Friday, December 23, 2016

Some Books on Tea Cup Reading

Not so long ago it occurred to me to wonder when it was that the idea of telling fortunes using tea leaves first began in Britain, and when it became popular. I decided to begin a checklist of books on the subject. There are, in fact, quite a lot of them about now, and indeed the art has been elaborated to include residues from herbal infusions and tisanes. However, as I was more interested in the origins of the practice, I decided not to continue into these latter days, but rather to look at what was published earlier.

The first reference I can find is to a chapter in a book ascribed to ‘Mother Bridget’, with the title of The Universal Dream Book, and a date supposed to be around 1816. Its full title continues, “to which is added, the art of fortune-telling by cards, or tea and coffee cups”. Now, I think it is quite possible that there were even earlier accounts of tea cup reading than this, for example in old almanacs, but for the time being this is the earliest I have identified.

The first book devoted entirely to the subject, that I have noted so far, is an anonymous publication entitled Tea-Cup Reading: Your Fate in Your Tea-Cup, which the British Library dates to 1907. No publisher or place of publication is given. The first such title from a major publisher seems to be The Art of Fortune-Telling by Tea-Leaves by 'A Highland Seer', issued by Routledge in the UK and Dutton in the USA, circa 1917, a notable attribution, since tea cup reading does not often figure among the traditional accomplishments of Scottish prophets.

The second decade of the 20th century begins to see more books on the art appear, and there is a distinct cluster in the 1920s. One of the most popular was by ‘Minetta’, possibly a house name, from the leading occult and astrological publisher, W. Foulsham. Her Tea Cup Fortune Telling: the signs illustrated and fully explained was issued in 1920 and regularly reprinted. It advises: "In the following pages you will find more than is usually known about this fascinating subject of cup tossing, as it is popularly called." The term “cup tossing” seems mysteriously not to have survived in general usage.

Another popular title from this period was The Gypsy Queen Dream Book and Fortune Teller (undated, but circa 1921), ascribed to ‘Madame Juno’ and issued by Herbert Jenkins, usually a publisher of light romances and thrillers. It was very much the thing for women working in the fortune telling field to prefix their name, usually exotic, with the title ‘Madame’: astrological journals are full of advertisements under that kind of sobriquet (and provide an interesting field of study). This book has a brief chapter on ‘How to Tell Fortunes by Tea-Leaves, or Coffee-Grounds’.

A copy of this title in my possession shows considerable signs of use. It is the “Third printing completing 19,500 copies.” The rose-madder coloured covers are marked with cup-rings and spherical stains, the spine head is frayed, and inside the front free endpaper also boasts a considerable brown ring-mark, perhaps suggestive of the tools of the trade.

Not only that, but the opening pages are covered with pencilled figures, some apparently of sums of money. I wonder whether these could be the record of the receipt of palm-crossing silver from grateful clients? On the title page, however, are different totals,under the names of the main political parties, presumably either actual or forecast General Election results. One of the figures, 277 seats for Labour, is exact to the 1955 contest, and the few seats for the Liberals is also suggestive of the 1950s.

The book also bears the purple oblong stamp mark of Lane’s Library, Broadstairs and a, perhaps later, personal address in manuscript: Flat No 3, The Rise, Station Road, Amersham, Bucks, the town (incidentally) to which Arthur Machen retired.

Jenkins also published a book wholly on the subject, Telling Fortunes by Tea-Leaves, Cecily Kent’s New Method of Divination Clearly Explained (1921), a 172pp treatise. My copy also has, on its olive-green back cover, the marks of numerous tea cups rested upon it, which again it may not be fanciful to suppose was in the pursuit of the trade. The author also offered Telling Fortunes By Cards in the same year.

It may be as well to say at this point something of the contents of this and the similar books described. They usually consist of two parts: firstly, a description of the practical apparatus and modus operandi for achieving the tea leaves, and secondly a catalogue of the meaning of various shapes and symbols. Some include diagrams of what to the untrained eye look largely like dark blotches, but in which apparently may be discerned certain forms. Among those noted in Madame Kent’s book are a log, a loaf of bread, duck, sign post, leaves, boots, toadstool, doll, broken gate and the head of a polar bear.

A rare item in the tea cup reading sphere is a privately published pamphlet by one Winnicott Edmonds, issued in Liverpool by the author in 1922. I have not been able to trace either this tantalising piece of ephemera or any information about its originator, but it suggests the possibility that similar local opuscules were issued in other provincial towns and cities. Another example is a slim anonymous work, Tea-Cup Reading, published in Christchurch by Whitcomb & Tombs, circa 1942.

It was not uncommon for publications to offer a range of divinatory devices, and Foulsham combined two of the most popular in a neat terracotta pocket book entitled Tea-Cup And Card Fortune Telling, by ‘Mercury’ (1937), while ‘Sagittarius’ provided a little handbook, The fortune teller's guide : including tea-cup readings, an alphabet of dreams, horoscopes, lucky dates, palmistry, handwriting explained, reading faces, the luck of weddings etc. from Featherstone Press, circa 1945.

It seems likely that there remain quite a number of pamphlets in this and allied crafts that have so far eluded catalogues and collections. For those who think, as I do, that wear and tear in a book often provides additional interest, there is also the thrill of finding books that bear all the suggestion of vigorous use. It is hard to resist the notion that they may be, as it were, infused with the strains of mystic portent.

Some Books Relating to Tea Cup Reading: A Checklist

‘Mother Bridget’. The universal dream book, containing an interpretation of all manner of dreams, ... to which is added, the art of fortune-telling by cards, or tea and coffee cups, ... a treatise on moles, ... with the manner of making the dumb-cake. By the late celebrated Mother Bridget. ...
London : printed and sold by J. Bailey, [1816?]

[Anon]. Tea-Cup Reading: Your fate in your tea-cup. [1907].

Ward, James. Dreams & Omens and Tea-cup Fortune-telling. Wonderful examples and scientific explanations, with ancient & modern interpretations.
London : Newspaper Publicity Co., 1915.

‘A Highland Seer’. The Art of Fortune-Telling by Tea-Leaves.
London : G. Routledge & Sons ; New York : E. P. Dutton & Co., [1917]

‘Minetta’. Tea Cup Fortune Telling: the signs illustrated and fully explained. Introduction by Sephariel.
London: W. Foulsham & Co. 1920. 93pp. Octavo. Expanded edition, 153pp, 1925.

[Anon}. The Gypsy Queen Dream Book and Fortune Teller. By Madame Juno.
London : Herbert Jenkins, [1921].

Kent, Cecily. Fortune Telling by Tea Leaves, etc.
London : Herbert Jenkins, 1921. 172pp. Octavo.

Edmonds, Winnicott. Reading the Tea-cup.
Liverpool; the author, 1922.

Nelson, Helen. Tea-Leaf Fortune Telling ...
London : Skeffington & Son. Third edition. [1922]. 63pp. Octavo.

[Anon]. Foulsham’s Tea Cup Fortune Teller.
London: W. Foulsham & Co. 1923. 29pp. Octavo.

‘Mercury’. Tea-Cup & Card Fortune Telling.... Illustrated.
London : W. Foulsham & Co., 1937. 90pp. Octavo.

[Anon.] Tea-Cup Reading.
Christchurch: Whitcomb & Tombs. [1942]. 71pp.

‘Sagittarius’. The fortune teller's guide : including tea-cup readings, an alphabet of dreams, horoscopes, lucky dates, palmistry, handwriting explained, reading faces, the luck of weddings etc.
London : Featherstone Press [1945]. 71pp.

‘Minetta’. The Art of Tea-Cup Fortune Telling. Alphabetically arranged.
London: W. Foulsham & Co. 1958. 155pp. Octavo.

© Mark Valentine, 2016. Photographs: © Jo Valentine, 2016.


  1. Hello there, can you recommend any writings about the history of tasseography as well as some thorough descriptions of the ritual? Most texts I find are just manuals. All best, Aja

  2. Thank you for your comment. No, I don't know about any history or guide to tea cup reading other than those listed above.