Wilder Wednesday: Drinking from the Saucer

Eliza Jane was more bossy than ever. She said Almanzo’s boots made too much noise. She even told Mother that she was mortified because Father drank tea from his saucer.

“My land! how else would he cool it?” Mother asked.

“It isn’t the style to drink out of saucers any more,” Eliza Jane said. “Nice people drink out of the cup.”

“Eliza Jane!” Alice cried. “Be ashamed! I guess Father’s as nice as anybody!”

Mother actually stopped working. She took her hands out of the dishpan and turned round to face Eliza Jane.

“Young lady,” she said, “if you have to show off your fine education, you tell me where saucers come from.”

Eliza Jane opened her mouth, and shut it, and looked foolish.

“They come from China,” Mother said. “Dutch sailors brought them from China, two hundred years ago, the first time sailors ever sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and found China. Up to that time, people drank out of cups; they didn’t have saucers. Ever since they’ve had saucers, they’ve drunk out of them. I guess a thing that folks have done for two hundred years we can keep on doing. We’re not likely to change, for a new-fangled notion that you’ve got in Malone Academy.”

That shut up Eliza Jane.

~From Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

 This was the first, and for a long time, only, reference to drinking from a saucer that I’ve ever come across. Mother Wilder’s history was a bit faulty: Europeans first explored China in the 1516, when the Portuguese explorer (and cousin of Columbus) Rafael Perestrello landed on the southern coast of mainland China and traded in Guangzhou. I think what Mother Wilder had in mind was the United East Indian Company, a Dutch-chartered trading company that had a trade monopoly with China in the 1600s.

 Another reference to drinking from the saucer can be found in Tom Brown’s School Days, a British novel written by Thomas Hughes in 1857:

“Well, I wish I were alongside of him,” said Tom. “If I can’t be at Rugby I want to be at work in the world, and not dawdling away three years at Oxford.”

“What do you mean by ‘at work in the world’?” said the master, pausing, with his lips close to his saucerful of tea, and peering at Tom over it.

“Well, I mean real work; one’s profession; whatever one will have really to do, and make one’s living by. I want to be doing some real good, feeling that I am not only at play in the world,” answered Tom, rather puzzled to find out himself what he really did mean.

“You are mixing up two very different things in your head, I think, Brown,” said the master, putting down his empty saucer, “and you ought to get clear about them.”

 Cups and saucers have been used since the Middle Ages, and I could find no definitive answer about whether they drank from the saucer as well as the cup, or when that habit began. But it certainly was common in Russia and Scandinavia for many years. In fact, in Sweden, they not only sipped from the saucer after purposely overfilling the cup, but sipped the beverage through a lump of sugar held in the front teeth, a custom called “dricka på bit” or “drink with a lump.” While there are people who remember their elderly, usually rural, ancestors drinking this way, it seems to have fallen out of favor in the 20th century. It was still a common enough practice in 1914 to be portrayed in a painting by Konstantin Makovsky.

 tea-drinking-by-konstantin-makovsky-1914

Drinking from the saucer was not confined to Europe. There is a story that when Thomas Jefferson returned from France to find Congress organized into two parts, he asked George Washington why there needed to be a Senate. Washington answered with another question: “Why do you pour tea into your saucer?” Jefferson answered, “To cool it.” “Just so,” responded Washington, “we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.” See, the Federal Convention felt that the members of the House were too emotional, so the Senate was formed to have “cooler heads” prevail. This story is anecdotal, but does show that using the saucer to cool the tea was a familiar custom here in America.

I’ll leave you with a poem by John Paul Moore:

 Drinking From The Saucer

I’ve never made a fortune,
And I’ll never make one now
But it really doesn’t matter
‘Cause I’m happy anyhow

As I go along my journey
I’m reaping better than I’ve sowed
I’m drinking from the saucer
‘Cause my cup has overflowed

I don’t have a lot of riches,
And sometimes the going’s tough
But with kin and friends to love me
I think I’m rich enough

I thank God for the blessings
That His mercy has bestowed
I’m drinking from the saucer
‘Cause my cup has overflowed

He gives me strength and courage
When the way grows steep and rough
I’ll not ask for other blessings for
I’m already blessed enough

May we never be too busy
To help bear another’s load
Then we’ll all be drinking from the saucer
When our cups have overflowed

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Connie Ryle Neumann on January 18, 2017 at 1:20 pm

    Dear Teresa,
    I learned so much from your essay on drinking from a saucer! What a perfect time of year to think about our cups running over with blessings, too. Thanks for sharing!

    Connie in a Colorado, drinking tea

    Reply

  2. Posted by Colleen Ferries on January 18, 2017 at 10:37 pm

    I watched my great uncle drink from his saucer when I stayed with them in the 1960s. He was a farmer in Iowa.

    Reply

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