EBAY PACKING ADVICE:
HOW NOT TO PACK AN ANTIQUE
TEA CUP AND SAUCER

This is a box i received from England. Inside was an antique tea cup -- a Nelros Cup of Fortune. It was not just any Nelros Cup of Fortune; it was the rare early variant with the red line on the handle and the 1904 Royal Letters of Patent on the back-stamp.

I already own one lovely Nelros Cup of Fortune, but the reason i bid on this one and bought it was because it came from the first run of the series, and thus it had a different handle than the more common version with the Aynsley "D" handle. It was a sort of "missing link" in the history of the manufacture of the Nelros design line, before the Aynsley imprint was used. I was eager to photograph this unusual item for my Museum of Fortune Telling Cups.

When i saw the box, i got a bad feeling. The box was a long, narrow rectangle. It was 4 1/2" wide. The Nelros Cup of Fortune has a saucer that is 5 1/2" wide.

How can the seller pack a 5 1/2" saucer into a 4 1/2" wide box? Only one way, by setting it at a slant. Where will the teacup go then? In the tiny triangular void underneath the slanted saucer. This can only be accomplished by wrapping the cup and saucer in a single, thin layer of small bubble wrap, then shoving the cup against the inside wall of the box.


I knew when i took the wrapping paper off the box that the cup would be broken. I could hear it rattling inside. And when i pulled the slanted saucer off of the cup, i saw that because the cup was not padded and had smashed up against the inside of the box, the handle and part of the side of the cup had cracked clean off. The broken handle slipped quite easily out of the single layer of bubblewrap; i did not even need to unwrap the cup to extract it.

I was very unhappy. It wasn't just the hassle about losing money and time and having to ask the seller for a refund that upset me -- although i had paid a day's wages for that cup and saucer -- it was just so sad to see a lovely 103 year old item, so cherished and so well kept for many a year, smashed up because someone jammed it crossways into a tiny box with no padding and sent it half way around the world.

So i decided to create this page, to document how a teacup should (and should NOT) be packed.


I took out my own Nelros Cup of Fortune -- identical to the broken one, except for the slightly different handle and back-stamps -- and i set it in front of the box containing the broken cup. You can see quite clearly that the saucer is wider than the box. The floor tiles on which the items are sitting happen to be exactly 6 inches square.

Whenever i buy a teacup set at eBay, i send the seller this form letter in the comment field that attaches to the payment notification:

Thanks for listing this nice
item. I buy teacup and saucer
sets almost every day and if
you haven't shipped a set
before, here's my advice: Use
foam wrap and bubble wrap, not
newspaper (newspaper smears
black ink on china, and it
also compresses in shipping
and items get broken). Tape
the wrapped cup upside down to
the wrapped saucer and add a
second layer of bubble wrap.
Suspend in more bubble wrap in
a square-shaped box. Make sure
the box doesn't rattle when
shaken. No offense intended, i
send this message to everyone
from whom i buy teacups, no
matter how experienced they
are. Sincerely, cat yronwode.


The seller had not followed my packing advice. The cup and saucer were not taped to each other to make a solid unit (thus protecting the cup handle). There was no second layer of bubblewrap over the taped-together set. Even though the saucer was circular, the box selected was not square, and it was so small that the saucer was wedged in on edge and there was no room for secure padding around the cup.

By the way, this was not a "bargain" sale -- this was a valuable item that sold for a very high price. The seller surely did not wish to see it broken. I guess my packing advice just fell on deaf ears.

Since Aynsley made the Nelros tea set, i decided to demonstrate -- for future sellers -- what size and shape of box should have been used to mail such a set, by showing two other Aynsley cup and saucer sets that had recently arrived safely from England.

At the left is a blue Aynsley Cup of Knowledge on top of the box in which it arrived. The box is a perfect cube, about 8" on the side.

At the right is the box that a green Aynsley Cup of Knowledge came in. The box is square, about 10 inches on a side, and about 7 inches deep. It is made of very sturdy hard chipboard, an inner box and an outer box, not of soft corrugated cardboard like most packing boxes. It is an unusual box, not a type often seen, but it was perfect for mailing a tea cup and saucer.


When i placed my own Nelros cup and saucer on top of the tiny, narrow box containing the broken Nelros cup, it was easy to see that there was no way that this style of cup and saucer could fit inside the cramped little box unless it was set diagonally on edge and had insufficient padding to protect it.


Not only was the little box too narrow, it was also not deep enough. As this side view shows, it is about one-half of the depth of the box the blue Aynsley cop came in, and significantly less tall than the sturdy, double-walled chipboard box that held the green Aynsley cup.

From this view, you can see that the little box is less than half of the volumetric size of the big box at left. That missing volume is where the extra layers of protective bubblewrap should have been.

And here is the documentation for which i invested all that wasted time and money -- the red-striped earlier version of the handle of the Nelros Cup of Fortune -- a sad ending for such a beautiful little artifact from Edwardian England.

I put everything back in the box and contacted the seller. I have no idea how sellers will react to a loss like this. I hate conflict, and i dread having to contact a seller with bad news.

Some sellers insist that the buyer open an insurance claim (even though i have never yet seen the Post Office pay out on a claim when an item was as poorly packed as this). Some sellers try to blame the buyers, and when an item breaks, they claim it was intact when shipped and they may bring up the fact that unscrupulous buyers have been known to substitute one of their own broken items for the good one that they were sent, in order to cheat the seller. Some sellers simply refund the money and learn to pack better next time. One of my favourite sellers, whom i patronize regularly, is a person who inadvertently destroyed a valuable item i had won at one of her auctions. She made good on the situation so gracefully that i knew that the problem had been an accident and that i could trust her in the future.

Most of the time in a situation like this, everything goes well, despite the disappointment of an unexpected loss -- and as it turns out, this situation was resolved with good will on either side. After mailing the seller a description of the damage and a link to this page, i received a sincere and friendly letter of apology, offering me a refund on the broken cup if i would pay a fair price for the saucer alone -- and i have accepted that offer.

So what is the RIGHT way to pack a tea cup and saucer set like this? Here ... let me explain.

You will need two boxes, a 6" x 6" x 6" box and an 8" x 8" x 8" box. And you will need bubblewrap.

The first thing you need to notice is whether the handle is higher than the rim of the saucer. On some of them, like the Aynsley "Low Doris" pattern, the handle rises above the rim of the cup. On others, like those that Aynsley made for the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924 - 1925, the small "C" handle does not rise above the rim of the cup.

The wrapping treatment for either type of set is similar, but there is a bit more work in wrapping the high-handled cups, as you will see below.

Step One: The interior of the cup is filed with bubble wrap.

Step Two: If the cup has a high handle, then extra bubble wrap is used, to go inside the loop of the handle and around it.

Step Three: Wrap each piece -- the cup and the saucer -- in bubble wrap.

Step Four: The saucer is placed on top of the cup, like a lid. It is upside down. The highhandle is not touching the saucer. The curvature of the saucer and that of the cup make the whole packet resemble a flattened ball.

Step Four: The two pieces are then taped together, with the cup upside down on the saucer. This stabilizes and protects the fragile cup handle.

Step Five: The taped-together pieces are then wrapped in another layer of bubble wrap, forming a nicely rounded sphere. The cup is still upside down on the saucer. The ball is placed in a 6" cubical box. (Notice that if the broken Nelros cup had been wrapped properly up to this point, the bubble wrap sphere would not have fit into the small box that was originally used.)

Step Six: An 8" cubical box is padded on the bottom with a layer of bubble wrap. Then the 6" cubical box is placed inside. Ater that, more bubble wrap is used to pad out the sides and to top off the box.

When a tea cup and saucer set is packed like this, the likelihood of it arriving safely is almost always 100%. I have actually received items packed this was in which the corners were pretty well crushed during shipping, but with the tea cup and saucer in a padded sphere well inside the center of the inner box, the damage to the box did not affect the porcelain inside.

I mentioned above that the Post Office will deny insurance claims on badly-packed goods. Here is a true tea cup tale: The Case of the Broken Jackson and Gosling Ye Olde English Cup of Knowledge Set.

The package was insured and the box looked perfect on arrival, but the tell-tale sound of broken crockery could be heard inside.

Upon opening the box, in the presence of the Post Master of my town, the cup was found to be fine, but the saucer had cracked apart into three pieces. It cracked because it was placed into a small priority box, about 7" on each side, which did not allow enough side-space for a full sphere of bubble wrap to cover a taped-together cup and saucer. No sphere -- no safety; the saucer and cup were loose from one another, not taped together, and they had slid apart. The saucer edge was up against the inside of the box and, protected by only one thin layer of bubble wrap, it broke at the point of impact. A shame, wasn't it?

The post office denied the insurance claim because, "The box wasn't even dented -- the internal damage was not caused by Post Office handling -- this was a clear case of poor packing."

Will i ever find a matching saucer for the pretty little cup? Only time will tell. In the meanwhile, i can tell you that many of the smaller sets DO fit well in a small priority box, but you have to build that "sphere of safety" around them first.

Of course, using the box-in-a-box technique completely prevents the problem of under-packing. Considering how rare that Jackson and Gosling cup actually is, i would have gladly paid for any additional shipping costs associated with the larger box -- bubble wrap is mostly air, anyway -- and Priority boxes are FREE from the United States Postal Service.

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copyright © 1995-2003 catherine yronwode. All rights reserved.
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