Look to This Prohibition-Era Auction to Elevate Your Home Bar

A new Sotheby’s auction highlights the fun and elevated designs of the era

May 12, 2020 11:28 am
Golf cocktail set
The first figural cocktail set ever made (from 1926), now up for sale

The era just before, during and after Prohibition was a terrible time for the booze industry but a creative highpoint for, ironically, the makers of barware. The latter industry is what Sotheby’s is celebrating during its 100 Years – Prohibition in America event, which features vintage barware and fine silver created during and inspired by those dark days of mandatory (and failed) teetotaling. 

Open for bidding now through May 21st, the 100 Years auction is curated by Alan Bedwell, the founder of vintage accessories gallery Foundwell. It includes a fun range of bar tools: golf-themed cocktail sets, silver-mounted cut-glass decanters with locks (to keep the staff out of your hooch), penguin-shaped shakers, a ruby-red shaker in the shape of a fire extinguisher and double-spirit flasks shaped like binoculars.

A shaker in the shape of a fire extinguisher (Sotheby’s)

Overall, the barware of the era was certainly more playful and perhaps more likely designed for display … even while the whimsical designs themselves sometimes masked the barware’s actual utility.

Curious to learn more, we spoke with Bedwell about the barware of America’s darkest drinking era. 

InsideHook: Was barware itself illegal or difficult to manufacture during Prohibition?

Alan Bedwell: It was not, as the more law-abiding members of the public were obviously allowed to make “virgin” cocktails using these apparatus, and I can imagine that is how they were advertised openly at this time. There was certainly a lot less being made in America, but elsewhere around the developing world, partying was at a premium.

Was there any item in this lot that surprised you ?

I get pleasantly surprised by the ingenuity of firms and individuals. It’s really one of the most exciting elements of having a job such as this. I keep going back to the binoculars flask in this sale. I had seen flasks disguised as more “common” objects, and had seen an image of these in a book before, but I had never had the pleasure of handling them. To discover that the two front lens areas came off to double as two cups was quite an unexpected joy.

A double flask disguised as binoculars (Sotheby’s)

Who is the audience for vintage barware, and do you see that audience expanding? 

When I curated this collection, my intention was to bring together a group of items that had a “something for everyone” feel to it. There are both fun and whimsical pieces starting at no reserve that would appeal to someone with a home bar with very little in it, all the way through to the most serious of collectors that perhaps might be missing one of the more iconic pieces to round out a collection. This approach was undertaken as, I think, especially after this prolonged period of being at home, even the most pared-back of individuals has perhaps found the need for a brandy snifter or a cocktail pick for their Manhattan.

Are people buying this barware to use, to showcase or as an investment?

I would like to think that everything in the sale could and should be used. I personally collect and use all vintage barware at home, and I find that it is made, for the most part, in a superior manner to that of contemporary versions. Metal and labor costs were much cheaper at this time, allowing for more time to be taken in making items, and thicker gauges of metal to be procured for production. The very rare and collectible items have the added bonus of also being a good investment. 

How would you say barware has changed from 100 years ago? 

The 1920s and ’30s were a fun, exploratory period for most of the developing world. Leaving the horror and despair of the First World War very much in the rear-view mirror, there was a huge advancement in technology, art, music, design and architecture. People were starting to travel and experience new cultures and food and drink, so that found its way into home life. 

In the last 30 years, there has been a movement to declutter the home. More recently,, I think designers and retailers have responded to that with minimal offerings, and less risky, simple designs. Furthermore, there has been an increase in cheap mass manufacturing of home products, and people perhaps have decided to spend $50 on a bar set rather than $500. This has pushed a lot of the more luxurious versions to be knocked from product offerings altogether.


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