Pot de creme cups are small, 2 1/2" to 3" tall and traditionally have one small handle. The pots are typically made of porcelain and hold approximately 3 ounces of custard although this will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. The lids are normally adorned with a finial on top such as an acorn, a bird, a berry, or a piece of fruit. The designs vary from smooth, simple, white, devoid of any additional decoration to ornate gilded or floral patterns. A popular 20th century design for the cups was white porcelain with gold trim reminiscent of the simple gold and white Haviland Limoges pieces.
The earliest examples of these little lidded cups date back to France, St. Cloud porcelain factory, 1730. According to Clare Le Corbeiller, decorative arts curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art "in the eighteenth century this shape cup was called pots à jus". It's original purpose was to serve a hot bouillon made from roasted meat juices. The lid insured the broth was served "hot" and the little handle enabled the guest to sip directly from the cup. The cup was not used or referred to as a pot a creme until the 19th century nor was it used as a dessert cup until that time. We have seen further mention of this use in Paris's Louvre where a table service produced in 1756 included these little pots with lids and matching saucers and it was documented that they were used to keep meat juices warm.
The cups were later called by various names depending on the country of origin including Bullion Cups, Custard Cups, Jelly Cups, and Ice Cups to name a few. Cynthia Magriel Wetzer wrote that in an exhibit of "re-created royal tables" in the mid 1990's "Sevres pots de creme were shown in settings for France's Louis XV, Christian VII of Denmark, and Catherine II of Russia". She went on to explain that the Sevres pieces were always shown as part of the dessert service, not part of the main dinner pieces.
Although the lineage of the cup seems to be a bit confusing we do know that the cups have were manufactured from the 1700's to the early 1900's by such companies of Sevres, Royal Worcester, Wedgwood, Meissen, Dresden, and Limoges. Most of the major European porcelain manufactures have produced pot de creme cups sometime in the past.
Yet another avid collector has theorized that the French used the cups as pots à jus and later the English adapted the cup for serving syllabub, (a frothy drink made of milk, wine or ale, sugar, spices and egg) as well as various custards including chocolate.
The cup that fit inside the mancerina was called a jicara. These can be seen with straight sides such as those that fit into the mancerina or the traditional gourd shape. The name actually refers to vessels made from gourds used by the Aztecs to drink chocolate. Later porcelain versions still retained the "gourd-like" shape. One reason for this was tradition, to be reminiscent of the original gourds and the other was for stability from the wide base.