A Guide to Café au Lait Bowls, Including Why They're Worth Collecting Today

Made in bright colors and playful patterns, these oversize coffee cups are to perk up your kitchen.

Photo: Dana Gallagher

Forget about the stimulating beverage inside! It's the cheery exteriors that make café au lait bowls a real pick-me-up. Cradle one filled with coffee and milk in the morning, and you can't help but start the day off right. The bowls and their sunny looks also appeal to collectors. Sitting jauntily on a flea market table, they seem to call: "Pick me up!" One enthusiast who has done just that is Living's former art director James Dunlinson. During the eight years he has been collecting, he has amassed dozens of café au lait bowls. Dunlinson finds the dishes' appeal easy to understand. "Lots of people are drawn to them because they're happy," he says. "And everyone needs bowls."

The History of Café au Lait Bowls

People around the world have used these bowls for hundreds of years. Europeans were introduced to coffee and tea largely by the Turks and Chinese, respectively, and along with the drinks, the custom of sipping them from handleless cups. In France, the origins of café au lait bowls can be traced to 1644, when Pierre de la Roque, a physician, returned to Marseilles from a trip to Constantinople with coffee beans and several vessels for preparing them. Seventeenth-century engravings suggest that such a set would likely have included an ibrik, or Turkish pot—and small bowls. Drinking hot beverages from such bowls continued in Europe until about 1760, when handles (presumably added to prevent burns) began appearing on cups. But for café au lait—coffee and milk in equal parts—the use of bowls persisted.

Most of the café au lait bowls in circulation today are French ceramics from the 1920s to '40s; a few are from Belgium and Germany from that time period. Patterns, which often came in several colors, including red, yellow, blue, green, and pink, were generally stenciled on. The designs are typically bold with an Art Deco aesthetic, but there are also earlier transferware examples featuring more detailed motifs. Those in solid colors are made from self-colored clay, which is simply clay that's tinted before firing, not glazed with color after.

Determining Value

Look for vintage bowls at flea markets or antiques stores, where they might cost as little as $15 or as much as $85. You'll find inexpensive reproductions at kitchenware stores. Online auctions are another good shopping ground, particularly on European websites (try eBay France). As you begin collecting, you may want to narrow your search by focusing on a particular color or pattern. Dunlinson is especially fond of the dual-striped design he's dubbed "pajama stripes," and looks for it in a variety of shades.

You don't need to be a coffee connoisseur to appreciate these collectibles. The bowls, which are typically five and a half inches across but can be a good bit smaller, are also handy for serving various foods, such as breakfast cereal, soup, and dessert. (Dunlinson even uses child-size versions for condiments.) Whatever is on the menu, he finds a way to use his bowls. "It's a functional collection," says Dunlinson. "I'm not precious about them. I don't mind chips—they're part of the charm."

And how charming they are. A few of Dunlinson's friends have also begun hearing them beckon. "I have one friend whose bag I have to check every time she leaves, because she always has a bowl or two inside," he says. "I finally just bought her a couple." And so another collection begins.

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