past & present: things for the table


Image above: Illustration by
Julia Rothman

After a six-hour drive from New York yesterday (with lots of laughing, gas-station coffee and music mixes), today is our first day at the Brimfield Antique show. While there’s always the serendipity factor when antiquing, I tend to keep a running list of things I’d like to find. This year, I’m on the hunt for tabletop accessories — I would love to find a rustic cutting board, mismatched porcelain or anything silver. So I was in the mood to look at a few odd tabletop accessories. Who knows what I might come home with! And if you’re not going antiquing this week, never fear; you can still get your own pair of sugar nippers — just see below! Happy eating! — Amy A.


Image above: Sugar nippers from Musée Le Secq des Tournelles

Sugar Nippers
In the early 18th and 19th centuries, sugar would have appeared on the grocery shelves in the form of a cone. And nippers, like the scary looking implements above, were used to break off a chunks for coffee or tea. Larger models for the nippers were mounted on wooden planks in order to increase leverage and stabilize the cutting action. Before 1800, refined sugar was expensive enough to be kept under lock and key. When granulated sugar was needed, the sugar would have been ground using a mortar and a pestle. The whiter the sugar, the more elegant and expensive it was. Because sugar for coffee or tea was always served in bowls in lump form, sugar pincers or tongs were used to serve the sugar at the table.


Image above: French silver chocolate pot, ca. 1765

Chocolate Pots
Chocolate was both currency and food to the Aztecs — Montezuma spent his afternoons sipping bitter chocolate flavored with vanilla, cloves and pepper. When chocolate was discovered by Spanish explorers, they were so enamored with the Aztec drink that they took it back to Spain, and although they tried to keep the new discovery under wraps, hot chocolate quickly became the luxury drink of Europe. Louis XIV’s wife, Marie-Thérèse, had a servant whose sole responsibility was to supply the queen and her ladies with daily cups of chocolate.

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Image above: Chocolate pot, 1700–1710, made by Edward Winslow via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Around the end of the 18th century, the Europeans began to combine their chocolate with milk and sugar to create a sweeter hot drink. This early chocolate was very dense and required a considerable amount a whisking. You can discern a chocolate pot from a coffee pot, in that a chocolate pot is narrower at the top and often has a small hole in the lid to accommodate the stem of the whisk. Spanish ladies were apparently so addicted to their hot chocolate that they carried cups, pots and molinetes (wooden whisks) into church. The archbishop of Mexico became so annoyed by all the sipping and slurping that he prohibited colonial ladies and their maids from drinking in church, but he underestimated the bond between a woman and her chocolate and was, shortly after, poisoned by his own morning cup of hot chocolate.


Image above: 16th-century design for an egg cup via the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Egg Cup
In terms of which came first to the European table, the egg may have come before the chicken. The chicken didn’t appear on menus until the 5th century BC in Greece, but wild duck eggs had been considered a delicacy for some time. France’s fashion conscious king, Louis XV, took egg eating to a whole new level. The king’s breakfast was a public display, and crowds gathered to watch him eat his Sunday egg out of a golden egg cup and dramatically whack the top off of his boiled egg. He was so particular about his eggs that prize-laying hens were kept in the attics of Versailles. Those first egg cups were made from precious metals — gold and silver — and were common baby gifts. Later, at 19th-century fairgrounds, pressed egg cups were the standard prize at shooting stands.


If you don’t have the energy to sift through antique bins, you can still find chocolate pots, sugar nippers and egg cups! I’m actually dying to make some hot chocolate with the molinillo. Has anyone ever tried it?

1. Tina Frey Egg Cup, $30; 2. Aztec Hot Chocolate, $25 3. Chocolate Pot, $199; 4. Mexican Molinillo, $14; 5. Blue Java Mug, $9; 6. Egg Cup, $10 (set of 6); 7. Sugar Nippers, $60; 8. Large Sugar Cone, $12 (another source for cone sugar is Deborah’s Pantry)

  1. What an interesting post! Thank you for sharing all of that wonderful history. I’m going to keep an eye out for these little treasures next time I’m antiquing. Now I am craving hot chocolate!

    -Forever Lovely

  2. I would have had no idea if I ran into sugar nippers. Thanks for sharing!!

  3. Sara Kate says:

    SO fascinating! Thank you for the fun history lesson, and enjoy Brimfield!

  4. Brittany says:

    I’m going to the Brimfield Antique show this Saturday for the 1st time and cannot wait to find little gems like these! Thanks for the wonderful history lesson!

  5. Suzanne says:

    I love the story about the ladies sipping the chocolate at church. Hilarious! I have a chocolate set from my great grandmother. I never really understood the concept of a chocolate set so thank you for the history!

  6. Sarah P says:

    I love this post! I first heard about the sugar cones (and bricks of tea!) on a tour of a historic site, and ever since then I’ve wondered if they grated it to use in recipes or what. Now I know!

  7. miriam says:

    Love this post! I’m currently writing a book chapter on sugar in the 16th and 17th century, and was excited to see the antique nippers from later centuries. I’m particularly fond of this reproduction antique school poster on Sugar from Deyrolle, and have it hanging in my dining room. In the center is a cone of sugar and nippers: http://www.deyrolle.com/laboutique/Planches-pédagogiques/Leçons-de-chose/Le-sucre.html

  8. Bianca says:

    It’s so nice to see someone else in love with chocolate pots! We’ve got a whole collection of them. They’re beautiful and make great photography props!

  9. Amanda Wells says:

    At first glance, I thought the sugar nippers were dental instruments from back in the day! Interesting!

  10. Susan says:

    Wish I could be there!

  11. Justine says:

    Molinillos are fabulous for making hot chocolate. They whisk the milk and chocolate into a nice frothy consistency. The coolest part is that they are carved from one piece of wood, even the loose rings that move between the sections.

  12. Kristan Roberts says:

    Thanks for such a cool post! I loved learning about all these things, and how they came about….And, I will appreciate my granulated sugar a little more now! x

  13. Keren says:

    wow cool, i so wish they still sold sugar in cones, how dainty would that be! ahh i want all of that stuff – would make the best tea/hot chocolate party!

  14. Briana says:

    dear god, I thought the first things were horrible dental instruments!!!! Glad I was wrong. :)

  15. Loora says:

    Silver or silver-plated egg cup is still a traditional baby gift here in France (also it’s on its way out by most families). It’s funny, but a bit useless…

    I loved that article ! Please, more ! (and more chocolate, can’t get enough of that too !)

  16. Chocolate pots! What a thing :)

  17. Thanks for the education for the mind and the eyes. :)

    Drinking chocolate is a wonderful, savory flavor experience.

  18. Wonderful storytelling! My kind of entertainment…especially learning about the Spanish ladies carrying their personal hot chocolate paraphernalia into church and the subsequent demise of the archbishop!

    Alas, I had a Mexican Molinillo and let it go during my last move. May not have understood how to use it properly, so had mixed results. A beautiful utensil though, sort of like sculpture for the kitchen.

  19. Hannah says:

    My mom is Mexican, so we only ever made Mexican chocolate with the molinillo. You just buy Abuelita chocolate (it comes in very thick disks), cut off the amount you want, and put it in a pot on the stove with milk. You use the molinillo to mix up the chocolate as it dissolves into the hot milk. Grasp the handle between your flat palms, and make a motion like you’re rubbing your palms together to keep them warm. Tada! It’s done when the chocolate is totally dissolved into the milk. Drink!

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