From the middle of the 18th century to the middle of the 19th, wine coolers and cellarets were essential items in the dining rooms of the wealthy.
Fine wine has long been seen as the perfect complement to fine food, and has been served at table in handsome coolers, which
might take a single bottle or several.
One of the many technological advances made in the middle of the 19th century was the development of refrigeration. Prior to this time ice was a fairly precious commodity. Most people simply went without it in the summer.
The owners of large estates, though, had an alternative. They built icehouses, digging into the side of a convenient north-facing slope
to create a cool cavern. In winter, this was packed with naturally-formed ice that would stay frozen throughout the summer.
Chunks were chipped out as necessary and brought to the kitchen in buckets. It was used both in the preparation of desserts and for chilling wine, not only for balmy summer evenings but also for crowded winter dining rooms warmed by a blazing fire, dozens of candles, and general good fellowship.
For small parties, bottles were brought to the table in ice-packed silver pails. These were not necessarily bucket-shaped - many were based on classical Greek and Roman vases and urns - nor always made of silver. Silver plate was a popular choice, while glass, brass and porcelain were less common alternatives.
Bigger gatherings required more capacious coolers. As the only people who had any use for them were owners of fine houses who entertained lavishly, large wine coolers - also known as wine cisterns - were made only for the luxury trade. Essentially large buckets or tubs lined with lead or zinc, they were transformed by Georgian cabinetmakers into beautiful pieces of furniture.
They could be round, oval, rectangular, hexagonal or octagonal in shape, and were usually made in mahogany, with some veneered in satinwood or rosewood. Many had lids decorated like a table top with inlaid stringing or cross-banding. Though they'd left their origins as barrels far behind them, some of them retained their brass 'binding' rings as a gleaming decorative feature.
Coolers usually came with a separate base of four tapering legs ending in castors so that they could be taken, laden, to the table. Two handles were provided to lift them on and off.
Cellarets, sometimes confused with wine coolers, were first introduced in the 1760s. Similar in shape, they were fitted not with a tub-shaped liner but with lead dividers making compartments for single bottles. They were mainly intended for short-term storage of wine rather than for serving it at table.
Single-bottle examples from the 19th century in Sheffield plate and electroplate are the most affordable
antique wine coolers, though even these can be fairly pricey, and can be found in antiques shops or house sales or at auction.
Wine cisterns and floor-mounted cellarets are less common, more expensive and rarely to be found outside specialist Regency antiques shops and the top auction houses.
Cisterns went so far out of fashion in the late 19th century that many of them were stored away and forgotten. They occasionally turn up in the strangest places. A mahogany cistern made to a Robert Adam design was recently discovered tucked behind the water tank in the loft of a country house. It was sold at auction in 1989 for £50,000.
Many cisterns were separated from their base or liner, and used for other purposes, most commonly as jardinieres. Some Regency wine cooler and jardinieres strongly resemble one another; a wine cooler and a jardiniere were sometimes sold as a matching pair.
Indeed, coolers and cellarets were usually sold in pairs - two coolers, two cellarets or one of each. Such pairs are worth around one and a half times the sums of the individual pieces.
It's not always easy to tell a cellaret from a wine cistern, especially if they have lost their interior fittings. Some wine coolers were fitted, as an added refinement, with a tap to drain out the melt-water. For obvious reasons, this was never found on cellarets. In these, the emphasis was on storage and security. Cellarets usually had a lock and key, a feature rarely seen on wine coolers.
SETTING A DATE
The best way to date a cistern is from the style. One important fact to note is that they got progressively deeper in the 18th century as wine merchants slowly switched from dumpy, flask-shaped bottles to tall, narrow ones.
Some cisterns may be missing their liner. This should not affect the price too much, as they are valued for their style and beauty rather than their usefulness. Any damage to the veneers, handles or other ornamental work will, on the other hand, affect the price sharply.
Metal table-top wine coolers usually had a detachable liner into which the bottle was placed, with ice packed around the side. Sometimes the liner had a flanged top which extended to the rim of the cooler, but the usual arrangement was to have a detachable collar which fitted around the top. This may well be missing today.
Small glass coolers such as this were made to chill wine glasses prior to use. The lips are specially moulded to hold the delicate glasses suspended in the ice without breaking.