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Cocktail Culture

By Maddy Lederman
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Jazz Age poster/advertisement capturing the spirit of the cocktail craze. Poster reads “Five  o’clock in the morning and the bartender is having hallucinations!”

When Prohibition became the law of the land on January 16, 1920, alcohol was thought to be effectively banned. But the law was ambiguous––it was never illegal to drink liquor as long as you hadn’t made, bought, or moved it.


What followed was a fascination with alcohol that ran like wildfire into the American collective consciousness. People who’d never tasted a cocktail suddenly wanted to. The mystique of the outlaw had a powerful allure and cocktail parties came to symbolize high society and Jazz Age sophistication. More than just the American way to serve drinks, cocktails became a part of American culture and the American state of mind. 


When 8,168 licensed, liquor-serving saloons and restaurants in New York were shuttered because of the new law, 32,000 illegal speakeasies soon sprang up. The ability to spot a Federal Prohibition agent was more valued than knowing the finer points of tavern deportment; without licensing hassles or city inspections, anyone could open a speakeasy or become a bartender, if they didn’t mind breaking the law. Americans flocked to speakeasies. 


America’s old love affair with tea and the tea dance, a popular group entertainment in hotels and halls where young people could meet, took a back seat to this new libation and gathering place. Speakeasies were regarded as more chic than criminal. It was the Jazz Age and liberated flappers were smoking, bobbing their hair, dancing the Charleston and the Black Bottom. The gin martini and cocktail shaker ruled. Cocktails became a symbol of free thinking and free spirits. 

The Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote passed on August 16, 1920, and, with one foot on the brass rail and a cigarette in hand, women asserted themselves by ordering their cocktail of choice. It was liquid emancipation, equal rights served in a cocktail glass. Single women, long excluded from drinking in public restaurants and dining rooms, invaded speakeasies. Drinking was once a man’s game, but now men and women could drink together openly. 

The at-home afternoon tea, once an inexpensive way to repay social obligations, turned into the five o’clock cocktail hour and a new American institution was established. Cocktail shakers resembled the teapots they replaced, and the ability to mix a good cocktail was just as important as learning the latest dance step. Colorful concoctions with sweet mixers stretched out the supply of illicit alcohol and helped disguise the taste of homemade hooch. Gin, easier to duplicate than rye or scotch, became popular, and the martini was a favorite. Among the well-to-do, cocktails before dinner were obligatory, and a common topic of conversation at cocktail hour was, naturally, spirits and cocktails. People boasted about their favorite bootleggers and their prices, recent openings or closing of speakeasies, new cocktail recipes, and the latest accessories they added to their liquor cabinets. 


Young people set new trends, and the nation followed. It was smart to drink, and to drink beyond excess.  Liquor was sold and distributed on college campuses by students with bootlegging connections, and the fact that this was an illicit activity only added to the glamour. College towns filled with speakeasies and bootleggers. Students bragged of their ability to “tie one on” and the hip flask, tilted above faces both masculine and feminine at the big college football games, was as common as a raccoon coat. It was the Jazz Age and this wild, new generation danced into the limelight. Quickly their elders joined the party––anyone with the ability to raise a glass could join in. The economy soared, jazz music roared, and bathtub gin poured.   

Major department stores placed large ads in newspapers featuring the latest beverage mixers––a.k.a. cocktail shakers––along with glassware and serving trays. Dainty tea napkins, now featuring embroidered roosters, were sold as cocktail napkins. Coffee tables were re-dubbed cocktail tables, and small home bars were offered, complete with brass rails. Specialty stores sold a wide variety of cocktail items, recipe books, suitcase-like traveling bars for the businessman, and hip flasks in an endless assortment of designs. Cocktail shakers, starting at two or three dollars in silver plate, could cost up to six hundred dollars for a complete set in sterling silver. Respectable Fifth Avenue shops, which would normally shudder at the thought of selling window jimmies and other tools designed for breaking laws, proudly displayed these anti-Prohibition items in their store windows. A cocktail shaker was the perfect gift for weddings or holidays.  


Obtaining spirits was never a problem during this period, despite the law. Liquor poured over American borders. Huge shipments of whiskey arrived from Canada and England to the once quiet ports of Nassau, Bermuda, and Freeport, to be sold to rumrunners and offloaded along the eastern coast of the U.S. Shippers would purchase directly from these countries and wait outside the three-mile limit, open for business. A great deal of liquor entered the country through Florida because of the proximity of rum production in Cuba.


More shipments were trucked from Ontario into Michigan. As the Great Lakes froze over, the length of the border that could be crossed increased. The intrepid rumrunners crossing the frozen expanse did so on dark nights, headlights off, and on the lookout not only for Prohibition Agents (“the Feds”), but hijackers, and state and local police. Stateside, large sophisticated liquor rings produced whiskey and beer. The Feds could tell how much ground they were losing by watching ever-rising sales of corn sugar, malt, and hops. In rural areas moonshiners expanded their operations, although many were pushed out and their stills taken over by organized crime.

4 Typical 1920s Cocktail Set. Hammer fin

Typical 1920s cocktail set, including a tea pot shaped cocktail shaker, ten cocktail glasses, and serving tray. Hammer finish, silver plate, the Apollo line by Bernard Rice and Sons, New York, NY

3 Tea pot style cocktail shaker, c. 1920

Teapot style cocktail shaker, c. 1920. Nickel plate, Paris pattern by William Rogers & Son, Hartford, CT

1 The Savoy Cocktail Book, by Harry Crad

The Savoy Cocktail Book, by Harry Craddock, 1930. The author left the United States during Prohibition to work honestly at the American Bar in the Savoy Hotel in London.

Although the earrings are studded with almost seven carats of diamonds, the precious gems are set into very humble materials, transparent quartz and jadeite cut from its host rock, with imperfections stylistically carved into a floral motif. Both rock crystal and jade have been used in jewelry and decorative arts for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, but the Art Deco period saw a resurgence in the use of these materials, which had been eschewed for decades in favor of diamonds and natural pearls. Avant-garde jewelers of the Art Deco era privileged industrial design and non-Western aesthetics over gems for gems’ sake.

Vitreous and ephemeral, rock crystal was a material traditionally used in Rococo chandeliers. However, by the mid-1920s, jewelers who employed rock crystal as a constructive element were totally reinventing the material. Rather than being used solely for its form, rock crystal took on metal’s functional role. Among the most striking elements of this pair of earrings are the diamonds that decorate the rock crystal.  They pierce entirely through the stone. The careful drilling and setting techniques used here show Art Deco jewelry at its technological finest.

Rock crystal became hugely popular during the Art Deco period for two primary reasons. First, inspired by the novel shapes and new arrangements introduced by the Cubists, Fauvists, and Dadaists, jewelers took a liking to the transparent quartz because it allowed them to play with new dimensions of negative and positive space. Second, rock crystal surged in popularity after the 1924 discovery of large deposits of platinum at the Merensky Reef. Unlike silver, the predominant white metal used in jewelry making for centuries before, platinum does not tarnish or darken over time, which was crucial in the popularization of the industrial “all white” look of the period.  The massive amount of platinum found in this South African deposit effectively redefined the jewelry field. Jewelers were able to use the extremely strong and malleable material to achieve new shapes and dimensions in their work and to take advantage of platinum’s ability to disappear.  In creating the rock crystal sections of these earrings, the jeweler bezel-set the diamonds in platinum, making the precious stones appear to float in midair.

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From left to right:

Cocktail shaker in the form of a dumbbell, c. 1935. Molded cobalt blue glass with silver bandings.

Cocktail shaker in the form of a lady’s leg, c. 1937, manufactured by West Virginia Glass Specialty Co.

Cobalt blue, glass cocktail shaker featuring recipes for seven Prohibition Era cocktails: The Manhattan, Martini, Bronx, Bacardi, Dubonnet, Side Car, and Alexander.

Cocktail shaker in the form of a rooster, c. 1928. Hand-hammered silver-plated body by Wallace Brothers.

Boston Lighthouse cocktail shaker, c. 1927. Silver-plated body by International Silver Co.

Cocktail shaker in the form of a penguin, c. 1936. Silver-plated body in the style of the famous shaker designed by Napier in 1936.

Cobalt blue, glass cocktail shaker, c. 1930 designed by Hazel Atlas as part of the Sportsman series, featuring white triangular nautical flags on three flagpoles.

If there was no liquor to be bought, many consumers produced homemade spirits. Articles were published in newspapers and magazines about distilling and home brewing. Cocktail recipe and instructional books at public libraries became dog-eared and went missing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture even published booklets with information on the manufacture of liquor from fruits, grains, potato peelings, beets, vegetables, and pumpkins. The Grape Brick, a dried, grape concentrate about the size of a one-pound block of butter, was available at grocery stores. This product had bizarre, specific instructions on its label: do not add yeast; mix with one gallon of water; and store in a dark place for thirty days (because this would produce an illegal drink). Stores accepted orders for five- or ten-gallon crocks and delivered the quantity of grape concentrate in eight flavors including Muscatel, Burgundy, and Claret with similar warnings about how one might “accidentally” make alcohol. Hardware stores sold copper tubing, jars, and liquor manufacturing accessories. Anything needed for a home still that would produce gallons of spirits for the next party was available. 


Nowhere was the new cocktail culture more evident than in the motion picture industry. Studios embraced the anti-Prohibition, hedonistic life style. The 1920s film, The Flapper, introduced and popularized this new type of woman. At 16, she dreamed of lovers, jazz clubs, and speakeasies. Films took advantage of the public’s lust for jazz, fast cars, wild parties, sex, and drinking scenes. Movie attendance swelled for films with titles like Flaming Youth (1923) and The Perfect Flapper (1924). In 1928, MGM featured a young Joan Crawford in the risqué Our Dancing Daughters. In one scene, Crawford rips off part of her dress as she maniacally dances the Charleston on a tabletop. 


Cocktail culture continued roaring across the screen into the 1930s and the Great Depression. Our Modern Maidens (1929); Our Blushing Brides (1930); and Dance, Fools, Dance; Laughing Sinners; and This Modern Age (all 1931) featured heavy drinking and exquisite barware on their sets. Almost all the characters had a liquor cabinet in their stylish apartments, as drinking was a part of daily life. Stars were constantly mixing and sipping cocktails when they weren’t lighting each other’s cigarettes, another symbol of sophistication. Movie fans who watched Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance across the screen wanted their own symbol of the good life during the Depression. A cocktail shaker, the perfect size for any china cabinet, was shiny and delivered a transforming elixir.

The Thin Man (1934) was the first in a series of six highly successful films that established William Powell and Myrna Loy as a leading screen team. Playing Nick and Nora Charles, wisecracking darlings of society, they mixed cocktails and sleuthing savoir faire. They were delightfully sodden through the first film and, in an iconic scene, Nick, in an impeccable tuxedo, gives a lesson in cocktail shaking: “The important thing is the rhythm,” he drawls, in his urbane, slightly sauced speech. “Always have rhythm in your shaking. Now, a Manhattan you shake to a foxtrot. A Bronx, to two-step time. A dry martini you always shake to waltz time.” The Thin Man received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, but It Happened One Night, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert as an upstart, society girl won the award that year.


Repeal of Prohibition in 1933 incited another surge in the demand for cocktails and accessories. If you want to make something popular, pass a law against it. To make it even more popular, perhaps wait fourteen years and then repeal that law. Modern cocktail culture masked the harshness of life during the Depression years. It was the spirit of a nation that expressed optimism about the future with an escapist disdain for the dingy realities of the slowing economy in the 1930s.


Meeting the increased demand for all things cocktail, Machine Age factories began turning out shakers and barware at high speed. Mass-produced cocktail sets brought both utility and glamor to the average home after repeal. Great glass companies such as Cambridge, Heisey, Hawkes, and Imperial created stunning etched and silk-screened designs in brilliant hues of ruby and cobalt. Rush orders for barware by hotels and stores caused Libbey Glass Company to fall twelve weeks behind on delivery schedules. Modernistic cocktail shakers and barware were affordable luxuries for all, a symbol of the good life. By the end of the 1930s, cocktail shakers and barware were standard household objects, affordable to all, and offered in new forms: bowling pins, dumbbells, penguins and even a lady’s leg. Every home had at least one shaker; used or not, it represented the good life and better times ahead.


The cocktail culture and the economic depression it thrived in would both end on December 7, 1941, the day that went down in infamy with the attack on Pearl Harbor. America’s involvement in World War II began, and the golden age of the cocktail was over. Energy was directed toward the war effort, and companies that once made cocktail shakers now produced artillery shells.


After the war, few thought of their cocktail shaker sets. It was the Atomic Age, a time of jet-propelled airplanes, television, and new cars with lots of chrome. Popular at the time were the highball, martini, and Manhattan, easily mixed with little reward for effort and showmanship.


Across the country, cocktail shakers ended up in attics and closets. There they would sit waiting for nearly half a century to be recalled to duty.

Thankfully, cocktail culture is with us again, starting most notably in 1987 with the reopening of the Rainbow Room above Rockefeller Center and its bartender extraordinaire, Dale DeGroff. DeGroff pioneered a historian’s approach to recreating the great classic cocktails, and has since been credited with reinventing the bartending profession, launching a cocktail revival that continues to flourish.

About the Author:

Maddy Lederman writes about media and culture. Her first foray as a novelist, Edna in the Desert, chronicles an American teen’s struggle without her phone. Other writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The Sun Runner.

Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 3, Issue 1, Spring 2018. View a digital version of the full journal here.

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