Showing up at a local watering hole, sliding onto a bar stool and ordering a martini straight up is something that’s easy to take for granted. Bars are everywhere, liquor is plentiful and most bartenders have the required tools (vermouth, bitters, ice, a shaker) at their fingertips. They strain that glorious mixture into a conically shaped glass, and voila … a cocktail.
Most people fail to consider that someone had to actually invent the cocktail, which happened around the turn of the 19th century when ice became easier to make and transport. The cocktail was defined in an 1806 issue of a Hudson, New York, periodical as “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kinds, sugar, water, and bitters.”
In the industrialized era, time sped up and demanded a more efficient libation. A single-serve cocktail was the convenient alternative to making a cumbersome batch of punch. (The concept of punch didn’t even arrive in Western consciousness until imperialism took the Brits to India, where it originated.) In 1862, the first known cocktail recipe book was published. It was called How to Mix Drinks: or, The Bon-Vivant’s Companion; its author was a well-known bartender named Jerry Thomas.
Shaken, Stirred, Styled: The Art of the Cocktail, a new exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art, serves to remind us of the cocktail’s origins and progression through the last 100 years, as seen through the barware that facilitated its existence: shakers, punch bowls, ice tongs and glassware of every shape and size.
Apparently in the earlier part of the 20th century, barware manufacturers had senses of humor; there’s a large collection of cocktail shakers in whimsical shapes – a penguin, skyscraper and milk can, for instance. And surprisingly, the height of barware manufacturing started during Prohibition. It was legal to sell cocktail shakers and other accessories, and even to consume alcohol, although it was illegal to sell, transport, produce or import it.
“Manufacturers avoided the term ‘cocktail’ when they were advertising their wares. They used the term ‘beverage shaker’ or ‘beverage mixers’ instead,” says Samantha Robinson, the interim assistant curator of decorative arts and design, who put together the exhibit. “They produced these wares in figural shapes that would disguise the true function of the product. One [example] is the Wallace Brothers rooster-shaped cocktail shaker and cups. That form was ubiquitous at the time, it was a play on the words ‘cocktail.’ It would have been clear what the function was.”
The rooster is made from silver plate and glass, and another highlight of the exhibit, the penguin shake, is silver-plated with gold plating on the wings, beak, eye and feet of the bird.
“The Napier penguin cocktail shaker is very, very fun,” Robinson says. “I love the way they used the bird’s natural tuxedo coloring. The example that we have in the exhibition is the luxury example touched with gold.”
The market crash that kicked off the Great Depression put a stop to the decadence of the Roaring '20s, and ushered in a change in aesthetics as manufacturers started paring down the ornamentation of barware and using less expensive materials like chrome instead of the sterling silver and gold plating.
“During the height of the Great Depression, something like that [penguin] would have been out of the reach of most Americans,” Robinson says. “Other materials like plastics were just hitting the market, glass manufacturers saw a boom in the business at this time as well."
Amongst the gleaming ice buckets and glittering faceted punch bowls is surprisingly, a Waring Blendor, designed in 1937. The word “blender” was originally intentionally misspelled for branding purposes. Its placard says it was “wildly popular as the first beverage mixer manufactured and marketed for domestic use.”
“We see in the 1930s manufacturers are increasingly presenting new products that are mechanized like the blender. Designers were lending their services to manufacturers and making works of art,” Robinson says. “The Waring Blendor is an exceptional collaboration between an inventor and a designer, [and] a perfect example of the Streamline Moderne aesthetic of at the time. It has this exquisite stepped base, it's plated in chrome, it has beautiful proportions.”
“I think sometimes for visitors, it's surprising to see something like a Waring blender in an exhibition and in a museum space,” she adds. “But from a design perspective, and an aesthetic perspective, it certainly fits within all the other works in the exhibition.”
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The exhibit was a good chance for the museum to display the decorative wares in its impressive permanent collection and some recent acquisitions that have never been on view. Many more were borrowed from other collections.
“The Dallas Museum of Art has a treasure trove of exceptional barware … so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to bring all of those art works together,” Robinson says. “My main goal was to demonstrate the ways in which political, economic and social currents impacted the daily lives of Americans. The World Wars or the Great Depression had a tremendous impact on daily life and in turn, on design. I think it's very clear from the designs of these wares from the '20s and '30s into the '50s and '60s, how the functions and forms shift over time.”
The exhibit is open until Nov. 12, 2017, and is included in the museum's free general admission.