Think can you handle it?
I have a friend who almost refuses to drink out of a mug unless she can fit four or more fingers through the handle. Essentially, she wants the option of wearing her mug handle as a bracelet. Personally, I’m not up for a five-finger mug handle—I like a mug handle that will fit at least a couple fingers and would never make me hold the handle in order to take a sip. However, thanks to lifestyle Instagram and living in a city that loves all-day cafes, I’ve noticed more and more often that some mug handles are barely big enough for my index finger, while others look like bent pool noodles.
It's nearly impossible to say definitively when the first mugs came on the scene—harder still to know for sure why they were affixed with certain sized and shaped handles. Shaping clay into pots and hardening them with fire has been going on since prehistoric times, with the earliest recorded mugs dating back to the Neolithic Stone Age (before that, cups were carved from wood or bone). Some early mugs have thick, flat handles, while others are thin and short. With the advent of porcelain in China came extremely delicate, looped handles on very thin-walled cups.
Today, mug handles come in all shapes and sizes, and continue to prove to be a divisive topic, with everyone’s preference deeply personal. When I inquired as to which kinds of mugs my colleagues prefer, we engaged in a flurry of Slack messages and then full-on enthusiastic shouting.
“Large, closed loop for me,” says Ryan Grim, Editor of Extra Crispy, which we determined to be a very classic C-shaped mug handle, like the ones you might find stamped with “Keep Calm and Carry On” or “World’s Best Dad.”
Senior Culture Editor Margaret Eby described her ideal mug handle as a half-heart shape, reminiscent of a classic tea or coffee cup you’d find at a diner or in your grandparents’ house.
Senior Food and Drinks Editor Kat Kinsman’s mug handle preference has to do with time of day. For her first cup of coffee, she wants a “a sturdy D-shaped handle that is approximately half the total height of the mug.” As she continues to caffeinate throughout the day, she finds a “small round-ish loop on a smaller, curved cup works because it allows me to justify multiple trips to the coffee source and gives me something to twirl on one or two fingers as I walk toward my refill.”
“I really like a handle that allows me to hold the cup part of the mug,” says Associate Editor Kate Welsh. “It's broad enough to have four fingers in flat against the cup, and my thumb on top, because 75 percent of the reason I drink hot beverages is to warm up my hands.”
I also explored this issue from a practical sense by speaking with someone who actually makes mugs. While there are a great many ceramicists out there, I chose to speak with someone whose mugs have been showing up all over my Instagram feed lately. Marian Bull is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and self-described “amateur potter” (personally, I think her ceramics are just as legit as any professional's). Bull has been making and selling her unique, bright mugs for the past few months.
“I like chunky handles both aesthetically and because I think it makes the cup easier to drink from; your fingers aren't risking strain in the same way,” Bull told me in an email. “As I was going from sucking at ceramics to getting better at ceramics, I definitely started with some tiny handles, and they just felt unwieldy to me… Also, I don't want people with bigger hands to feel like my cups don't work for them.”
Bull went on to describe more conceptual mugs, fitted with thick “log”-like handles: “at that point, it's more of an art object,” says Bull. “You're not buying it because it's the most functional mug out there.”
If this whole conversation stresses you out and you want to opt out of the mug handle conversation altogether, all hope is not lost. Handle-less mugs obviously exist, but not all ceramics without handles should be filled with hot liquid. For example, a thin-walled porcelain cup is perfectly fine for hot coffee or tea, but, according to Bull, if filled with hot liquid, one of her ceramic cups “will likely sear your precious hands.”