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Don’t Mess with My Mug

I finally stumped Google when I typed in my question about coffee mugs.

I started thinking about coffee mugs one morning as I sipped my first cup of the day. It came to me, along with that mind-clearing caffeine rush, that when I open the kitchen cabinet every morning in search of a cup, my eyes—quickly followed by my hand—always go to the mug with words or images on it. Unmarked cups are a distant second choice for me.

As I write this, for instance, I am drinking from a white Menger Hotel mug. It has a green 19th-century drawing of the venerable San Antonio hotel, along with the words “Menger Hotel” and “Established 1859.”

So why do I like that mug? The answer was simple, once I gave it some thought: Every time I see it, it triggers a pleasant memory of one of many occasions I have stayed at the Menger. All of my favorite coffee mugs are evocative. There’s my Frio River mug, my 40th high-school reunion mug, my John Wayne mug, my Texas Rangers mug and my Texas Capitol mug, to name a few.

Those of us who are inveterate coffee drinkers can get quite attached to a particular mug. When I was spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, for instance, I once had to try to explain to recently retired San Antonio Express-News columnist and curmudgeonly exposer-of-government-waste Roddy Stinson why a crime-fighting DPS trooper had filed a theft charge against someone who had tried to appropriate his favorite coffee mug. You don’t mess with Texas or a Texan’s well-seasoned coffee mug.

If you’re troubled by someone borrowing your cup at the office, see if you can find the lockable mug someone invented. It has a hole in the bottom plugged by a removable stopper you can keep on your key chain. When you’ve got the key, your coffee mug is useless to anyone else.

Beyond the memories associated with coffee mugs, from the perspective of those businesses that either give them to customers or sell them as souvenirs, a mug with something printed on it is a near perfect form of advertising. Well, as long as you’re targeting coffee drinkers. You only pay for it once (and not much if you buy in bulk), but the mug keeps shouting your brand day after day until it gets accidentally dropped or the owner’s spouse puts it back in the garage-sale box.

As consumer items, coffee mugs also are as green as an unroasted coffee bean when it comes to protecting the environment. An old friend like a ceramic or metallic mug used day after day is one fewer disposable paper or Styrofoam cup in the landfill. (According to the website Americans discard in excess of 14 billion hot beverage cups each year, enough to loop the Earth more than 55 times. That number is expected to grow to 23 billion by 2010.)

I have dozens, maybe scores of coffee mugs. And I’m not even an official coffee-mug collector.

Back to my Google question: “Who invented coffee mug advertisement?” The vastness of the Internet is largely silent on the matter. Judging from several websites devoted to coffee mug collecting, the railroad industry and restaurants produced the first “advermugs.”

Typing “Who invented the coffee mug?” did net me a Yahoo! Answers page where someone had posted that question. The best response was: “The guy who was sore from burning his lips on the coffeemaker!” Someone else posited Mr. Coffee as the inventor, but another respondent got it right: “No one truly knows who did. That’s like who invented a vase or a door?”

(A couple of interesting websites are: and

If you feel you have too many mugs or want to start enjoying new memories, here are a few ideas:

Used coffee mugs, assuming they are not chipped or worn, are great for re-gifting—again, at least for other coffee drinkers. Who but you has to know the mug came from your own kitchen?

Consider the one-in, two-out rule. Popular with the anti-clutter crowd, this rule holds that anytime you acquire one thing, you must get rid of two of the same category of things. In other words, if you buy a Far Side mug, select two old mugs to re-gift or donate to a charity or thrift shop.

You just might be drinking coffee from a valuable antique you can sell for a lot of money. A 1994 Starbucks cup recently fetched $1,283.65 on eBay.

As much as I like my coffee mugs, selling a used mug for that much money would make for a wonderful memory to cherish over my next cup of joe.

Mike Cox is author of the new book The Texas Rangers: Wearing the Cinco Peso, 1821-1900 (New York: Forge Books, 2008).