A Cup for the Road!

The time has come in our work on the Office to start bringing in the little details, the accessories of daily life.  There will be quite a few such things in this room, and they all will require some explanation.  Because the 1781 probate inventory does not provide us with a list of contents for this room when it was being used as Fielding’s office, we have to imagine what sort of objects he would have on hand.  Instead of showing the things we KNOW were in the room, we are showing things that illustrate a little bit about Fielding’s life and personality.

Image, Thomas Place Auction Galleries

Today we will be focusing on a unique drinking vessel known as a “stirrup cup.”  At first glance, this cup doesn’t look much like a cup at all. Most notably, it doesn’t have a flat bottom, and therefore rests on its side.  Stirrup cups were also famous for being made in the shape of various animal heads, in this case that of a fox.  As early as the 17th century in England, fox hunting was a major pastime.  An entire week of entertainment could be scheduled around elaborate hunts, with hundreds of participants (not to mention their horses and dogs), and a host who provided food, drink and hospitality from his country manor.  Fox hunting was often reserved for the aristocracy in England, but in the American colonies participation in hunts (albeit on a smaller scale) became a mark of gentility.  The role of hospitality was emphasized, and seeing to the comfort of one’s guests nearly overshadowed the importance of actually hunting anything.  The stirrup cup was a part of the hunting tradition.  As participants met up prior to setting out after their fox, servants would often wonder around the horses carrying these cups, filled with wine or punch, handing them up to riders once they were mounted and “in their stirrups” for one last toast or fortifying drink.  Although the original cups were simple in appearance, over the years, makers began producing them in fanciful designs related to hunting, like fox, dog or horse heads.  It was all part of the festive mood associated with fox hunting.  The stirrup cup itself eventually became a symbol for hospitality, or good wishes for safe travels, and was often offered to guests when they departed a household.

Gift of Mrs. George Steiner, 1991.

Our example of a stirrup cup was made ca. 1775 in Staffordshire, England.  In addition to being fashioned to look like the head of a fox, it is also decorated with the phrase “Talli: O” on its collar, in reference to the traditional cry shouted at the beginning of a hunt (sometimes written “Tally-Oh” or Tally-Ho”, as well).  In an interesting connection, cuff links with the same inscription were found during the archaeological dig at Ferry Farm, and were dated to the Washington family era on the property.  It is well-known that George Washington was an avid hunter, and the symbols of that lifestyle make it evident.

Because of both its symbolism as an object used by the social elites in colonial America, and its ties to objects unearthed at Ferry Farm, we have chosen to display the stirrup cup in Fielding’s Office.  Although we do not know whether Fielding ever participated in fox hunting himself, we do know that he strove to maintain the appearance of refinement and gentility so important to his business and social standing.  Kenmore itself was built for that purpose.  The Office was a room in which he would have received business associates and close friends, and he no doubt offered them a cup of hospitality before they took their leave.

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