Glamour lives on as The Milwaukee Art Museum hosts an exhibition of over 95 barware items, sterling silver cocktail shakers, silver plated swizzle sticks, and martini glasses from the turn of the century through the 1930s, evoking the splendor of the Great Gatsby age. The focus of the exhibit is on a time filled with romance, glamour and style, arguably the most significant decades of this century, the 1920s and 1930s, The Age of the Cocktail, a period filled with excitement and innovation.
It was an age of miracles; it was an age of art,
It was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire.
Echoes of the Jazz Age. F. Scott Fitzgerald
As a uniquely American art form, cocktail shakers and bar ware reflected the changing nature of the various styles of art, design and architecture of the era. Although early cocktail shakers closely resembled traditional teapots, designers soon provided an incredible variety. Chick sterling silver shakers were preferred by the wealthy, but savvy manufacturers offered less expensive silver-plate, chromium-plate, aluminum and glass models trimmed with new plastics like Bakelite and Catalin for middle-class martini mavens.
The graceful lines of Art Nouveau, evident in the early 1920s shakers, gave way to the rage for jagged geometric modern design. This geometric cubism of Picasso that influenced so many designers of the 20’s was then replaced by the craze for Streamline Design in the 1930s. This design is especially evident in the “skyscraper4” cocktail service with “Manhattan” serving tray. Created by industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes for the 1935 Revere Copper & Brass Company gift catalog, the set was described as “a decorative and practical cocktail set in the skyscraper motif.”
Novelty cocktail shakers reflecting the play fullness of this distinctive form of entertaining included those in the form of aeroplanes, golf bags, penguins – in natural tuxedos- and roosters, - the cocktail’s original namesake. There’s even a ruby glass cocktail shaker in the shape of a Lady’s Leg complete with a chrome plated high-heeled slipper. Though popular, these novelty shakers were never produced in great volume, which makes them all the more precious today.
Pure form and function never had a better mix.
Stephen Visakay, collector
The modern cocktail culture really came into its own at the house parties and speakeasies of the jazz age, where it was needed both to stretch a meager supply of liquor and to mask the rough taste of illegal bathtub gin. Outlaw culture had a powerful allure, and for many Americans cocktail parties came to symbolize high society and jazz age sophistication. New attitudes about women’s freedom to drink and smoke in public encouraged convivial mixed gatherings, and urban “moderns” reveled in a stylized, fashionable decadence. During this flamboyant period, social patterns related to cocktail drinking became a major influence on art and design as well as on social and political trends.
This is about distilled spirits. The spirit of the shake, rattle and pouring 1920s, the Jazz Age, when all was possible, the spirit and transition of form and design of the 1930s, when the sleek glamorous styles of modern cocktail culture masked the harshness of life during the Depression years. The spirit of a Nation that expressed both optimism about the future and an escapist disdain for the dingy realities of the Depression era. Modernistic cocktail shakers were affordable luxuries for all, a symbol of the good life.
The important thing is rhythm. A Manhattan you shake to a
Fox trot. The Bronx, to two-step time.
The dry Martini you always shake to Waltz time.
William Powell as Nick Charles, The Thin Man, 1933
Hollywood glamorized cocktails. And cocktail shakers, in the decades between the two Great Wars, in movies like Our Dancing Daughters, 1928 starring Joan Crawford, who in the movie defied sexual convention, drank martinis and danced the Charleston and Black Bottom till dawn, and The Thin Man, 1934, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as the delightfully sodden couple mixing sleuthing savoir-faire with witty dialogue. The nifty due, Nick and Nora Charles, knew how to throw a cocktail party with exuberance and style, transporting audiences to a world of high-living luxury. They dressed to the nines and could afford furs, limousines, and martinis, lot of martinis, setting the tone and style of an era.
There is something about a martini, Ere the dining and dancing begin,
And to tell you the truth, It is not the vermouth—
I think that perhaps it’s the Gin.
Ogden Nash, “A Drink with Something in It”
Although drinking and the production of cocktail shakers flourished even during Prohibition and the Depression, the involvement of the U. S. in World War II signaled the end of production of cocktail shakers. And the end of The Golden Age of the Cocktail, as all energies went toward the war effort. Companies that once made cocktail shakers were now making artillery shells.
Cocktails were on hold till the postwar boom signaled corporate expansion and the famous three-martini lunch, and James Bond, aka Agent 007, liked his vodka martinis “shaken, not stirred.”
However, the popularity of cocktail shakers and all that went with them declined as the pace of life picked up and people embraced “instant” everything. As Stephen Visakay said, “ In the postwar era, everything was push-button, especially the new electric blenders. You put in a package of redi-mix, liquor, ice cubes, and boom,-- there’s your cocktail.”
I would like a medium-dry vodka martini with a slice of
Lemon peel…shaken, not stirred, please.
James Bond, Dr.. No. 19958 by Ian Fleming.
After two decades in the wilderness cocktail culture has returned. Perhaps it’s longing for the style and glamour of a bygone era or trepidation in the approaching millennium, but cocktail shakers were always part of our unconsciousness. They’re an original American invention and usable work of art, fast emerging as one of today’s most valued Icons. American as apple pie and ice cream.