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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals Magazine > Furniture > Cocktail Cabinets

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Cocktail Cabinets


 Cocktail cabinets were a creation of the 1920s, and embody the sleek glamorous style of the Jazz Age.

 The first book of cocktail recipes was published in 1862, but the craze for mixing drinks didn't catch on until the USA's Prohibition years (1919-1933), when it was illegal to make or sell alcoholic drinks.

 The temperance law did not work, and the consumption of liquor soared.  Much of it was Concocted from raw alcohol cooked in illicit stills, and needed mixing with other strong flavours to mask the taste.

 The cocktails craze spread across the Atlantic with American bartenders who came to Europe to escape the Depression, and helped make spirit drinking socially acceptable in Britain.

 Throwing a cocktail party became a smart and fashionable way to entertain.

 Cocktail cabinets, built to store and serve drinks at home, were part of the new trend. As they were a completely new idea, designers felt free to indulge themselves, and cocktail cabinets became one of the best expressions of the prevailing art deco style.

 They created fantasy pieces, using exotic materials, such as ebony, lacquer and tooled leather, alongside modern features such as sand-blasted armour plate glass, neon tubes, plastics, chrome and steel.

 Less elaborate versions found their way into many pre-war suburban lounges.

 The distinctive qualities of art deco design mean that even a fairly conservative cocktail cabinet of the 1930s will tend to look a little out of place unless the rest of the room contains reasonably contemporary decor and furniture.


 Designer-made cocktail cabinets of the 1920s and 1930s are rare and valuable pieces. Simplified, scaled-down versions, though, were mass produced in France and England and sold in stores such as Heal's, Maples and Fortnum and Mason in London.

 Popular cabinets had the same smooth, modernistic outlines as designer pieces, often including handsome, sweeping curves.

 There was no carved decoration, apart from occasional fluting on the fronts or drawers. The main difference between original pieces and mass-produced ones was in the details of craftsmanship and in the materials used.

 Decorative veneers of bird's-eye maple or cherrywood replaced the more exotic woods, while lacquer was mimicked with the use of a cellulose finish.

 This false lacquer often yellows with age, and can become brittle. It is easily chipped, and difficult to restore.

 Chrome and plate-glass, often etched, were used in both the interiors and the exteriors of the cabinets. Many cabinets were made with slide-out trays, which may have been long lost, and glass shelves.

 Empty grooves bear witness to glass fronts that have been shattered or lost, while interior light fittings also have a tendency to go missing.

 Many cabinets were built as combination pieces with bookshelves or sideboards. An odd-shaped cabinet may once have been part of such a combination.

 Many cocktail cabinets had slide out shelves that could act as trays for glasses. These were sometimes made of polished wood, but were more often to be seen in the clear, tinted or mirror glass which was so popular at that time.

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