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Why sailors love a filthy, unwashed coffee mug

Sarah Sicard

Sailors call their unwashed coffee mugs "seasoned." (Photo via NavyHistory.org)
Athletes on a hot streak or headed to the playoffs in a given sport oftentimes opt out of shaving for fear of interrupting a routine that may throw a wrench into success. Such superstitions, however, are not limited to the participants of any particular sport.

Sailors, for example, but more specifically those those who have achieved the rank of chief, have one superstition that extends into the unsanitary. They never clean their coffee mugs.

The first time I learned of this I was 23 and working in an office in Washington. The director, a Navy veteran whose cubicle I shared, had a note stuck to his mug that read, “Don’t wash me.”

When I inquired, he informed me that it was something he picked up as a sailor. He’d done this with his black coffee for so long, in fact, that he’d simply grown to enjoy the taste of the weeks, months, or years old residue.

“It adds a lot of flavor,” he said.

“Gross,” I thought, shrugging it off — until now.

Sailors, as it turns out, have an extensive history of keeping coffee cups as grimy as can be. The explanations for doing so, meanwhile, are all over the map.

Some internet users suggest it’s bad luck, others say the dirtiness of the mug is a sign of seniority, while there are also those who simply believe it’s a matter of taste.


“You clean a mug of one, it’s a death sentence for that person,” wrote one Reddit poster about taking dish soap to a sailor’s treasured coffee chalice.

Chilling.

Another poster told a harrowing tale of a sailor who completely lost his mind at the sight of a clean coffee mug.

“There was a chief that I worked for in the Navy many years ago that had the same thing going on with his coffee cup,” the user wrote.

“We decided one day to scrub it out for him and he completely lost his sh*t when he found his cup the next day. I mean complete brain aneurism. He threatened to write every one of us up for it. A couple days later someone filled his cup with this resin-type stuff that hardens (we used it for plastic plaques) and looks like coffee with creamer once cured. He threw it across the shop and shattered. I thought he was going to kill someone that day. No one ever fessed up to that deed.”

Many accounts went on to suggest that, use after use, a chief will just pour new coffee atop the old, never concerned about mold, curdled milk or the temperature of their mud.

I guess sailors like their coffee like they like their hearts: Cold, black and crusty.


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