An Ideal Gift for Father’s Day?

11/06/202012:1611/06/2020 12:24Leave a Comment

Father’s Day, marked on the third Sunday in June, was ‘invented’ in 1910 in the USA and was only slowly adopted in the UK. Since World War II, however, it has been much more widely celebrated and this year, once again, fathers across the country will be receiving cards and gifts.

What to get men as an appropriate present (apart from socks) can be a problem, but the pottery industry has regularly risen to the challenge. Today a humorous mug may be a popular gift, but in the 19th century, when beards and moustaches were almost universally worn, the potters realised that the challenge of keeping facial hair looking good was a marketing opportunity for them.

Bone china moustache cup with painted and gilded decoration, Staffordshire, 1880s
Collection of the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent

In the early 1870s one Stoke-on-Trent firm, Harvey Adams & Co., of Longton, invented an entirely new item to sell to the public. According to Llewellyn Jewitt’s Ceramic Art of Great Britain, published in 1877, the firm had “the credit of being the first to make and introduce ‘moustache cups’ – an invention that has become so popular as to be adopted by many other firms.”

During the first half of the 19th century many men had been clean-shaven, but by the 1870s beards – and especially moustaches – had become popular. The latter were often waxed in order to shape them and the steam from tea drinking could soften this wax, causing the moustache to lose its shape and droop. The moustache cup avoided this social embarrassment and, as Jewitt noted, within a few years many other pottery firms were making and selling moustache cups.  

These useful and decorative items were ideal gifts for fathers, brothers and husbands. Some, like this one, are decorated with hand painting and gilding and many had additional inscriptions added to personalise them. These inscriptions are usually the recipient’s name, often with the date of the gift’s presentation or the recipient’s birth date, but others have short phrases, such as ‘Remember the Giver’. They are only rarely marked with the maker’s name.

Moustache cups remained popular until the early 20th century when fashions in men’s facial hair changed. After World War I many men chose to be clean shaven or sported a small, neat moustache inspired by movie stars such as Clark Gable or Ronald Coleman. The moustache cup was no longer necessary and ceased to be produced.

Whether or not men chose to sport a moustache, unless they decided to grow a full beard, they needed to shave on a regular basis. In the 19th century some working men would only shave once a week, but white-collar workers would be expected to shave daily. This would have involved a ritual of hot water, shaving soap and, until the introduction of the safety razor in 1903, a cut-throat razor. Potters saw another marketing opportunity and introduced the shaving mug.

Hard paste porcelain shaving mug with printed and painted decoration, German, c.1900
Collection of the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent

This curiously-shaped handled mug allowed the user to froth up the soap with a shaving brush in the top. Hot water would be poured into the mug and the hard shaving soap would rest on the pierced surface. The shaving brush, dipped into hot water, would froth up the soap and the holes in the top allowed the soapy water to drain back into the body of the mug, while the spout allowed the shaver to rest the brush there while shaving, and then to empty the soapy water out.

Like the moustache cup, the shaving mug was a popular gift. Many Staffordshire pottery firms produced them but Continental firms also made them, often at a cheaper price, and large numbers of late Victorian, brightly decorated German porcelain examples, like this one, survive. The introduction of the first shaving cream in the post-World War I period saw the gradual decline in the use of hard shaving soap. By the late 1950s shaving cream was dominant, with new and improved products being constantly developed, and there was no longer a need for shaving mugs.

Written by Miranda Goodby, Senior Curator of Ceramics - Modified by Glenn Roadley (Curator, Natural Sciences)

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