They are ceramic windows to the American soul
A coffee mug is sturdy. A coffee mug is strong. Stacked deep behind cupboard doors, forgotten on kitchen tables, brown sediment pooled on the bottom, perched on office desks, stuffed into car seat dividers: They follow us through life. They reveal who we are. The mug is the message.
Coffee mugs mark stages in life. College students eat out of mugs and drink wine out of mugs and make mugs into ashtrays. The ceramic walls keep their poverty hidden like glasses never could. We graduate. We grow up and move on. Our mugs may not.
Mugs are decorated and it's fine. A drinking glass with a slogan is a flirtation with tackiness. The jocular mug bear-hugs tackiness and turns it into an ally. Mugs commemorate experiences, like climbing Mount Monadnock; identities, like superpowered aunt; people in our lives, like the Fresh Prince; or things we fear, like seahorses.
A mug doesn't crack, and you can't just throw a mug away. Your kid probably gave you that mug. “I don’t remember where this mug came from,” you might think. But the burrs that get stuck in your fur say a lot about the fields you run through.
Water, arguably, is drunk far more often than coffee. But a recent search on Etsy—where twee expression translates into hard currency—yielded just under 46,000 results for “water glasses,” while a search for “coffee mugs” returned 161,290 opportunities for free expression. Forget dinner plates, which hardly cracked 26,000. Mugs are in a class of their own.
Why do our weird mugs get pride of place among belongings? I asked Russell Belk, professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business in Canada, for his take. “To hold onto stigmatized objects that convey personal connections in spite of disdain from others probably conveys a stronger and more connected sense of self than someone who has a clean industrial look to their homes, whose cars lack personal bumper stickers, and who fail to wear the ugly tie given by their child.” So it’s possible—just possible—that people with boring mugs don’t love their kids. Professor Belk has written extensively on consumer culture and the meaning of possessions. He has also directed his academic rigor at his own hippopotamus coffee mug in a forthcoming article. So he gets it.
“We regard our possessions as part of ourselves. We are what we have and possess,” Belk writes in his essay “Are We What We Own?” Our possessions are extensions of the self, he says, both in this life and beyond. They change with us while we’re alive, and serve as reminders of our quirkiness when we’re gone. Stay weird, mugs. Then so shall we.
Thanks to this role as mini metaphors for our selves and experiences, coffee mugs also have a rich life in American pop culture. Just before Steve Carell smashed Conan O’Brien’s Dwight D. Eisenhower mug for a late-night bit, Conan pleaded: “It was on my desk at The Simpsons… that is off limits, because I’ve had that a long time, it’s very precious to me.” The mug accrues time, and to lose the mug is to lose time, to lose a connection to an earlier self or someone. Carell reveals moments after smashing it that the mug was a replica of the “real” mug. “I am so glad that that was actually the fake mug… because I would freak out.” Years later, a Conan stagehand dubbed “greatest mug guy ever” would give his life to save the real mug.
And why is it that mugs are so common on talk shows? Why not provide guests with clean glasses to sip water? Here, again, the mug’s strength is concealing its contents while projecting a message. “Boy, Hugh Jackman sure is thirsty,” one might think as his Adam’s apple bobbed, gulping from a glass of water. But a sipped mug doesn’t distract. A mug is an accessory, a branding tool. It’s an extension of the show itself.
“It’s a photo album,” says Jimmy Fallon of his own mug collection, before he and Justin Timberlake frolic into their own late-night bit. Is our love affair with mugs worth this?
The proud American tradition of pouring meaning into our mugs permeates our fiction, too. I asked production designer Brandon Tonner-Connolly, who has deployed mugs in movies he has worked on to great effect, which mugs in film history stand out to him. He remembers a scene from The Usual Suspects when Chazz Palminteri’s detective character shatters his Kobayashi mug toward the end of the film. “The fact that he is supposed to be so invested in those details and prides himself in that kind of refinement, but then in fact he doesn’t even recognize the manufacturer of his coffee mug when it’s quoted back to him in this story, he even more has egg on his face,” Tonner-Connolly says.
What makes these dishes special, he says, is that ”there’s a certain intimacy to a coffee mug. There’s a certain idea that a coffee mug is one of those objects you collect throughout your life. It’s not something where as with clothing or as with something else, it kind of changes with the times, or you might change it according to the season. It’s really kind of indicative of your past.”
Tonner-Connolly has worked on sets that leaned heavily on mug choice, including the Michael Showalter-directed film The Big Sick, currently in production. “Every time you go to a thrift store or a Salvation Army or anything like that, you always look at the coffee mugs they have,” he continues.”You just find something that has a good message on it, or a good color or a good shape, or some kind of unique form to it. That’s something you can save and then drop onto the right character’s desk or drop in the right character’s hands.”
Another movie scene Tonner-Connolly recalls being intimately tied to a mug is from Terminator 2. A guard—after plunking down coins for a cup of vending-machine coffee; after picking his nose while the liquid metal T-1000 forms from the checkered tile floor just behind him; after celebrating the full house on his “wildcard poker” coffee cup and marveling at his luck—is skewered through the head by his exact likeness, assumed by the T-1000.
The message is clear. He is as utterly disposable and replaceable as his novelty paper coffee cup. Do yourself a favor and choose the right mug.