A look at the fortune telling teacups, which were popular in the early 20th century, and were adorned with symbols meant to aid in interpreting tea leaves.
• The different varieties of fortune telling teacups
• An attempt at a tea leaf reading
Episode Script for Fortune Telling Teacups
DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product.
- • I sort of randomly stumbled upon this topic, as I often do. I of course knew of tasseography, or fortune telling using tea leaves; I’ve known about it ever since reading the Harry Potter books back in the 1990s.
○ But I had never heard of using special fortune telling cups to facilitate tasseography. I’ve mentioned that I go down wormholes pretty often–I was reorganizing my tea cabinet, and realized that I wanted to buy some more empty tea tins from Harney and Sons, which is a tea company, so I go to their website, and the tea tins are sold out, but while I was clicking around their website, I saw these weird, fun, extremely expensive goth teacups produced by a company called Miss Havisham’s Curiosities. And while I wasn’t interested in buying a $65 tea cup that said witch on it, I really liked the vintage style design of the cups, so I searched for Miss Havisham’s Curiosities and clicked around on that website. And I just so happened to click on something in their menu that said “Fortune Cups,” and ended up on a page of really cool vintage and vintage-style teacups, which looked almost like normal teacups, except that their insides were covered in symbols. Those symbols included things like rings, ships, keys, eyes, wagon wheels, anchors, hearts, sunbursts, etc. Objects that could have many different symbolic meanings and resonances for different people.
○ So when I realized that some of these tea cups were vintage, that really got me interested. They kinda reminded me of Ouija boards, since they’re divination-related consumer products.
○ For whatever reason, I’ve never been super interested in tasseography, but the idea of these weird little fortune telling cups really charmed me.
• Tea leaf reading history
○ Romany appropriation?
○ There’s a longish history to tasseography, but in the interest of time and staying on topic, I want to focus on tea-leaf reading in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In a cursory search, I saw many mentions of tea leaf reading in the 1890s, though wasn’t really seeing mention of cups specifically for that purpose.
§ Predictably, though, much like we saw with Ouija and planchette, the articles focused on women doing tasseography, and depicted women who were interested in that sort of divination as being unhinged, foolish, or frivolous. I also found a pretty racist description of a Black woman who was hired to attend a party on Long Island and read tea leaves for the rich white women there. That was in the May 17, 1890 edition of the Brooklyn Times Union.
§ The Aug 8, 1899 issue of the Wilkes Barre Semi Weekly Record ran a headline about tea leaf reading: “Fate in a Teacup: An Amusing, if Senseless, Diversion for Summer Afternoons” The article goes about how you’d think it would.
§ Basically, it sounds like tea leaf reading was popular because people sat around and talked and drank tea anyway, so why not try to interpret the leaves while you’re hanging out anyway.
○ According to a book called Tea-Cup Fortune Telling (author unknown), 1930, the wa that tasseography normally worked was a person would have a white teacup, and into that, they would pour coffee, or tea brewed with loose leaves that weren’t strained out. Then, you put the saucer on the cup, flip it over, drain out the liquid, and you’re left with the leaves or grounds. To read a bit from the book:
§ You must concentrate on the cup, and allow your imagination to have full play, in order to picture the leaves forming into emblems. The reader of the cup should allow her thought to rest upon the person who is waiting to hear his fortune. Do not expect the figures always to have an actual resemblance to the emblems; it is quite sufficient that the leaves suggest these things. Sometimes they are very distinct. Of course the more fertile the imagination of the person who is studying the cup the more will be discovered in it. . . .
§ It is impossible to lay down any definite rule as to interpretation; although every symbol has some general significance, it must have a particular significance in regard to each person. This is the case with regard to dreams, for instance. To dream of coal means very good luck to some people I know; while to others, even in the same family, it is quite the reverse.
§ . . . The handle of the cup represents the house, or the home. Time can be foretold more or less by the position of the leaves. Close to the brim the events are immediate; and the nearness or the distance from the home is judged according to the position of the leaves away from the handle.
§ Leaves at the bottom of the cup generally forebode ill fortune. The left of the handle can be interpreted as to events passed or opportunities thrown away; the right side of the handle as present and future, usually good, except when cloudy or thick.
§ Serpentine Lines indicate roads or ways. If they appear in the clear are sure tokens of some fortunate changes at hand; surrounded by many dots they signify the gain of money, also long life. At the bottom of the cup, or surrounded by clouds, they indicate reverses past or future.
§ Dots signify gain by money and must be interpreted by the surroundings.
§ Circles indicate completion.
§ Wavy Lines show unsettlement.
§ Straight Lines signify a straight course.
§ A Cross Within a Circle indicates imprisonment, detention, hospital or other form of enforced restraint.
§ Dashes generally indicate enterprises afoot, but time must be given for maturity.”
○ The book goes on to describe all sorts of symbolism related to tea leaves, and what it means when they appear in different parts of the cup. It’s all very intuitive, and kind of reminds me of dream interpretation meanings.
○ So that’s about fortune telling in a regular teacup. Somewhere at the very end of the 19th century, special fortune telling teacups were made, with symbols that aided in tea leaf interpretation.
• Types of fortune telling cups
○ First, want to acklowledge a major source for this: the website The Mystic Tea Room, which has extensive info about fortune telling teacups
○ There ended up being several types of fortune telling teacups: symbol cups, astrology cups, and cups that had playing cards printed on the inside called cartomancy cups.
○ I wanted to talk about a selection of cups that I thought were interesting or notable.
○ I found an article describing one from June 3, 1899 in The Standard Union, a newspaper in Brooklyn. It speaks pretty dismissively, opening with “A new addition for the afternoon tea table where maids do congregate is the future-telling tea cup. This latest addendum to the paraphenalia of the Soothsayer is wide and deep, with its inner surface covered with a network of lines and a border of stars, fishes, scorpions, lions and other signs of the zodiac.”
○ in a Feb 3, 1900 edition of the Knoxville Sentinel, which was surprisingly positive, maybe because it was an article about the cup, not about women performing tasseography. It had a nice description of the cup:
§ “The cup and saucer come, packed with tissue paper daintily in a box, with an accompanying book of explanation. The saucer is worked with circles and the cup is divided by geometrical lines, diverging from the center inside, i.e. the bottom, and crossed by circles like a globe. In the spaces thus formed are stars and the signs of the zodiac. The sun is indicated in the bottom of the cup, inside to shed light on the bank of tea leaves in whatsoever square they lie.”
§ Apparently the cup also came with an instruction manual, tho the author said it was unhelpful.
○ I think those articles were likely talking abut the Hanley’s Fortuna Cup, which was introduced in 1898 and which I think was the second fortune telling cup patented in the US.
§ The Fortuna Fortune Telling Cup has this sort of globe-like grid of lines, and the interpretation depended on a careful study of the accompanying booklet, which would explain how different placements of the tea leaves indicated different times of year, etc. It looks like it was very complicated, tho also very innovative, and a lot of future cups took inspiration from the Fortuna.
○ Aynsley Cup of Fortune Nelros (1904)
§ This was a cup made from bone china, with symbols and writing in red and black paint on the cup and saucer. It feels really Edwardian, with a sort of scalloped rim, curved edges, and a sort of pedestal-style base. Most of the versions of the Nelros have really nice, ornately curved handles.
§ My favorite feature of the cup was that it had a slogan written on the outside: If thou wouldst learn thy future with thy tea, this magic cup will show it thee
§ It was popular enough that there’s a whole chapter about it in the 1946 book Telling Fortunes By Tea Leaves by Cicely Kent
□ However, while the book included a chapter about the cup, the book recommends only the cup, not the saucer that comes with it. The first page of the chapter says “I am not suggesting the use of the Nelros saucer, for the reason that its signs are somewhat obscure, and students who have no experience in the science of astrology would find it confusing, if used in addition to the cup, in which all needful signs are illustrated.”
□ I feel very seen in that description, because despite some very earnest efforts, especially over the last 4-5 years, I just barely grasp some astrological stuff.
§ The Nelros Cup of Fortune ended up influencing many future fortune telling cups, such as:
□ The Taltos Fortune Telling Cup, which was released in 1975. I don’t think the Taltos is as nice looking–it’s a pretty typical 1970s teacup with straight side, rather than the nicely curved Edwardian Nelros Cup of Fortune, and the illustrations are in full color with shading, and the words on the outside are a pretty 70s feeling script font. But despite the cosmetic differences, it’s basically the same cup in terms of content.
□ There was a 1980 version, the Taltos Fortune Telling Cup by Royal Kendal, which looks basically the same as the other Taltos Fortune Telling Cup
□ In 1985, there was the International Collectors Guild Zarka Fortune Telling Teacup Set, which also has, in my opinion, somewhat garish colors, though for some reason I find it a bit more charming than the Taltos cups which it’s basically a clone of. This was a Japanese cup that was sold for about 10 years, and you could send off for it from ads in tabloids, womens magazines, and gift catalogs.
□ Finally, in 2001, Barnes & Noble introduced The Cup of Destiny by Jane Lyle, which is basically a dupe of the Nelros Cup of Fortune, though it sadly does not feature the fun text on the exterior of the cup.
® The shape of the Cup of Destiny is more pleasing to me than the Taltos cups, because it’s curved with the little pedestal base type thing, and has the nice little scalloped edges.
® It also features black and red paint, with simple, outlined shapes rather than full color illustrations. As a result, it looks a lot more occult than the Taltos cups of the 70s and 80s, which kinda just reminded me of childrens book illustrations or something.
® Of course, instead of being made of delicate, translucent bone china from England, it’s restaurant-grade stoneware manufactured in China. But hey, it’s vegan!
® I started googling this and discovered, to my surprise, that the Cup of Destiny is still being manufactured and sold today. 20 years seems like a long time to be producing such a niche gift item, but it does seem to be coming back into vogue now. I found it for sale at Urban Outfitters, which really says a lot about the trendiness of divination and occult imagery right now. However, pro tip, you can find it for sale cheaper at Target. I ordered one from Target for like $19.
® Okay, enough about modern cups, for now. We’d been talking about the 1904 Nelros Cup of Fortune, so let’s get back to the timeline of fortune telling cups.
○ I saw a number of articles in society pages in the 1910s talking about fortune telling cups being used as party favors, or as placecards. This was interesting to me, because while I saw alarmist articles about women doing tasseography and that meaning they were foolish, there didn’t seem to be quite the same moral panic about these fortune telling cups as there were about ouija boards. You know, unlike Ouija boards, the Catholic church didn’t ask someone to write about how the devil works through fortune telling teacups, for example.
§ It seems like these were more of a novelty.
○ Aynsley also produced a Cup of Knowledge starting around 1924, it seems, and they ended up making about a zillion permutations of that cup. It differs from the Nelros Cup of Fortune in that it features playing cards on the inside, rather than symbols, and the exterior often featured more ornamental elements, like flowers, ribbons, or solid pretty colors, rather than the fortune telling slogan.
§ In 1924, an event called the British Empire Exhibition was held in Wembley, England, and at least five china manufacturers made special fortune telling cups as souvenirs of the event. Aynsley produced several versions of the Cup of Knowledge featuring roses on the sides.
§ In 1937, they produced a souvenir Cup of Fortune to commemorate the coronation of King George VI–he’s the guy who Colin Firth played in The King’s Speech
§ There was one made in 1939 for the royal visit to Canada
§ Aynsley wasn’t the only manufacturer to make these commemorative cups, but I’m using them as an example because there were SO many versions of the Cup of Knowledge
○ Zancigs Cup of Destiny (1926) manufactured by Anchor http://www.mystictearoom.com/wiki/Zancigs_Cup_of_Destiny
○ And now we get to the part where I need to give a disclaimer about cultural appropriation and racism when it comes to fortune telling cups and divination and witchy things in general.
§ This is a huge topic, one that I can’t do justice to here, but in general, if you run in occult or witchy circles at all, you know this is a big issue. And you’re probably very aware that people still constantly use the racial slur for Romani people when talking about witchy stuff–like for example, there’s plenty of that on instagram, or in etsy vendors shop names or product names, etc. It’s common enough that some people still may not be totally aware that it’s a racial slur–at least in the US, it’s considered a racial slur. I know this can vary from country to country, but there are about a million Romani people living in the US, and I live in the US, so in this context, it’s a slur. There are reasons behind that that are beyond the scope of this episode, but just google it if you want to know more.
§ Because of that, since the 19th century, the term Romani has been widely in use in English instead of the racial slur. But many people, I’d say in particular a certain type of witchy white, NON-Romani woman, still use the racial slur to describe themselves because they seem to think it means “free spirited” and “witchy” in an exotic way. You’ll also see that sort of language–either the slur, or the term Romany being used in an appropriative way, just to make a fortune telling product seem more authentic or exotic. So in a bit, I’ll talk some about the so-called “Romany” fortune telling tea cups that were produced in the 1930s.
§ Then, also, I saw this in both the Ouija board research that I did last year, and in the fortune telling cup research, but caricatures of Chinese people, and appropriations of Chinese culture, tend to be used for a similar purpose. I also saw a lot of that with Indian culture in the Ouija board. So. Not good.
○ I found a May 1931 article from the AP about a fortune-telling tea cup designed by a woman named Genevieve Wimsatt, the editor of one of the first English-language womens magazines in China. Her cup was adorned, supposedly, with Chinese symbols from antiquity, though I always find that kind of claim dubious. The article went on to describe how the teacup was used:
§ “When a fair bridge player drains her cup the other players look on with eager eyes to see if the tea leaves adhere to a duck, rabbit, or a piece of bamboo.”
§ I found an etsy listing for this cup, which was sold but you could look at the pictures, and it has a saucer with a yin yang in the center, where the cup goes, and then the saucer is edged with depictiosn of the animals of the chinese zodiac. The interior of the cup is covered in lots of little pictures, and the exterior shows a charactature of a chinese man holding something that looks like a narrow white flag or pennant.
§ I actually found her 1928 patent paperwork for the cup, and here’s the story behind the man on the cup:
On the outside of the cup is the figure of Lu Tung Pin, the patron genius of fortune tellers, with his famous sword, the demon slayer,
and his fly-whisk, the cloud sweeper, accompanied by the live red bats of happiness. The saucer is bordered with the twelve cyclical animals of Chinese geomancy.
§ The patent also explains exactly how to use the cup, which is pretty complicated, and has to do with where the leaves are, what animal on the saucer Lu Tung Pin’s fly-whisk points to, etc.
○ In the 1930s, there were a couple cartomancy cups called the Romany Cup of Fortune, one made in the US and one made in the UK.
○ In the course of researching all of this, I I ordered a fortune telling teacup, though it hasn’t arrived yet.
§ I got the Red Rose Cup of Fortune, which was made of bone china with 22K gold symbols, lettering, and trim, and was produced in England by Taylor & Kent in the 1964.
§ There are three versions of the Red Rose Cup of Fortune, which are numbered–I ordered set #1.
§ I’ve heard these cups described as promotional items, or “premiums” sold with Red Rose tea, so I’m assuming they were given away for free with some tea purchases.
§ You can find those pretty cheaply online–even with tax and shipping, the one I got was $30. As far as I can tell, these are some of the cheapest fortune telling cups you can buy these days.
• Weird fortune telling cup stories
Fortune telling cups today
Sources consulted RE: Fortune Telling Teacups
Books RE: Fortune Telling Teacups
- Tea-Cup Fortune Telling (author unknown), 1930:
- Tea-Cup Reading and Fortune-Telling by Tea Leaves, by a Highland Seer: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/18241/18241-h/18241-h.htm
- Telling Fortunes By Tea Leaves 1946 by Cicely Kent: https://archive.org/details/TellingFortunesByTeaLeaves
Articles RE: Fortune Telling Teacups
- 15 Jul 1893, Page 32 – The Railroad Telegrapher at Newspapers.com
- Asheville Gazette News Sat Jul 16 1910
- Baxter Springs News Thu Nov 16 1911
- Beatrice Weekly Times Thu Nov 8 1900
- Brooklyn Times Union Sat May 17 1890
- Buffalo Courier Sun Mar 8 1925
- Buffalo Courier Wed Aug 3 1910
- Buffalo Morning Express and Illustrated Buffalo Express Sat Feb 1 1896
- Chattanooga Daily Times Sun Jan 8 1899
- Evening Star Sat Aug 1 1896
- Fall River Daily Globe Tue May 23 1899
- Great Bend Tribune Wed Mar 6 1907
- Knoxville Sentinel Sat Feb 3 1900
- Logansport Pharos Tribune Fri May 27 1898
- Monrovia Daily News Fri Jan 17 1913
- Monterey Daily Cypress Fri Aug 26 1910
- Oakland Tribune Wed May 6 1931
- Saskatoon Daily Star Wed Jul 5 1922
- Star Tribune Fri Dec 1 1893
- The Bessemer Herald Sat Feb 17 1912
- The Daily Republican Fri Jul 26 1918
- The Daily Telegram Sat Nov 8 1919
- The Decatur Herald Thu Feb 1 1923
- The Evening Herald Mon Sep 30 1912
- The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette Thu Feb 7 1895
- The Honolulu Advertiser Thu Jan 7 1892
- The Morning Astorian Sun Apr 19 1896
- The Newcastle Weekly Courant Sat Jan 4 1896
- The Ottawa Citizen Fri Aug 2 1901
- The Ottawa Journal Mon Oct 24 1898
- The Ottawa Journal Sat Dec 9 1899
- The Ottawa Journal Sat Jan 26 1924
- The Pomona Progress Sat Jul 15 1916
- The Record Thu Aug 18 1927
- The Standard Union Sat Jun 3 1899
- The Winnipeg Tribune Thu Sep 13 1928
- The Winnipeg Tribune Wed Sep 6 1922
- Times Herald Fri May 20 1910
- Wilkes Barre Semi Weekly Record Tue Aug 8 1899
- Wilkes Barre Times Leader The Evening News Fri May 22 1908
- Genevieve Wimsatt’s cup: https://www.etsy.com/listing/504597242/genevieve-wimsatt-chinese-fortune?show_sold_out_detail=1&ref=nla_listing_details
- 1920 patent for fortune telling cup: https://patents.google.com/patent/US1342223A/en?q=fortune+telling+cup&oq=fortune+telling+cup&sort=old
Patent for disposable fortune telling cup, 2007:
- Combination scale and fortune-telling machine patent: https://patents.google.com/patent/US1774622A/en?q=fortune+telling+cup&oq=fortune+telling+cup&sort=old&page=1
- Fortune telling game patent 1935: https://patents.google.com/patent/US2008357A/en?q=fortune+telling+cup&oq=fortune+telling+cup&sort=old&page=1
- Cup of Destiny: https://www.urbanoutfitters.com/shop/the-cup-of-destiny-book-teacup-set?