Mate Cup

Spanish Colonial

Object Place: Argentina


12.7 x 5.9 cm (5 x 2 5/16 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique


Not On View


Americas, Europe


Silver hollowware

The cast egg-shaped body with punched and engraved swagged decoration is supported by a tripod form of three cast legs having a strengthening ring. Two legs are chased; one is undecorated.

Mate, unknown in North America, is celebrated throughout Latin America. A plant-based beverage, it possesses mild stimulants that offer benefits similar to those of tea. A product of the Paraná and Uruguay River basins of Paraguay, Uruguay, northern Argentina, and southern Brazil, mate is derived from Ilex paraguarensis, an evergreen tree related to holly that is a member of the family Aquifoliaceae. In its dried state, mate is steeped in hot water and drunk with repeated infusions until its flavor has been exhausted.
Mate was used by the Tupi-Guaraní Indians of this region and the Quechuas of Peru before the arrival of the Spanish. The term originates in the Quechua word mati, which signifies the gourd from which the liquid was poured; it was this word that the Spaniards adopted. Because of an error in translation, mate has come to denote the drink itself. The Spanish term yerba mate indicates the dried leaves, even though the plant material is not an herb but is harvested from a tree.
In preconquest days, mate was drunk, chewed, or ground into powder by indigenous peoples, who used it as a tonic, a medicine, and sometimes a ceremonial vomit-inducer. By the late sixteenth century, the Spanish colonists had become enamored of the plant and were major consumers of the drink. Indeed, mate became a highly valued commodity used as its own type of currency. The Jesuits, who had established missions among the Guaraní on the Paraná River, soon domesticated the plant and achieved significant financial gains from its cultivation. They also administered the drink to indigenous Indians who had fallen under the sway of alcohol, claiming to have returned many to productivity. During this period, the Jesuit name was so closely related to mate that the beverage was sometimes called “Jesuit tea.”
Mate was originally drunk from a simple gourd, also called a calabash, that was cut in half and filled with liquid filtered through the drinker’s teeth. Eventually, a utensil was used to push the herb away while drinking; it later became a pierced spoon. The bombilla (see cat. nos. 389 – 99), a slender tube with a pierced bulb at one end, was likely not introduced until the eighteenth century, when mate drinking became widespread throughout South America (see fig. 2).
Mate was enjoyed socially at all times of day by native peoples, creoles, and newly arrived Spaniards, who passed the cup from one drinker to another. The pleasures of mate en fami-lia were recorded by botanist John Miers (1789 – 1879) in April 1819:

The matesito was handed round from one to another, each in his turn taking a sip through the long tin tube of the infusion of yerba, out of the little calabash, or matesito… . A fresh matesito was made for me, without a word being said respecting it. An old man threw out the leaves they were using, and pulled from under the hide on which he sat a small kid’s skin, with the feet and tail tied into knots, so as to form a bag; in this he kept his store of yerba. He took out a small handful of the yerba, put it into the calabash … and filled it up with boiling water from a copper pot … then putting in the bombillo, or tin tube [they are generally of silver] he stirred it round, took a sip to ascertain its goodness, and then presented it to me, touching his hat at the moment I received it.

The enjoyment of mate was enhanced, when possible, by ornamentation, first carved and painted and later in silver. As early as the eighteenth century, the mate cup was clad in mounts of silver, a precious metal that affected myriad aspects of colonial life. Silver gradually assumed the role originally played by the gourd; eventually entire cups were fashioned from it, although the shapes still echoed their botanical origins. Perhaps the greatest source of this form was Argentina, as were Uruguay, Bolivia, and Peru. Bombillas were produced separately, not en suite.

This text has been adapted from “Silver of the Americas, 1600-2000,” edited by Jeannine Falino and Gerald W.R. Ward, published in 2008 by the MFA. Complete references can be found in that publication.


“C. [floral device] B” in script engraved on body.




Collected in Buenos Aires, Argentina, by Mr. and Mrs. Edmund P. Graves between 1898 and 1913.

Credit Line

Gift of Miss Ellen Graves, Mrs. Samuel Cabot and Mrs. Roger Ernst in memory of their father and mother, Mr. and Mrs. Edmund P. Graves