Gentlemen of the 19th century, following man's eternal habit of creating, following, and abandoning fashions, were often seen with the peculiar combination of shaving and not-shaving that defines a moustache. Anecdotal and pictorial evidence of this affliction is widely available. Another fashionable occupation of the time was the consumption of tea. Now, everyone who has ever sported a moustache or beard knows that hot liquids and hair on one's upper lip make for a combination that's not healthy for either of the two.

Victorian moustaches were often of the handlebar variety, though the shape of the moustache changed from time to time. Having acquired a tea habit as well as a facial hair fixation, gentlemen of the Victorian era were confronted with those laws of physics that cause objects depending on a solid substance with a low melting point for their shape to lose said shape in the proximity of a heat source. Hot tea being a notable source of heat, consuming it had a detrimental effect on the waxed moustache and could have spelled its doom were it not for one man's ingenuity in the name of vanity. In addition to that, tea is an excellent source of tannin and a few other substances that will stain hair that's immersed in them. This is especially true for black tea, which was often favoured for storing well and for being cheaper and harder to adulterate than other forms of tea.

An English gent (of the moustache-wearing persuasion, I presume) called Harvey Adams, said to be fed up with his moustache end's springy stiffness being in reverse proportion to the amount of theophylline ingested, is credited with the invention of a contraption that looks neither elegant nor pretty but nonetheless saved the day and spared many a moustache-wearer the embarrassment of not being able to keep it up. Adams was fortuitously endowed with the skills of a potter (that being his profession) and set about setting things right. Adams's contribution to the triumph of Victorian engineering over man-made adversity hit the market some time in the 1860s.

Moustache cups have a bar that covers a segment of the cup's circular opening. The height of this segment can be equal to anything from one third to all of the circle's radius--the latter meaning that the cup was half covered. Often the chord that defined this segment was sculpted into the contour of a moustache and nose. The bar is positioned in such a way as to minimise the amount of steam and heat escaping in the direction of the drinker's upper lip. In order to ensure that the heat escaped above the at-risk facial adornment, the tea was sipped through an opening in the bar at the edge of the cup. This way the tea drinker's mouth was able to make contact with the tea, assuming that the drinker was in a vertical position. The moustache came in contact with the covered portion of the cup and the excess steam escaped harmlessly above the threatened moustache and in the direction of the ceiling.

Moustache cups were in use across Europe and in countries with European-influenced, tea-drinking cultures. They mostly went the way of the moustache around the 1920s. After a few decades of lying around as quaint old junk, a market emerged that considered the moustache cup (or mustache cup if that's your preferred way of spelling it) an affordable collectible. Since every major manufacturer of pottery and silverware made moustache cups, you can admire a Limoges cup as well as a Meissen as much as the next pottery fan. Moustache cups were made all over the world both for export and for domestic sale. Cups go for USD 5 or less on auction sites and you might even find the odd one at an estate sale. The upper price range appears to be in the lower three digits.

A modern-day variation of the moustache cup, the moustache mug, is also available. This device, produced in right- and left-handed versions, is intended mainly for the harmless imbibing of coffee. As far as I'm concerned it looks like a cross between a watering can and a toddler's sippy cup. It completely lacks the character of a tea cup or, indeed, any sort of grace in its design. But then those who would offend the fashion gods by not only being in possession of a moustache but by also waxing it and then drinking coffee wouldn't really know or care, would they?

When I was a kid we had three moustache cups that had been handed down from my father's family. They were very pretty, made of bone china, and decorated with gold rims and hand-painted roses. Two of the cups had a moustache support inside the rim. These were fluted and edged in gold. The support covered approximately one-third of the cup, with a hole for sipping liquids.

The third cup, equally as elegant, had a different moustache support. While being inside the rim, it covered half of the interior, was flat rather than fluted, and had an upright bar across the diameter of the cup. Moreover, it had no hole along the rim for sipping, but the flat bar had several very small holes in it.

Once, while I was in grammar school, my mother allowed me to take these three cups to school for "show and tell". The teacher demonstrated the use of the cup to the class but was puzzled by cup #3. She finally decided that it was for the use of a tea drinker who had a really large moustache, so large that without the upright bar to support his moustache, said moustache would dip into the tea. She also decided that the holes in the flat bar were to let the moustache drain in the event it did get soaked.

At the end of the day, when I returned home with the cups, I told my parents what the teacher had decided about the third cup. My father, who had not been at home when my mother handed over the cups, laughed himself silly.

The third cup was actually a shaving mug. The cup itself held water for the shaving brush. (In the late 19th Century, when shaving mugs were common, homes often did not have running water.) The upright bar was so the shaver could wipe excess water off his brush; the water wiped off the brush would then return to the cup via the holes in the flat bar.

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