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A Cup of Innocence

by Chantel Gillus

Fachschule Steinschönau, Austrian or German, Cup and Saucer, c. 1905 wheel-carved glass. Gift of Dorothy and S.K. Heninger, Jr., 2001.30.22ab. Ackland Art Museum, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

The cup and saucer by Fachschule Steinschönau embodies the stereotypical feminine, dainty cup that’s used for fancy occasions. Surveying the delicacy of the cup, one would think that this is a cup that was made for and meant to be used by a woman or girl when drinking tea or coffee. With its cherry and leaves carved around the saucer and the cup, and yellow flowers circling the rim of the saucer, it has a graceful essence to it.

Additionally, the smallness of the cup creates the assumption that it can be used by a child. Because of this, it delivers a sense of nostalgia as it reminds me of the cup and saucer I used in my childhood. As a child, I had a small cup and saucer like the one pictured above. Instead of a transparent cup covered in cherries and flowers, my cup and saucer were all white with molded red tiles around the rims.

It was a cup and saucer that my grandparents reserved for me at their house when I would come to visit. When we’d wake up in the morning, my grandfather would brew the coffee and they’d give me the tinier cup and saucer, whilst they had bigger, more adult-like mugs. Then, we’d drink our morning coffee together, with my grandmother and I enjoying our coffee with creamer and sugar, and my grandfather drinking his black.

Looking at an item from history can take you back to your own history. It’s a look through time on both ends; through the historical lenses of the cup and the past in which you’ve lived. It awakens memories deep inside that you may have forgotten. As a viewer, you’re able to associate this item with another object and/or memory that was impactful to you in your childhood. Steinschönau’s cup and saucer has an aura of innocence, and it can be a reminder of an innocent time as well.

Likewise, Steinschönau’s cup and saucer illustrate a fantastical, romantic image that makes it look like it would be placed in or created for a fairytale. Teacups or small coffee mugs are often showcased in fairytales, which are tales directed towards children. Even at Walt Disney World, there’s a children’s ride called the Mad Tea Party, also known as the spinning-teacups ride, which is based on the Mad Hatter’s (Ed Wynn) tea party in the children’s film Alice in Wonderland (Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske 1951). Alice in Wonderland has a motif of tea in its story and sometimes, tea cups are associated with innocence. Alice in Wonderland is a coming-of-age story as Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) matures throughout the film transitioning from a young, naive girl to a woman.

In Tim Burton’s 2010 version of the tale, there’s a flashback scene of Alice (Mia Wasikowska) as a young child in Wonderland engaging in a polished, bright, and light-hearted tea party with lots of sweet treats. When she returns to Wonderland as an adult, the tea party is now dim, disorderly, and less festive with broken tea cups and seemingly spoiled food. The dull tea party looks like it hasn’t been tended to in many years because it’s been forgotten and left behind by Alice who hasn’t visited Wonderland since she was a little girl. It’s a metaphor for Alice’s loss of innocence and imagination she once had as a child.

Tea cups are fragile like innocence itself and you have to be careful not to break it. You have to be cautious to not expose it to any harm, danger, or negativity because if you do, there’s no putting the cup back together. Just like when innocence is lost, there’s no regaining it. Like the graceful, feminine, and innocent nature of Steinschönau’s cup and saucer, heedfulness is required when handling such a gentle entity.

Works Cited

Alice in Wonderland. Dir. Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske. Perf. Kathryn Beaumont, Ed Wynn, Jerry Colonna, Verna Felton. Disney Plus, 1951. Streaming.

Alice in Wonderland. Dir. Tim Burton. Perf. Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway. Disney Plus, 2010. Streaming.


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