Drinking alcohol and drinking alcohol in an amusing way seem to have always gone together. Why just drink when instead you can add to the general pleasure with a drinking song, or drinking game, or a special drinking vessel?
This ceramic satyr's head, left, is a Georgian stirrup cup. Stirrup cups were the original to-go cup: a last dram to be handed up to a departing rider already in the saddle with boots in the stirrups. While there are some early connections to Scottish traditions of hospitality, most historians link stirrup cups to the rise of pack-hunting in England.
As the members of the hunt gathered on their horses, stirrup cups became part of the final send-off, a final gulped bit of fortification. In the18th and 19th centuries, when a manly gentleman was expected to be able to hold his liquor, it's likely that many hunters had already had had a substantial amount of fortifying with their breakfasts. (I'm afraid I'll always think of Squire Western in Tom Jones, roaring drunk and barely hanging onto his horse as he races off after the fox.) The mood was doubtless jovial by the time the stirrup cups were handed up, which probably explains why the cups themselves are often jovial, too, shaped like the heads of foxes, hounds, and stags.
And then there's this fellow, believed to represent a grinning satyr. Satyrs were mythical classical creatures associated with Bacchus and excessive drinking and carousing, as any classically-educated 18th c. gentleman would have known. It's easy to imagine the raucous laughter that must have accompanied this particular stirrup cup's appearance.
This cup is part of a fantastic exhibition currently on display at Winterthur Museum, near Wilmington, DE. Uncorked! is dedicated to exploring the incredible range of historical wine-related objects (another exhibit is this punch bowl, decorated with a scene of Vauxhall Gardens) and traditions. The show runs through January 6, 2013; here's more information. Can't make it to the exhibition? Winterthur has generously put everything on line here.
Above: Satyr head stirrup cup, Staffordshire, England, 1760-90. Earthenware (creamware) From the collection of Winterthur Museum. Photography by Susan Holloway Scott.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.