By Donald-Brian Johnson
Let’s be clear about this: 100 years ago, during most of the Art Deco era, homes didn’t have bars. After all, from 1920, until 1933 and the repeal of Prohibition, the purchase of liquor was illegal in the United States.
But, as the proliferation of bootleggers and rumrunners during the 1920s and early ‘30s attests, the fluids just kept flowing. Where were all those customers coming from? Gangster-run nightclubs? Back-street speakeasies? Well, sure. But plenty of ordinary folk didn’t mind bending the law a bit either, in the interests of private consumption. What better way to put some zip into at-home entertaining, than with a bit of under-the-table bubbly?
Manufacturers responded to this practice by turning out items that could serve a wide variety of purposes—including, (if you knew what you were looking for), the purpose of most pertinent interest. There were portable “serving carts” (with the all-important note, “can be padlocked”). These could be “noiselessly rolled out with all the fixings” — and just as noiselessly rolled back, into an unobtrusive dining room or sitting room corner. There were ice buckets. Ice crushers. Ice strainers. And, such a host of oversize “water pitchers” and jumbo “water goblets” that it seemed most 1930s consumers must have lived within gasping distance of Death Valley.
Even prior to Repeal, manufacturers had tacitly acknowledged that some of their product line was put to other than intended uses. The July, 1930 issue of The Gift and Art Shop, for instance, mentions Chase beverage trays treated with a “lacquer which makes them impervious to the disastrous effects of some popular liquids.” They weren’t talking about Ovaltine.
Out of necessity, at-home imbibers became better acquainted with the actual tools of the bartender’s trade. After Prohibition finally gurgled its last, this burgeoning market for bar essentials remained, and giftware makers jumped into the fray. Consumers were treated to a heady—and, at long last legal—brew of drinking accessories. Drinking buddies could now debate—openly—the merits of Kensington’s “Coldchester Cocktail Shaker” (“cleverly fitted with cork”) versus the Chase “Gaiety” (“its entirely modern and snug inner sleeve prevents leakage”). Manufacturers were naturally overjoyed. “For the first summer of Repeal,” crowed a 1934 Chase Brass & Copper Co. barware ad, “eager hands reach for Chase.”
During the heyday of Art Deco, the line of sparkling metal housewares produced by Chase, and such contemporaries as Kensington, Napier, and Hagerstrom made entertaining at home both affordable and chic. Thanks to the Depression, money was in short supply—but thanks to these firms, there was no shortage of good taste.
On other fronts, colorful glassware and ceramics jockeyed for space with shiny metals on the shelves of home bars. McKee Glass brought out the “Bottoms-Up Tumbler,” a racy “nudie” number that was a top-seller with the college crowd. More formal were Morgantown’s “Top Hat” cocktail glasses, with a dapper top-hatted gent on each stem.
Visual variety was provided through the use of modernistic designs and textures, from ribbed to rippled. Among the most interesting: Morgantown’s “Palazzo” cocktail glasses with their stacked-disk stems; McKee’s “donut hole” decanter, its open center repeated in the design of the corker; and the many-edged, crushed-paper-bag styling of Consolidated’s “Ruby Rombic” decanter set. Aladin even produced figural flasks that did double-duty as music boxes! Most decidedly Deco of all: figural Robj decanters, which decamped from Paris, and found new fans on domestic shores.
Throughout the Prohibition years, the Deco home bar was, by necessity, a movable feast. After Repeal, it was a veritable “happy hour” for Art Deco designers, with a heady flow of accessories specifically intended for the now front-and-center home bar. Perhaps because the field was a relatively new one, designers felt—or were given—more freedom to experiment with form and function. In any event, the result was an imaginative outpouring which leads one to think that Prohibition was almost worth it. Almost.
Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on mid-twentieth century design, including “Deco Décor: Porcelain, Glass, & Metal Accessories for the Home”. Please address inquiries to: email@example.com
Photo Associates: Hank Kuhlmann, Ramón Piña