The Webtender
Bartender's Handbook

The History of the Cocktail Shaker

[Shaker 1]

Antecedents of the cocktail shaker can be traced to 7000 BC in South America where the jar gourd was valued for its use as a closed container. Ancient Egyptians in 3500 BC knew that adding spices to their grain fermentations before serving made them more palatable. A forerunner of the cocktail? Well, archaeologists have yet to find a hieroglyphic list of cocktail recipes inside the Great Pyramid of Cheops. But we do know in 1520 Cortez wrote to King Charles V of Spain from the New World of a certain drink made from cacao, served to Montezuma with much reverence, frothy and foaming from a golden cylinder.

By the late 1800s, the bartender's shaker as we know it today had become a standard tool of the trade, invented by an innkeeper when pouring a drink back and forth to mix. Finding that the smaller mouth of one container fit into another, he held the two together and shook "for a bit of a show."

At the turn of the century, New York City hotels were serving the English custom of 5 o'clock tea and it was a short leap to the 5 o'clock cocktail hour with shakers manufactured for home use looking very much like teapots.

In the 1920s martinis were served from sterling silver shakers by high society while the less affluent made do with glass or nickel-plated devices. The Great War was over and sacrifice was replaced by a euphoria marked by party-going and a frenzied quest for pleasure. The mixed drink and cocktail shaker was powered by Prohibition. People who had never tasted a cocktail before were knocking on speakeasy doors. The outlaw culture had a powerful pull. Flappers with one foot on the brass rail ordered their choice of drinks with names like Between the Sheets, Fox Trot, and Zanzibar, liberated more by this act and smoking in public than by their new voting rights.

[Shaker 2]

The International Silver Company produced shakers in the form of the Boston Lighthouse and golf bags, as well as, traditional shapes. There were rooster- and penguin-shaped shakers, and from Germany zeppelin and aeroplane shakers. Many of these shapes were not entirely capricious. The rooster, or "cock of the walk," for example, had long served as a symbol for tavern signs. The penguin with its natural "tuxedo" symbolized the good life. The Graf Zeppelin had become the first commercial aircraft to cross the Atlantic - an 111-hour non-stop flight that captured the attention of the world.

Such ingenious designs were all the rage, cocktail shaker skills and drink rituals were as important in the Jazz Age lifestyle as the latest dance steps. Colorful cocktails with sweet mixes stretched out the supply of illicit alcohol and helped disguise the taste of homemade hooch. While gin, easier to duplicate than rye or scotch, became the drink of choice and the martini society's favorite.

But the real popularity explosion of cocktail shakers occurred after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Now they were featured frequently on the silver screen, shakers and accoutrements part of every movie set. Stars were constantly sipping cocktails when they weren't lighting each others' cigarettes, both de rigueur symbols of sophistication. Nick and Nora Charles, the delightfully sodden couple that poured their way through endless martinis in The Thin Man series, knew how to shake a drink with style, as did the tens of thousands of Americans who shook, swirled, and swilled cocktails by the shaker-full in the years following the repeal of Prohibition. Movie fans watched Fred and Ginger dance across the screen, cocktail glass in hand, and wanted their own symbol of the good life to shake themselves out of the Depression that gripped the country.

[Shaker 3]

The Art Deco movie set aesthetic was perfect for the Depression-driven cocktail shaker. To meet popular demand, machine age factories, geared for mass production, began turning them out in droves. Fashioned from the high-tech materials of the day, chrome-plated stainless steel shakers with Bakelite trim replaced those of sterling silver and were advertised as "non-tarnishing, no polishing needed." The great glass companies, such as Cambridge, Heisey, and Imperial, leaped into action. Stunning etched and silk-screened designs were created, often in brilliant hues of ruby or cobalt. Industrial design was at the height of popularity and superstar designers such as Russel Wright, Kem Weber, and Lurelle Guild created streamlined modern masterpieces, many in the shape of the new deity of architecture, the skyscraper. If there is a definitive classic it would have to be the sleek 1936 chrome-plated "Manhattan Skyscraper serving set" by master industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes, sought by collectors of today as the perfect mix of form and function.

By the end of the decade, shakers had become standard household objects, affordable to all. Every family had at least one shaker on the shelf. There were now cocktail shakers in the shape of bowling pins, dumbbells, town criers bells, and even in the shape of a lady's leg. The cocktail party had influenced fashion, furniture, and interior design. Coffee tables were now cocktail tables, and the little black dress, designed by Coco Chanel, went from fad to fashion, and is now an institution.

At the beginning of the 1940s, the Depression ended, but not in the way most had hoped. It ended on December 7, 1941. The golden era of the cocktail shaker was over, and America's involvement in World War II began. All metal went to the war effort. Companies that once made cocktail shakers, now made artillery shells. After the war, few thought of the shakers. We were in the atomic age, thinking of jet-propelled airplanes, a thing called television, and new cars with lots of chrome.

In the early 1950s, a brief renewal of interest in cocktail shakers occurred when new homes featuring finished basements, called "roc rooms," were equipped with bars. But the push-button age had taken the fun out of mixing drinks. Shakers came with battery-powered stirring devices. Worse yet, electric blenders became popular; drop in some ice, add the alcohol of your choice, a package of "redi-mix," flick a switch and.... Gone were the rites and rituals, the showmanship, the reward for effort. Small wonder, then, that these elegant stars of the 1930s were forced into retirement.

And there they sat - in attics and closets nationwide - waiting to be recalled to life. Over 50 years have passed now, and one can faintly hear the clink of ice cubes as shakers are, once again, a symbol of elegance.


Copied, with permission from the author, from Vintage Bar Ware, Copyright © 1997 Stephen Visakay.
Images from the collection of Peter Weissnegger, Austria, supplied by Stephen Visakay and from my own collection.

If you are interested in Cocktail Shakers, the book Vintage Bar Ware by Stephen Visakay is the book for you.


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