In historic diners on the East Coast (often modeled from or after railway dining cars) mugs are still the coffee-delivery system. On the West Coast one tends to find that cups and saucers are the norm in coffee shops. The diner mugs are pure Americana, but I got to thinking, what is the genesis of the classic bell-shaped diner mug?
Virtually indestructible, and heavy in the hand, these mugs were first created by Victor Insulators, Inc. in Victor, NY – and almost immediately deployed for the military in WWII. In a 1946 wartime story, “A Story of Victor,” it’s written: “The war gave impetus to the development of the chinaware business. Orders for great quantities of rugged cups and bowls built to military specifications have been and are being delivered to the Army and Navy.”
The thick-walled mugs made of porcelain kept coffee hot, and the squat base with rough bottom (due to “dry footing”) helped it sit still on a leaning table, very popular with the Navy. The mugs being “dry footed” meant the foot was wiped on a wet rubber mat. This prevented the mug from sticking to the kiln shelf when the glaze melted. They were then fired in a tunnel kiln at 2250°F, which cured both porcelain and glaze. The Victor mug emerged 72 hours later.
The handles were applied by hand, by a team of ladies before the mug was glazed and fired. Early iterations had no handles and were dubbed “watch cups” as could be cradled to keep hands warm while the user sipped his coffee “on watch.”
Victor Insulators, Inc. made several other versions of the mug, the most common being with a green stripe across the top, painted by hand in the factory. Again these were widely used in diners across the east coast.
There were two sizes, the more common six ounces or a larger 7 ½ ounce version. The 6 oz. Victor mugs weigh about a pound. There is some discussion of mugs being stamped with VICTOR on the bottom with a serified font, prompting them to be thought of as fake. Your humble researcher cannot find a trade article to confirm the point but enlightened enthusiast Jay Kravitz of victormug.com firmly believes this to be the case. You will also find a sans serif VICTOR stamp, and in the 1990s “USA” was added to the stamp to protect against imposters – but the cheaper, lighter imports eventually led Victor Insulators, Inc. to discontinue the sideline and concentrate on their core business.
Myself, I find the shape vaguely reminiscent of a porcelain electrical insulator; think of those used to create an electric fence. Apart from the shape, it is informative to think of American traditions and culture around the serving of coffee; the fancier the restaurant, the later it serves the coffee – in diners a mug is filled as soon as you are seated. Suits me…
Leading image: Oil Painting by Michael Naples. (Image courtesy michaelnaples.blogspot.com)