Posts Tagged ‘chocolate mugs’

The Day the World Shrank

April 6, 2014

Before the internet, before the global village, before most people even thought of the planet as a whole, there was Mexican majolica.  The Talavera workshops of Puebla, Mexico produced tin glazed pottery which included the world’s first global imagery.

Potters from Seville, Spain began wheel thrown, glazed pottery in Puebla around 1520.  Everything needed for tin glazing could be found nearby.  This new pottery activity was a ‘men only’ club unlike ‘campesino’ pottery made primarily by women.  Local assistants were trained from scratch.  Most of the extremely talented native potters had been killed (as part of the Aztec literati, they were doomed to extinction).

Mexico was a transit hub for colonial riches flowing from the Pacific to metropolitan Spain.  As such, large shipments of Chinese export porcelain passed through Mexico.  Mexicans were crazy for blue and white.  Talavera’s “refined” ware intentionally imitated the Chinese.

The influence of three continents and four cultures could be seen on Puebla majolica.  Islamic aesthetics encouraged filling the whole space with designs.  European “Istorio” designs focused on narrative stories.  Decorative frills defined the Chinese influence.  And local flora and fauna, such as cacti and jaguars, provided ready inspiration to Mexican potters.  All this on one blue and white surface.  And all this a hundred years before Chinese potteries began slavishly reproducing European designs, or European potteries began slavishly copying Chinese designs.

Things progressed so well that Puebla’s potters formed a guild in 1653.  The Potters Guild regulated production, quality control, sales and (curiously) penalties for counterfeiting.  The Guild folded 100 years later but it’s rules influenced production up to the early 19th century.

Mexicans loved their blue and white majolica.  They especially loved drinking chocolate from majolica mugs.  Well-to-do 18th century Mexican women obsessively drank chocolate from these colorful mugs everywhere and at all times.  But there were limits.  A decree had to be passed banning chocolate drinks in church during masses.

Those ladies’ world must have shrunk a little on that sad day.

Chocolatera, Puebla, early 18th CenturyChocolatero, Puebla, early 18th century.


Ceramics in America.  Ian Quimby, Ed.  University Press of Virginia/Charlottesville.  1972.

The Emily Johnston De Forest Collection of Mexican Maiolica.  Edwin Atlee Barber.  Hispanic Society of America/New York.  1911.


Practical Anthropology

December 23, 2012

It’s been asked a million times about a million things when studying the past.  Why did they do it that way?  What were they thinking?

When it comes to 17th –18th century Western European tea, coffee and chocolate pots (as it so often does) why did only the teapots have long spouts?  Only the coffee pots have elongated bodies?  Only the chocolate pots have a pinched spout like a pitcher?  Perhaps the safest answer would be ‘you just had to have been there.’

But there are other interpretations.  Chocolate was a thick liquid compared to coffee and tea.  It simply didn’t pour well from a long skinny spout.  Coffee used a substantial amount of grounds to brew.  The pot’s body had to compensate for that.  And of course tea only required a strainer to decant the thin liquid.  Here there was much more liberty of form.

Great.  So why did Western European chocolate mugs sport handles long before coffee or tea cups?  We know this in large part through research on the excavated remains of the VOC Geldermarlsen which sank in the straights of Malacca on January 3, 1752 on it’s return voyage to The Netherlands from Canton, China.  Cross referenced invoices back in Rotterdam clearly specified handled chocolate mugs decades before handles appeared on tea or coffee cups.

The answer?  Maybe chocolate (unlike tea, anyway) was understood to be drunk hot.  Maybe tea and coffee were destined more for public houses where bowls were (at least initially) commonly passed around.  Maybe everything could have had handles – or not – and further inference shouldn’t be extrapolated from one smashed up old ship.

Or maybe it’s just best to stick with ‘you had to have been there.’  The debate rages on.


The Geldermalsen, History and Porcelain.  CJA Jörg.  Kemper Publishers/Groningen, The Netherlands.  1986.