The Coffee Mug: A History

Coffee mugs may just be the most popular collectible item on earth. It could be due to their everyday design; their potential as a canvas for jokes, pithy sayings, personalized messages or simply visual (albeit constrained) art; or that they usually hold one of the world’s most popular beverages—coffee. It seems everyone owns at least one or two. But where did they come from? Who invented the classic design? And who owns the most?

Believe it or not, mugs go back many thousands of years—archaeologists found them carved out of bone as far back as the Stone Age (though it would be difficult to claim they were being used for coffee). In the first coffee shop, Kiva Han, which opened in Constantinople in 1475, wooden mugs were used. Eventually porcelain, invented in China around 600 A.D. (hence porcelain’s alternate moniker, “china” or “fine china”), and other ceramics became one of the preferred materials for mugs.

The mug’s big brush with the history books was in 1748, when Great Britain supposedly decided to ban coffee mugs (coffee along with it), which naturally led to skyrocketing prices for— and a black market trade in—coffee and coffee mugs.

World War II and The Victor Mug

What today’s coffee drinkers think of as the “classic” or “traditional” coffee mug came on the scene in 1945. It was a product of the Victor Insulator Company, the oldest insulator business in North America. The war overseas had a crucial effect on the design and eventual popularity of the mug—built to military specifications—its thick walls added to its insulating properties, and its extra weight helped it survive falls and avoid tipping while aboard ship. Along the way, Victor also pioneered a unique “non-slip” bottom surface, achieved during manufacturing by dragging the underside of the mug across a wet rubber mat before being fired in a kiln at 2,250 degrees Fahrenheit for 72 hours. This resulted in a rougher base that minimized sliding, which quickly became an essential feature in beverage containers. Hot beverage drinkers of all kinds embraced its heavy-duty style, and the Victor—popularly known as the “Diner Coffee Mug”—eventually became as iconic in America as the glass Coca-Cola bottle.

Collectors And The Mugs of The Future

The coffee mug may be the most popular souvenir on earth, and for some collectors, increasing their stash is a total obsession— Bob Thomson, who began collecting mugs in 1995, is the current record holder, with a grand total of 6,352 as of 2006!

Today, mugs are made of metal, class, earthenware, bamboo, plastic and dozens of other materials. They sport digital clocks, double walls, and lots of creative license—in almost any direction imaginable. It would be difficult to imagine life without them.