“Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
‘Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.’ “
— Omar Khayyam, The Rubáyát

“I’m going to kill you with my tea cup.”
— Vin Diesel, The Chronicles of Riddick

- - -

Introduction: Have You Used a Cup Today?

Ask a random group of people what their favorite method for bringing small amounts of liquid to their mouth for drinking is, and nine out of ten of them will say “cups.” No matter its style, material, or nationality, every cup makes an implicit promise to you, the drinker: I will safely deliver this fluid to you with minimal spillage.

Our world is built on cups. The cup is the perfect fusion of object and task. “I need to quench my thirst.” Get a cup. “Whenever I try to drink from a rusty can, the jagged edges cut my lip and give me tetanus.” Get a cup. “This bucket is too big for me to drink out of without getting my whole head wet.” For cup’s sake, silly, get a cup!

The cup you use says a lot about you. A paper cup with a conical bottom says you’re a hard worker, while a set of NFL commemorative mugs says you’re easily influenced by signs posted at gas stations, and if you’re chugging turpentine from an athletic supporter, you’ve probably hit the bottom of a downward spiral.

For millennia, cups have helped write the story of humanity. But who’s been there to tell the cups’ own story? A story as exciting, dramatic, and thrilling as the history of a thing you don’t find all that interesting can be. When this is over, you’ll never look at a cup the same way. (Unless you’re looking at a cup to make sure you don’t overfill it. Then you’ll probably be looking at it in the same way.)

Humble Beginnings: A Drink is a Wish Your Mouth Makes

Primitive man, or Homo Nocuppus, first brought water to his mouth by lapping it up with his tongue as he had seen the beasts of the jungle do. But man soon realized that, unlike the animals he hunted, cooked, and occasionally attempted to breed with, he had hands. Hands that could come together to form a shallow, curved bowl, which could be used to hold a small amount of drinking water — this was the next important step in cup evolution, achieved after many painful years of experimentation with other body parts, such as the navel.

Eventually, somebody who wasn’t stupid was born. Forming a cylinder of clay, with one open end he used his primitive cup mostly to listen through doors at other people’s conversations. Then one day said vessel came into contact with water. A lightbulb appeared above the caveman’s head, but he didn’t know what it was, as it wouldn’t be invented until 1879.

It was then, as lightning crashed, thunder roared, and the soundtrack reached an almost unbearable crescendo of excitement with drums, a synthesizer, and maybe even an electric guitar just kind of humming ominously in the background before going Beed-a-BOW-OW-OW-OW, this father of us all sat back and took humanity’s first refreshment break.

From Ceramics to Plastics: The History of Mankind, Cup By Cup

This was only the beginning of the grand cooperation between people and cups, a symbiosis that would propel cups to such prominence that for seventeen years a jade mug sat as prince regent of Manchu China and a lowly tin cup could play the title role in a blockbuster golf-based romance starring Kevin Costner and Rene Russo.

Adding fire to sand yielded glass, finally allowing man to see how much was left of what he was drinking, multiplying the speed with which people could refill their cups. The resulting leisure time meant man could devote hours to studying the world around him. The fruits of this study were Christianity, theater, and seagoing ships. These ships made it possible to visit far off cultures and find out what they used for cups.

The supremacy of the cup was threatened during the Victorian era, when prudish morality made it unfashionable to be seen using the mouth for anything but praying. But it was only a matter of time before the cup exploded back onto the scene — literally, in the case of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, who were executed for a terrorist attack involving a prank dribble glass attached to a stick of dynamite.

The Styrofoam Cup: America’s Love Affair With Wastefulness

The year is 1941, and cup history is about to be made. Amateur scientist Hercules Styropolous invites his lover Bernard Fohamsberg to his garage lab. Believing that entropy makes a mockery of human achievement, Styropolous had vowed to create something which nature could never destroy. His quest led him to polystyrene, but without a reason to use it, he hit a brick wall. He didn’t realize that a poorly placed coffee pot would soon change his life forever.

Upon first seeing polystyrene, Fohamsburg is violently aroused, initiating amorous contact with Styropolous. However, the cramped garage provides little room for intercourse, and, in the throes of passion, they knock over a coffee-maker. Desperate to keep his delicate areas un-burnt, Fohasmberg grabs the test sample of polystyrene and quickly molds it into a cup-like shape. It is a double cup epiphany — the polystyrene cup and protective athletic cup are simultaneously created, all in one sensual afternoon.

Indestructible, non-biodegradable, and lightly toxic, the styrofoam cup is man’s gift to the universe, proudly proclaiming “We have defeated you.” Long after society crumbles, the Styrofoam cup will still be here. And someday, perhaps, alien life forms will descend upon this long-dead wasteland of a world, pick up a cup, and ask themselves, “What manner of wizards once throve here that could imagine such miracles?”

Epilogue: A Hot Cup of You

“I have become cup, destroyer of thirsts”
— Robert Oppenheimer

What does the astonishing journey of the cup tell us about ourselves? Well, every drink you take was made possible by millions of people in the cup industry, and each time we drink out of a cup, we’re remembering the chain of ancestors that brought us to today. But that doesn’t mean that by drinking from cups you become merely one of billions cupping it up. Cups, like people, come in all shapes and sizes. And they’re all beautiful. Except for brandy snifters. Lose some weight, fatty!