Vintage view: Vintage cocktail cabinet

Kya deLongchamps takes an interesting look at the drink’s culture of the early to mid 20th-century and the remains of those days — the artful, beautiful and sometimes tacky cabinetry of the cocktail era.
Vintage view: Vintage cocktail cabinet

Cocktail culture put the sparkle, chink, and heady mood into smoky Prohibition clubs, 1950s high society and insinuated itself beneath the wilting palms of beach-skewered tiki bars all over the world.

With a collection of gilded booze bottles sticky at the neck from occasional inversions, the giddy moment of indulgence in a hybrid, gem-dark tipple shimmered down through every middle class home.

A cocktail includes three prescribed ingredients one being booze (a mixer and one portion of alcohol is termed a highball).

I see Bette Davis, her thyroid-bulged eyes dangerous and magnificent, set on the horizon of a champagne cocktail in ‘All About Eve’ (1950).

Olive-lanced cocktails littered the set of every romantic comedy of the golden age of Hollywood.

The popular root for the word cocktail refers to a mixed breed of horse, a cock-tail, its tail banged short to indicate its breeding was sub-par.

This equestrian term has its roots at least as far back as the 18th century. Horses on the day of sale were sometimes treated with a colic-inducing, ‘cock-tail’ mixture, including a heavy dose of ginger as an anal suppository.

This cruel dupe rendered the poor animal demented and raised its bony dock of a tail in a visible ‘cock’.

An old hunter, its delicate nethers fizzing, would prance around on bowed tendons like a spirited two-year-old. Cocktails, applied to jaded humans by mouth, were found to have much the same result.

The name was applied in the 19th century to a number of cooked up beverages for humans (these may have been dubbed cock-ales), starting with gin and bitters and including various treacly liquors from around the globe, these were diluted with mixers over ice.

Fashionable, delicious, impressive in their prep’ and presentation, the ceremony of making a cocktail entertained, put a flash of fun on introductions, and blinded colleagues, friends and family to a person’s covert alcoholism.

Cocktail cabinets survive in vast numbers from the 20s forward, their original function largely redundant, keeping down their price for all but the most sensational Art Deco examples.

In their day, elegant cabinetry, trolleys and even entire home bars gave drinking and cocktail drinking a particular status, civility and a sophisticated staging point.

When visitors arrived — the first comforting social crutch was a crowd around the booze cabinet.

Daddy, his temples aching — returns to the respectable family home from the grey miasma of the office — who would argue with a swipe for a drink on hanging up his homburg.?

A reminder of how prevalent day-time drinking, including cheerful cocktail-making was for male and female executives and homemakers by the 1960s?

See the routine quaffing scene in the accurate social comment-making by HBOs Mad Men.

Starting at the top, Deco cocktail cabinets in veneers of burr walnut and bird’s eye maple from the 1920 and 1930s, with mirrored interiors and even, their original glasses and fittings, were made in large numbers for the English and European market.

Look out for Odeon-style conceits at better auctions, but be prepared to pay in the high hundreds for even a demure example with external jazz and integral lighting.

Pieces that move, raising or dropping a tray as the doors open, will command a premium, but compared to other more useful furnishings of the period, prices are still relatively good if you want a real working drinks piece.

Check any walnut examples for worm that may need to be treated. More lumpen Edwardian cabinets in dark woods and unremarkable shapes, start at less than €100.

From the 50s and 60s, delightful boat hull bars in pale plywood and Formica with portholes, real rope lines and chrome D-rails by Barget of England are highly desirable.

The company did offer other truly gruesome half barrel bars and laminate confections on kick legs with tube lighting appealing only to the true kitsch kitten with bowling-alley taste.

Expect to see more inventive use of modern and traditional materials including laminates, printed glazing, bamboo and even fake animal skin on bar sections, trolleys and cabinets.

Go further— finding matching stools or bar pieces such as shakers, stirrers, jiggers, strainers and good crystal glasses to dress up your find.

Formica can lift with moisture damage, so settle on the best examples possible.

Danish-inspired long sideboards with integrated drinks cabinets are easily converted for storage use and often feature light up sections and even record players to put an evening in full swing.

These later examples, even lovely pieces by AH McIntosh of Scotland, are falling prey to over enthusiastic up-cycling. In general don’t slap chalk paint onto any quality thing with an already good patina and line.

I’ll put my foot on the rail and finally raise a glass to vintage Italian dry bars, including the mid-century cocktail theatres of Geo Ponti, Rizzo, Fornasetti and Osvaldo Borsani.

Inventive and timeless, some are formed as super sized glasses and even broken neoclassical columns — fabulous, expensive and tipsy with chic.

Try 1st Dibs online to quench your thirst.

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