What you see: A silver-plated golf-themed cocktail set, consisting of a shaker and six cups and dating to 1926. Sotheby’s estimates it at $5,500 to $7,500.
The expert: Alan Bedwell, founder of Foundwell, a vintage accessories gallery.
I’d like to start by talking about the relationship between Prohibition and cocktails–specifically, how the former shaped the latter. People drank cocktails before Prohibition. You can see shaker designs that date to Victorian times. I think what revolutionized it was people began to travel to more exotic, far-off places, like Brazil and Singapore, and when they came back, they wanted to drink caipirinhas and Singapore slings here. There was a wonderful scene in the 1920s and 1930s, coming out of the gloom of World War I. People were into having fun. Cocktails became more iconic in that period for those reasons. Prohibition was a time where people were maybe having too much fun. [Laughs]
As you just said, cocktail shakers go back to Victorian times. Prohibition became law in 1920. Why did it take until 1925 for the first figurative cocktail shaker design to come along? And why did it take golf as its theme? I’d say it was more the influence of golf on design, really, than thinking “Oh, I’m going to design this”. Golf was an elitist sport at that point and few people played it. What it [this golf-themed cocktail set] did was light the touch paper, in a way. It changed the landscape of cocktail shaker design.
So whoever created this was more interested in combining golf with barware than revolutionizing barware design? Yes. Barware didn’t take a novelty appearance until this came around. You see some departures, but the shapes are not fun things like penguins. This piece is still not a huge departure. There are two classic styles [for cocktail shakers]: the cylinder and the jug, which is almost like a watering can. The watering can is similar to a golf bag. They took the handle and made it the shoulder strap of the golf bag, and put fake leather stitching on it and a golf ball on top.
Does the golf-themed cocktail set pictured here–consisting of a cocktail shaker and six cups–represent the complete set? You could buy it as a set, and the set came as eight pieces, but you could buy them as individual pieces. A complete set had a tray to go with it. Unfortunately, this doesn’t have the tray. It’s very rare. I’ve only ever seen one.
Do we have any notion of how many of these golf-themed cocktail sets were made, and how many survive? No, I’ve never been able to find records for manufacturing numbers. I’d say they’re quite rare.
Do we know how much this golf-themed cocktail set would have sold for when it was new? The eight-piece set sold for $66.50 in 1926. In 1927, a Model T Ford sold for $850, and the average monthly income was $250. It was a luxury item when it was made, and they didn’t make a lot of them, that’s for sure. As pieces go, the shaker is most common. You very rarely see the cups.
Why are the cups so rare, compared to the other pieces in the golf-themed cocktail set? They’re quite small by modern standards. The cups are three inches tall–very easy [for them] to go missing. They got lost, or thrown out.
So the cups that go with the golf-themed cocktail set no longer reflect how people drink? Essentially, today, these are shot cups. In the period, they were cocktail cups. Elsewhere in the sale we have two sets of martini glasses, one from the mid-1920s and one from the 1930s. They’re tiny compared to modern glasses–the portion sizes were smaller. What you get, liquid-wise, is less than you get today.
When you have a complete or near-complete golf-themed cocktail set, what sorts of things have to happen to allow it to remain intact for a century? It’s very rare to find everything together. Somebody cherished this over the years. Usually they come out of houses that have had them for a very long time, or collectors who have had them all their lives.
I understand you’ve had two of these golf-themed cocktail sets in your career: This one, and a second that required some assembly? The prior set I had, I bought the shaker on its own, and bought five cups from a different dealer. Very fortunately, eight to ten months later, I found a sixth cup [at a different venue] in a cardboard box of odds and ends. I had it in three different installments. It’s not unusual to find [a vintage barware set] in that kind of way.
The press release for the auction talks about the golf-themed cocktail set and says it was “perhaps intended to fool authorities by making it appear to be decorative or ornamental rather than practical”. What evidence supports that idea? And where would its original owner have stored or displayed the set when it was not in use? Alcohol consumption was heavily frowned upon. People didn’t openly display barware, or alcohol, for that matter. With the Prohibition movement, everything was put behind closed doors.
So the golf bag design for the shaker is not about fooling the cops. It’s about deflecting the attention of your cranky old aunt who will give you an earful if she sees anything in your house that hints that you might be a drinker. Exactly. A Puritan eye might look at it and think, “Oh, that’s a golf trophy”. Lot 23 is another one that can sit inconspicuously on a shelf. You think, “Oh, that’s just a bell”. You don’t think, “He’s having wild parties on the weekend and getting up to god-knows-what”.
In the photographs Sotheby’s sent over, the cups are arranged to show a decorative detail on one side, and I’m not sure what the decoration is–is it a bag strap? It’s an exact play on the body of the shaker–it has the pouch for tees, and a shoulder strap. It also [imitates] a structured, shaped golf bag and the things that went around the bag. Look at the finish of the shaker and the cups–they’re textured, because most golf bags are canvas and leather.
What do the components of the golf-themed cocktail set feel like? Do they have a good weight to them? Pretty good, yeah. With these things, you don’t want them to be heavy, but you don’t want them to be fragile. If you have a few drinks and drop it, you don’t want to break it. The only downside is that the cups are small. But it’s a really good set.
How practical is the golf-themed cocktail set? Is it easy to make and serve cocktails with it? It’s very practical. If you make a drink with ice or fruit in it, a strainer [in the spout] makes everything easier. It’s not bulky, and it’s very easy to clean when you’re done. The lighthouse shaker, a rare and important piece of cocktail design–that is big. I don’t want to put people off, but when you fill it with ice and booze, it’s heavy. This golf-themed cocktail shaker, because it’s early, it’s very useful. It’s a very loosely figural piece, a classic watering can style made to look like a golf bag. It’s a good size, and easy to mix and clean.
What condition is the golf-themed cocktail set in? And what sort of condition issues do you see with this set? I see pieces missing–the lid missing, the spout stopper missing. Sometimes the handle snaps off if people are brutish with it. And general dents and dings happen with cocktail shakers when they’re banged against each other or banged on the bar. This is in pretty damn good condition for something that’s 100 years old, and has been used. It’s got all its original silver plate, and the patina is great.
What’s the world auction record for this golf-themed cocktail set? Sets have been to auction before. One sold at Christie’s London in 2008 for £5,250.
Why will this golf-themed cocktail set stick in your memory? It’s an important piece. It’s kind of the Michael Jordan of the barware world. It came into the game and changed everything. In all my years of doing it [handling vintage barware], it’s only the second one I’ve had. In this auction, we’ve got a good showcase of important designs in the catalog–we’ve got the penguin, the lighthouse, the bell. This is the superstar, because it’s the first figurative one.
Images are courtesy of Sotheby’s.
See the website for Foundwell, Alan Bedwell’s vintage accessories gallery.
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