Blue coming to the rescue. Such a font of knowledge he is! Reggie

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  17. Dear Reggie - How appropriate that I was drinking a mug of coffee as I read your posting. Now, though, I will be aware of — and on the lookout for — coffee cans, which are so much more elegant than mugs, anyway.

    By the way, those are great illustrations you chose for your posting!

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  18. Reggie, this was excellent! I love coffee cans, and I never knew the history. I love the fact that you are going to do a series on this. Thank you for the time and effort you put into your posts.

    Elizabeth

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  19. Reggie, I forgot to ask you about the pattern of your Spode mug that is characterized by the hunting scene. Would you mind sharing the name of that patttern?

    Thank you.

    Elizabeth

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    1. Hello Elizabeth: Thank you for both of your comments. The pattern is "The Hunt" and it features any number of scenes, including "Taking the Lead," as shown on the coffee mug, "First Over," "Going to Halloa," "The Meet," and my personal favorite "Drawing the Dingle." I found a large set of it at a store on the UES many years ago, drastically reduced in price, and bought as much of it as I could manage. We use it as one of our "everday" sets of china at Darlington House. I doubt it is still in production, but I would imagine it can be found on eBay and at Replacements, Ltd. Reggie

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    2. Thank you, Reggie. I'll make a note of that. It's quite handsome as are the other "cans".

      E.

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  20. As a pottery student with a few classes under my belt, I can tell you throwing a cylinder on a potter's wheel is the basic step once finding your center---- drawing the clay up to form a cylinder for a trained potter is easy and fast. I can only guess that once mastered this shape was quickly mass produced to fill the consuming public's desire for a vessel for their java. there are many You tube videos on throwing clay on a potters wheel. I am sure your readers may find them fascinating

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  21. Oh an excellent video instructor is Simon Leach. Perhaps RD you may build a potter's studio out behind Darlington House if you are enchanted with this excellent hobby

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    1. Dear Anon: Reggie has tried his hand at the potter's wheel and concluded that, much like the piano, he has no aptitude for it. Not only that, but the muddy wetness of it makes him squeamish and unattractively panty-waistish. He happily leaves the joys of potting to those that find it a more rewarding pastime than he. RD

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  22. RD,

    You are making my "porcelainmania" flair up!

    Dean

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  23. Everything is better with early 19th c porcelain. I makes my coffee taste better in the morning and brightens my day... lovely pieces you have.

    PS. I look forward to you sharing your Grace encounter... sounds like a good story brewing!

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    1. Dear LPR: Thank you. I often wonder why it is that people tolerate ugly coffee mugs (or anything else for that matter). The humblest repast is always more delicious and satisfying to consume when served from a handsome vessel. Reggie

      And, by the way, she was charming!

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  24. Dearest Reggie, I had never heard of the term "coffee can". In my mind it was a Folgers Can. The word "Can" does not conjure nice thoughts, but then I saw what you were talking about and was pleasantly surprised! How lovely. I hate - HATE - mugs! That said, I do have some pretty english ones, that I use and enjoy! But most of the time, when I open my cupboard and reach in there at 04:30 am, I always bring out the hideous Las Vegas mug that says "Chris" on it. I curse the mug "I thought I threw you away!!" "and my name isn't Chris"!! I'll keep my eyes peeled for a "can" to save me.

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    1. Dear Not-Chris: Get rid of that mug immediately -- throw it out and buy yourself a handsome coffee mug to use that will give you pleasure every time that you do. We only go 'round once, my friend, so make the best (or better) of it, please! Reggie

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  25. This explains my Fitz & Floyd wedding china - which came with only "cans" instead of cups, although at the time I didn't know why the pattern I had picked was accompanied by what I thought were unusually styled tea cups. Now I know. Thanks for this fun bit of info 25 years later.

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    1. Dear MNH: By the time you selected your wedding china the distinguishment between cups or cans used to consume tea or coffee had long since faded away, and the form chosen became a matter of taste (no pun intended). Richard Ginori also used to make coffee-can shaped cups and saucers that were quite lovely. However, the point that you make is accurate -- the cups in your wedding pattern from F&F were likely inspired by these earlier designs. Thank you, Reggie

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  26. Dear Reggie,

    Thank you for this educational post. When I was first introduced to Fitz & Floyd in the mid-seventies, I noticed that all of their cups were of this "can" shape with which I was not familiar. I was unaware of the history of this design until reading your post. I have several of the F&F cans and appreciate them more since learning about them. They are all very beautiful!
    Thank you again.

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    1. Hello JN: What? Another F&F comment, right after MNH's? What a delicious coincidence (sp)? Please see MNH's comment above, and my response to it. RD

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  27. Oh I do like the 18th C English tea bowl and saucer, well it's pink

    Thanks for such an informative post, though I did have a laugh about drinking from coffee cans, the cold metal kind that is... though I'm certainly not immune from making such mistakes myself.

    I am known for gawping after all

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    1. Dear smr -- thank you, the tea bowl and saucer really are very pretty, and a personal favorite. If you like pink, do please stay tuned to my Coffee Can of the Week series as I will be featuring a pair of pink luster cans that are breath-takingly lovely! Reggie

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