A hunting tradition
The expression "stirrup cup" has two meanings, both closely connected with hunting. It has long been a tradition for those partaking in a hunt to have a drink before the hunt commences, as a toast to success in the pursuit of their victims. The tradition goes back a long way, certainly into Medieval times - a drink would be offered to riders before they set off after their quarry, whilst they were mounted on horseback, comfortable and ready for the off.
Originally, the expression referred to the drink itself, often mulled ale or wine, served in an earthenware or pewter cup, but later, it began to refer to cups which were specially designed for the purpose. During the 18th Century, slender glass and silver cups began to be made with no handle, stem or 'foot', as was usual in a conventional drinking vessel. This design enabled the rider to grasp the cup in a gloved hand whilst clutching the reins of a frequently skittish horse, and may have originated with drinking horns.
Over time, more elaborate designs were produced, usually with a hunting theme, and occasionally, bearing inscriptions connected with the chase. Some examples which survive have their bases carved with the heads of the prey - the fox being most popular (most hunting in the UK at least, is of foxes), but hares and stags being quite common. This said, silver cups were still rare - few riders owned their own, and would use more conventional wares for the toast. The Master of Foxhounds and other officials of a hunt might own their own, and they were occasionally given as gifts by a Hunt to one of their members.
Because of their relative rarity and small size, antique stirrup cups are highly sought after, and quite valuable. Many silversmiths and craftspeople in glass are now making cups for a growing collector's market, often far more elaborate than any used by the hunters of yesteryear. It is doubtful whether many of them are used to toast the success of a hunt, but are bought in the hope that they will grow in value. A different kind of pursuit, with a different quarry in view.
Death, thou'rt a cordial old and rare:
Look how compounded, with what care!
Time got his wrinkles reaping thee
Sweet herbs from all antiquity.
David to thy distillage went,
Keats, and Gotama excellent,
Omar Khayyam, and Chaucer bright,
And Shakespeare for a king-delight.
Then, Time, let not a drop be spilt:
Hand me the cup whene'er thou wilt;
'Tis thy rich stirrup-cup to me;
I'll drink it down right smilingly.
Sidney Lanier May 1877