Warp Drive Travel Mugs

Warp Drive Travel Mugs

As you drive to a QBO sale you’re probably not thinking about past commuter car accessories, but you may find one at the sale. Today’s cars carry features from every era in their evolution: the “glove compartment” really was used to store gloves in the earliest cars, which were open to the air and lacked heaters. That socket you plug your phone into was first added to American cars in 1925, becoming standard by the 1950s. Their original purpose was lighting cigarettes and if you have the original tubular plug, pushing it  in for a moment and then removing it will still heat it enough to ignite things. The built-in cup holder didn’t become common until the late 1980s/early 90s, when more Americans ended up stuck in long commutes.

BUT, before auto makers realized a cupholder could be a selling point, there was a period wherein tired commuters had no place safe to set a scalding hot mug o’ coffee.

Enter the weird-looking ceramic ‘commute mug’, precursor to today’s insulated stainless travel tumblers. They were your average breakable home coffee mug reimagined as a squat vessel with a low center of gravity. Equipped with non-skid rubber bottoms, they could be set on the only viable flat surface in the car, the dashboard, and would *kinda* stay put while you drove. Should you have to slam on the brakes, the plastic lids would hopefully contain much of the disaster.

Here we have two such mugs – one hand- thrown on a potter’s wheel in Taiwan, the other, a HOTJO Coffee Mug mass-produced in commercial molds. The HOTJO was also made for the subscription mail-order coffee company Gevalia Kaffe, (“By Appointment To His Majesty King Sweden”) maybe as one of their many premium giveaways.

Once automakers added cupholders, ceramic commute mugs were edged out by vacuum-insulated stainless travel mugs, a hybrid of the commute mug and thermoses, which have been made since 1904. But, since many cupholders are sized to hold disposable coffee cups, we still have the spectacle of funky-looking mugs with weird bottoms, this time skewed in the ‘too-skinny’ direction.

The awkward-looking HOTJO travel mug also has another claim to fame: multiple appearances on the 1990s science fiction TV show Deep Space Nine. Fourth in the Star Trek series, DS9 was set on a space station were humans and aliens hung out at “Quark’s Bar, Grill, Gaming House and Holosuite Arcade”. Sci-fi TV is often under-budgeted, so minor props are just unusual-looking but regular items bought retail rather than being custom-built. Patrons of Quark’s swilled their ‘Raktajino Klingon Coffee’ from funky maroon commute mugs that were judged by the show’s veteran Prop Master, Joe Longo, to be both odd enough to pass as ‘futuristic’ yet uncommon enough in real life that he figured he could get away with them.

And, because Star Trek has such a dedicated fan base, these ugly, 1990s no-slip maroon dashboard mugs have become a collectable that can sometimes sell for exorbitant prices. There is even a cottage industry of potters creating hand-made versions of ‘Raktajino mugs’ to sell to fans. Given the decades since the show’s first air date, there’s the distinct possibility that these ceramicists aren’t even aware of the prosaic, commuter-based origin of that sci-fi mug they’re carefully imitating.

Drive an old car lacking in cup holders, or a sleek spaceship ready to warp out of orbit? You’ll find that funky mug you need at QBO!