As the COVID-19 crisis continues, perhaps it’s no surprise that alcohol sales are booming. With many of us confined to our homes (if we’re lucky), braving commutes to carry out essential work, or simply trying to figure out how to make a mask out of your last pair of clean underwear, there seems to be no better time to treat oneself to a libation garnished with a little historical context. As Food Network star Ina Garten recently said while making an enormous Cosmopolitan on Instagram: “It’s always cocktail hour in a crisis!”
Believe it or not, your upcoming Zoom happy hour follows a long American tradition of facing national crises with a cocktail in hand. Financial crashes like the 2008 recession or Great Depression of the 1930s helped increase Americans’ thirst for cocktails. Norman Bel Geddes iconic “Manhattan” cocktail set, designed in 1934 and a prized part of New-York Historical’s permanent collection, is polished evidence of the period’s “cocktail habit.”
Still recognized today for his streamlined industrial designs, Geddes was a successful Broadway scenic and lighting designer when he opened his independent design firm in 1927. Like Paul Frankl, Kem Webber, Donald Deskey, and Winold Reiss (whose work will be the subject of a forthcoming New-York Historical Society exhibition in May 2021), Geddes integrated new materials such as aluminum, chrome, and Bakelite into his streamlined airplanes, trains, cars, furniture, radios, and tableware. His iconic cocktail set, like the example shown here, was inspired by New York’s soaring buildings and consists of a stepped “Manhattan” tray, sleek “Skyscraper” shaker, and six stemmed goblets made of shiny silver, chrome-plated brass. It was designed during a particularly booze-soaked moment in American history, just after the end of Prohibition in 1933 and in the thick of the Great Depression.
Prohibition, enacted in 1920, banned the manufacture, sale, and transport of beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages. Despite the law’s restrictions, Americans elevated cocktail drinking to a national pastime by continuing to tipple in earnest at home or in speakeasies and nightclubs.
By 1932, according to one estimate, New York City was home to over 32,000 illegal drinking establishments. Encouraged by the need to drink in secrecy and the financial constraints of the Great Depression, more economical cocktails parties simultaneously moved into American homes. Although prohibition prevented Americans from having access to quality liquors, drinkers turned to adulterated or dangerously impure bootlegged and homebrewed spirits, or, on occasion, alcohol-based substances like hair tonic. High-octane spirits mixed with fruit juices, syrups, and sodas to mask harsh tastes and poor qualities became the core ingredients of prohibition-era cocktails.
Prohibition was largely unsuccessful. American alcohol consumption actually rose during the 13 years, 10 months, and 19 days that the law was in effect. Discussions about repeal considered the wide popularity of cocktails among Americans. As the New York Times noted in 1932, “The growth of the cocktail habit has accompanied prohibition, and has indeed been stimulated by it, because bootleggers could more readily furnish alcohol in concentrated form suitable for making cocktails than they could the bulkier alcoholic beverages.”
Prohibition’s repeal on December 5, 1933, was ushered in with jubilant celebrations across the United States. In New York City, newly refurbished hotel bars and restaurants marked the occasion with Repeal parties, dinners, cabarets, and New Deal cocktails. In the lead up to and wake of repeal Americans encountered shortages of quality liquors and glassware. (If today we’re running short on toilet paper, back then there was a run on stemmed cocktail, highball, and whiskey glasses.) Within hours of repeal, New York’s hotel bars and restaurants were depleted of vintage wines, gin, whiskey, and other liquors.
As the New York Times observed in 1934, “The cocktail hour . . . .is not the first child of repeal; but repeal has given it new opulence and dignity, new quarters and new clothes and brought it out into the open.” Women, long prohibited from smoking and drinking in public, had also become active participants. Observers from the period complained that, “women [now] drink like men” and “[t]hey not only come in alone but order hard liquor.”
Prohibition-era cocktail drinking and repeal celebrations inspired designers to create numerous types of cocktail shakers, strainers, stirrers, glasses, and other bar accessories. A search of the United States Patent and Trademark Office website shows that dozens of cocktail shakers were patented during the 1930s. These drinking accessories went hand-in-hand with the flurry of cocktail recipe books published in the United States during the 1930s. Several of these books can be seen at New-York Historical’s Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, including Old Waldorf Bar Days (1931); The Bon Vivant’s Companion (1933); More Fun at Cocktail Time (1935); The Merry Mixer (1938); and More Fun at Cocktail Time (1935).
Whether your favorite cocktail is a prohibition fizz, a newfangled, artisanal concoction, or actor Stanley Tucci’s perfect Negroni, we’d like to hear about it from you–and don’t forget to drink it with a little history on the side.
Top image: Illuminated billboard advertising Clicquot Club and the Rivoli Theater in Times Square, New York City, during prohibition, ca. 1930. Browning Photograph Collection. Patricia D. Klingenstein Library. New-York Historical Society
Written by Debra Schmidt Bach, Ph.D., curator of decorative arts