Fortuna Fortune Telling Tea Cup

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Fortuna Fortune Telling Tea Cup and Saucer, 1898
Side view of the Fortuna Fortune Telling Tea Cup, 1898, showing signs of the Zodiac,Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces
Side view of the Fortuna Fortune Telling Tea Cup, 1898, Libra, Scorpio, and Sagittarious
Interior of the Fortuna Fortune Telling Tea Cup, 1898, showing months and seasons of the year, as well as popular leaf leaf symbols.
The instruction booklet for the Fortuna Fortune Telling Tea Cup, 1898, by John W. Hanley; perhaps the oldest written account of how to read tea leaves.

The Fortune Telling Tea Cup, manufactured in 1898 by John W. Hanley's Fortuna Cup Co. of 49 Horatio Street, New York, New York, is the second-oldest fortune telling cup for which a patent was granted in the United States. The pattern of chinaware is typical of late 19th century American white-bodied highly glazed table ware and is marked "Semi Porcelain" in an octagon in iron-rust red on the saucer bottom and "Patented Nov. 8, 1898" on the bottom of the cup in black. The saucer, which is over-large and over-deep by modern standards, hearkens back to the old custom, especially common in Ireland and among Irish-American immigrants, of pouring hot tea from the cup into the saucer to cool it and drinking it lukewarm from the saucer.

Among American families of Irish extraction, it is still popular to tell the tea leaves in the saucer rather than in the cup, and this set is designed for reading that way as well as in the cup. In saucer-reading, one uses the shapes of the leaves as standard symbols and times foretold events according to their position in the saucer, with the leaves nearest the outer rim signifying the present, those in the middle area indicating the near future, and the center of the saucer representing the distant and/or dangerous future. How far into the future a saucer reading extends is a variable, but is usually said to be no more than a month or a year away, depending on the reader's family beliefs.

According to the 28-page instruction booklet that accompanies it, The Fortune Telling Tea Cup is "Prophetic, Interesting, Amusing, and Instructive." The method of reading described in the booklet is unique to this cup, relying on the tea leaves as markers of the seasons, months of the year, signs of the Zodiac and, most importantly, the many interior rectangular areas, for each of which there is a specific divinatory meaning. The result is a novel system of cup-reading which can only be used with this unusually marked tea cup and requires the use of the booklet to decode the otherwise arcane meanings of the rectangular areas.

In addition, around the top of the cup's interior there is a band of graphic designs and images based on traditional tea leaf patterns, such as the cross, the four-leaf clover, and the triangle. The uniquely double-layered combination of astrological symbols and conventional tea leaf symbols prefigures the immensely popular Nelros Cup of Fortune by decades, and, in fact, it would be difficult to imagine the Nelros Cup of Fortune, the [[Taltos Fortune Telling Cup (1975) Jon Anton|Taltos Fortune Telling Cup, or the Jane Lyle Cup of Destiny coming into existence had not the Fortuna Cup of Fortune led the way.

Although John W. Hanley's Fortuna Fortune Telling Cup was a novel invention, the author made a point of acknowledging older and more traditional methods of reading tea cups through the shapes that are formed by tea leaves; after giving his own method of cup reading, he concludes with a presentation of one of the earliest printed lists of symbolic tea leaf divination signs, consisting of about 50 "Figures and Signs as Interpreted by Our Grandmothers." John W. Hanley's 1898 use of the word "Grandmothers" casts his understanding of the traditional symbol-system of Celtic and Anglo Saxon tea reading back as far as 1840 - 1850. The meanings he gives in this section of his text are quite similar to modern tea leaf interpretations -- for instance, an old shoe represents "a wedding and a journey," the cat means "secret enemies", and the dog means "faithful friend."


catherine yronwode
curator, historian, and docent
The Mystic Tea Room

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