The Cup’s Great Defeat

By Emily Gold Boutilier

When you make coffee, you pour it into a mug. Ever wonder why?

You probably have a favorite mug. Maybe it says “World’s Best Mom.” Maybe it’s from a craft fair. Maybe it’s 20 ounces, thermal and saves you 50 cents at the coffee shop.

For most of American history, however, until the early 1960s, the cup and saucer was king, while the mug was a shaving accessory. Three Amherst men are responsible for the change.

illustration of city block, white coffe mugs in the windows Robert J. Howard ’45, A. Grant Holt ’47 and John Howard ’49 borrowed $9,000 from their parents in 1949 to start Holt-Howard Associates. In a New York apartment on East 35th Street, they set up shop as a marketer of household consumer goods, starting with Christmas products. When their Santa Claus mug sold particularly well in mail order, Holt and the Howard brothers suspected the mug could be more than just a seasonal novelty.

They asked a Japanese manufacturer to make a 12-ounce, straight-sided mug with a C-shaped handle. “We were hopeful this would have an immediate appeal to office coffee drinkers, who’d want a meaningful capacity and easy handling,” recalls John Howard in his autobiography. For their first design, they chose the classic Blue Willow pattern.

More shapes and patterns followed, and soon they were giving away display units to any store that purchased 12 designs and 144 pieces. Mornings would never be the same.

Melinda Beck illustration