Tea Cup Saucers- to use or not to use

So Mum and I have had this long standing debate… Maybe you can help us settle it!
See, Mum is big on proper etiquette, which I don’t mind at all of course, except for when it comes to using saucers.
While it does help to catch any tea dribbles, I find it rattles (causing more spills) when I carry the cup on top of the saucer and it also requires the use of two hands… which makes multi-tasking quite difficult. I often read or write while sipping my tea.
Moreover, I don’t see myself using saucers with tea-cups while at work so why should it be any different at home?
When company is over, I would likely use them because that’s just the way it seems to be done. Otherwise, I don’t see a need!
I’m curious, does anyone else share this affinity for saucers? and am I a slob for not partaking in this somewhat Victorian custom…

16 Replies

I have the odd desire to preface this post with two very simple facts, I am male, and I am straight, now that we have that out of the way we shall get down to the interesting bits.

Interesting argument, curious how saucers came about as well but within the confines of your topic it is quite irrelevant. Now I am a big fan of ceremonies, traditions and etiquette, so I thought I’d do a bit of reading on the topic. One point of interest is that “Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage” (which yes I do own but lets not dwell on that) has an entire chapter dedicated to tea, an amusing chapter it is, and I noted that not once in the entire chapter did it mention the word “cup” without immediately following it with “and saucer”, probably because no one would have dared to use one without the other.

I own some very beautiful Victorian style china for tea service, (yes for the last time I am indeed straight) can’t remember the last time I’ve used them, but I personally would never use one of the cups without its matching saucer, that just would not do. I however don’t brew my tea in the British style therefore it would not be proper etiquette to use saucers with my brewing techniques and utensils.

If you are using Victorian style tea cups I’m afraid I’m going to have to side with your mum here, sorry. Its how they were designed and it just looks wrong without it. On a side note, while completely unorthodox you can turn the saucer upside down and stick it on top of your cup to keep your tea warm. That way you appease your mum and the saucer is now practical plus you can still carry it one handed. Everyone wins. :)

If you are not using Victorian style cups then depending on which style you are using saucers are completely unnecessary and could prove to be “improper”.

Note: I am quite certain that someone will respond to the effect that its your tea and you should drink it anyway you want and the great thing about tea is we can all drink it our own way without it being wrong blah blah blah. And while sure that’s true, if that’s the answer you were looking for you spent to much time asking the question, that type of answer is a dime a dozen and the lazy way out. Therefore I answered your question in the spirit I saw it being asked, plus I haven’t written anything for a few days and went a little crazy. :P

@ Seattle Tea Snob: I loved your answer! I’m glad you took the time to write such a humorous and insightful response. Welcome back to the electronic world!

My response on the other hand …

I’m not one to use saucers, either. I do think it would look odd using a fancy-looking Victorian cup without the saucer, but it really comes down to how important that is to you (I don’t know, does that fall in your Note category above, Seattle Tea Snob?).

My wife recently bought what I think would be considered a Victorian cup and saucer, and while its very ‘cute’ and stylish, and she loves it, and I actually like pouring the tea into it for her, I don’t think it’s the kind of cup I’d use very often to drink tea out of (if at all). She’s been using the saucer, and now that I think about it, it would feel wrong somehow to pour tea into it without its partner. Hmmmm

I’m not big on having too many fancy things about; when I washed the cup and saucer tonight I was a little nervous about breaking both, as I am a bit clumsy, and they are both so delicate!

To be honest I was more interested in the opinion of tea lovers abound… and what the norm may be.
I generally use mugs for my tea, since they hold more liquid than our Victorian style teacups. Those are reserved for guests (which I will begrudgingly dole out the saucers to) or those days when we haven’t got enough mugs in the cupboard left before running the dishwasher.
I’ve seen Mum use a saucer (the one matching our Vic cups) with a mug that most obviously does not match… simply because she feels it is more proper!
She also has what I affectionately call her “lady mug” which is a porcelain mug/teacup hybrid, painted like a Victorian garden… it looks quite awkward on a saucer!
I do agree that our matching cup and saucers look fitting together, and your point, Seattle, of using it to cover the cup might actually frustrate Mum more than anything, I shall have to see her reaction :)

On the point of being straight, gay, or polka-dot blue… what has tea got to do with it? This notion of hobbies making one “gay” pushes a stereotype that bothers me to no end! Girls can run for the Presidency, boys can take ballet lessons… do either of these define anyone as a person? Does my enjoying tea (as a female) make me more feminine? would not liking tea make me more masculine?
I’m deeply sorry Seattle, for any prejudice you may have come up against, and for this little tirade I’ve gone on! Equality, regardless of gender/race/ethnicity etc is an issue that gets me every time… I should have a cuppa tea to calm down now haha
For what it’s worth, not that it matters which way you identify, I do believe that you are straight! in fact, I think there is something rather attractive about a man who enjoys tea. What’s more… have we learnt nothing from Captain Picard?! (the ultimate EG fan)

Simplicitea: I broke my Mums tea pot lid awhile back… I’ve been looking for a replacement ever since, it’s had me in knots every time I see the poor lidless pot! so I understand your worry about not wanting to break the cup n saucer :)

Earl Grey Hot. MMM I love TNG! I try to enjoy EG simply because of Picard but it unfortunately is not my cup of tea. So I appeared to have struck a note. :) If nothing else I think we can agree on the fact that we are both passionate people who like tea.

To expound the point of my addendum, or “note”, was that one of my pet peeves is when people don’t have a backbone and try to appeal to the masses and make everyone happy rather then saying what they really think. Assuming the point of your question was tasteless but it did help tie my tired and your question together. So yes it was selfish, so much for my claims to being perfect. :)

As for the gay thing. A dear friend once upon a time told me that I have the perfect balance between my knife collection and my fine china collection. I tend to agree. I am quite comfortable with who I am, I like tea and proud of it and my tea ware. Constantly reaffirming my heterosexuality in my writings does, I’ve found, tend to make them more amusing, so I do it, I know its a cheap trick but it works.

This is definitely a separate topic but I wonder how many guys face prejudice because of drinking tea? I figure someone will start a topic on that so I don’t have to, I’m lazy. :) I get the general good natured ribbing from friends but most of them just as readily join me in a cup themselves. Plus I rarely lose verbal sparring matches, thus I personally have met with much. The trick is if your friends don’t respect tea, lose the friends. :)

But I really think you should use the saucer upside down and them report back on the reaction. :)

So to update my answer and to be unafraid of offending people and being pc. I think that american mugs with Victorian saucers is quite ridiculous and should be avoided. “Proper etiquette”, I believe, would probably agree.

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Spot52 select said

I do not use saucers. Anything that distracts me from enjoying tea should be avoided.

YES!! Spot52, I feel precisely the same way. I like minimalism where it can be afforded, and in my view… a saucer is simply clutter.

ssajami said

I have never cared much what is “proper” or “correct”. Etiquette is meaningless to me. I care to appease neither the masses nor anyone else, particularly regarding something so personal as my cup of tea.

I think saucers are useless. Sure, they are pretty, together with a matching teacup, WHEN SITTING ON A SHELF.
But for actually drinking tea, I honestly don’t see the point of them. As you say, they are simply clutter. I actually spill more tea when I use the saucer then when I don’t. I never seem to be able to balance the cup properly on the saucer. It’s just never worth the bother because I don’t see that I am actually gaining anything by using them. Therefore I don’t use them for myself, nor do I use them for guests. In my home, the saucers have become back-up dessert plates.

I do, however, like STS idea of using them as a teacup cover. It gives them the purpose they so clearly lack.

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Angrboda said

I don’t use saucers normally. I find they look silly with a mug and I haven’t got any that goes with the mugs anyway. Well, one, technically. But that’s from the tea-for-one set so it goes with that cup. Which I rarely use.

If I use a real cup, I would do so with a saucer, because the cup look silly without it.

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Uniquity said

I always use a cup and saucer at my Grandmother’s (she has a massive collection). I’ve established that the point of the saucer, for her at least, is to have somewhere to put your teabag once it’s steeped, lol. I have four ‘fancy’ teacups at home which I have received from her over the years and though I rarely use them due to their diminutive size, I always use the cup AND saucer if I’m giving them a go. I always feel more like I’m having a tea party when I use a cup and saucer.

As for the saucer matching cup point made earlier on…my grandmother has 5 or 6 different cups and saucers that are styled similarly but not identical. I love them. At this point, I have switched the saucers so many times that I think none of them has the original pair and she can’t even remember which goes with which. If I’m not having fun with it one way or another, I won’t bother! : )

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SimplyJenW said

No saucers. Unless you count the one by my electric kettle that holds the infuser basket between steeps. But never under a cup.

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I can’t really speak to using saucers with English style cups, but I can offer an opinion on the practical values of saucers from a gong fu and gaiwan perspective.

According to the stories I’ve heard, the saucer was invented by a lovely courtesan in China. A gaiwan is (literally) a covered bowl, and they were used at that time for personal tea drinking. However, in the finest circles of the court (of which she was a part), gaiwans were extremely fancy. By this, I mean that they were bone china and extremely thin. When you poured in your boiling water and then lifted the gaiwan to drink, the cup itself was also around 200 degrees! This lovely lady was a fine woman of the courts: therefore, her skin was delicate and not calloused from work. She had nothing to protect herself from the heat, and so was not able to use the gaiwan gracefully. To solve this problem, she invented the saucer (originally, these looked like extreme tea cup stands, as opposed to the little plates we have now). Problem solved! Boiling water, handled with grace.
If anybody else knows more specific dates and details on this story, feel free to elaborate.

Gaiwans are used around my house nowadays to prepare tea for groups, and not so much for personal use. However, the saucer still serves a valuable and practical purpose. The first quick steeping of tea is always a rinse. The steeping heats the gaiwan and cups to the proper temperature (so as not to act like ice cubes). Part of this steeping is also poured directly into the saucer. This pool of boiled water acts as extra insulation. Bone china is lovely, but it doesn’t hold heat like an yixing. The insulation helps keep the tea steeping at the proper temperature.

When having guests over (especially those whose hands are sensitive to heat), we also have little wooden saucers that we offer to put under the little gongfu cups. These cups are more like miniature bowls, and they heat up quite warm after they have hot tea sitting in them. Because they are small and have no handle, the cups are often very hot for unaccustomed fingers. With the use of a saucer, all of the guests can enjoy the tea hot (at the correct temperature) without burning their fingers.
This can also be accomplished by using little glass double-walled bubble cups (a cushion of air acts as insulation), but this is only really appropriate for greens, etc, that are steeped at a cooler temperature anyway. If I put a pu’er or an oolong into the glass bubble cup, the glass would let the heat out too quickly, and the tea wouldn’t be ideally hot (therefore losing some of the complexity and experience).

As for English style teacups however? The saucer seems to be a bit of a remnant from the gaiwan saucer. The English tea cups fix the problem of hot cups by adding lovely little handles to protect the drinker’s hand. Mugs also circumvent this issue with very thick ceramic (the result: a nice warm mug that you can wrap your hands around).

However, saucers are still practical for English-style tea because they catch drips. Usually, we’re not bringing out the tea/coffee cups and saucers unless we’ve eaten a fine meal, and chances are good we’ve gotten out the tablecloth. We’re probably not going to have any drips, but just to be on the safe side, we might as well make use of those pretty little saucers.
Also, a saucer is a good place to put a cookie. Yum!

ssajami said

The story of the gaiwan saucer is fascinating. Thanks.

Yes, great story! Thanks!

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Cups & Sauces v other for me has more to do with what tea I’m drinking rather than where or with whom. I always drink fruit infusions out of glassware whether it’s a glass mug or a long glass cup it has something to do with looking at the brilliant reds, yellows and everything in between. Plus I think the less ‘tea’ a drink is the better it tastes out of glass.

But black tea is definitely a cup and saucer affair, in the morning I always get out the best china and make a nice cup for myself. Oolong and white tea are teapots and cups and saucers. Herbal and roibos are fine bone china mugs they just seem to suit it more. While green gets those beautiful Chinese cups.

I do like that a saucer catches tea spills and I find it does a good job of it if I drink the tea over the saucer- strangely when I use a mug I find I don’t spill anything so I think the cup lends itself to spills and therefore lends itself to a saucer. Also it can be nice to put a little biscuit or small cake on the saucer at nigh-time as a little treat it always seems like that’s okay because how much harm can a treat that fits on a saucer do? :)

For green tea I do like the small Chinese cups that are smaller than a standard cup minus the handle they always feel special no matter how often I drink out of them and when they are warm and it’s cold out it’s lovely putting your hand underneath and drinking that way. And again I don’t spill out of those cups – I really think cups with saucers have something going on together – an alliance to ensure survival.

So that’s my two cents worth.

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Wow, what insight and fun! However, I’m ready to drop after a long last day at this job so I’m off to bed… will give a proper reply later!

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Alana237 said

I always use saucers. They make the whole more..complete, you know? Like the teacup wouldn’t look right without one. I almost always use teacups, mugs are too large. I prefer to make a pot and then have several smaller cups than one or two large ones. And, as Winter Salo says, ‘how much harm can a treat that fits on a saucer do?’. They are good to catch spills as well. I used to spill tea all the time when carrying a teacup and saucer, but I have sort of got used to it and I rarely spill now, even when carrying one-handed.

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