Antiques for Wine Lovers

For those who truly appreciate a fine wine, the currently fashionable view of alcohol as the cause of so many of our problems--medical, marital, moral, and vehicular--can be, well, dispiriting. In an essay in The Magazine ANTIQUES, Wendell Garrett underscored the difference a couple of centuries have made:

For most early Americans of all ages and both sexes the day began with a tumbler full of rum or whiskey--an eye-opener before a breakfast accompanied by a copious flow of spirits. In the South this might be mint-flavored whiskey; in New York they were likely to include beer, Dutch gin and applejack; in New England they would be hard cider and rum. At eleven in the morning and four in the afternoon, Americans put down their tools and took a dram. In Portland, Maine, these breaks were announced by the town hall bell. Even school children had their morning and afternoon sips of whiskey, which were considered "absolutely indispensable to man and boy." In the evening, liquor aided the digestion before and after dinner, and upon retiring, a nightcap or two were taken as precautionary measures against night chills.

To those seeking a means of regaining this less-complicated era, we offer the following guide to wine-related antiques. Our colonial forebears enjoyed their wine as much as we do, and they devised a wide variety of accouterments to ensure that their wine was drunk in the best possible condition and with the maximum pleasure.

Storing, Warming, And Cooling

In colonial days, as now, one's first concern was to keep the wine conveniently at hand and at the right temperature. Cellarets were designed early in the eighteenth century to store bottles in the living room after they had been brought up from the cellar. Some were made like barrels, of polished mahogany staves bound with brass, but most took the form of small, lidded chests of finely figured mahogany that could be rolled out on casters from under the serving tables or sideboards where they were customarily kept. The sideboard, which came into vogue at the end of the century, is basically a long serving table supported on each end by a cellaret.

Wine that needed cooling was placed in cisterns filled with ice. Wine cisterns, usually capable of holding half a dozen bottles, were typically made of mahogany lined with tin or pewter, but some were made of silver. Because the taste of a well-chilled wine can be blurred by a warm glass, the monteith was devised. This large bowl had an elaborately notched rim that held glasses by their feet, allowing their bowls to cool in iced water. The earliest examples were made in Britain in the 1680s; John Coney, the Boston silversmith, made the first American one between 1700 and 1710. Later they were made of porcelain and glass, often with detachable silver rims so they could double as punch bowls. In the nineteenth century they were made of brass, silverplate, or finely painted toleware. The Earl of Monteith, after whom the bowl was named, was not a connoisseur who liked his glass to be as cool as his wine, but merely a fashionable fop with a penchant for cloaks with elaborately scalloped hems that the rim of the monteith was thought to resemble.

If the wine in the cellaret was drunk faster than expected, replacement bottles hurriedly brought up from the cellar would have needed warming. A wine warmer is a brass or iron stand with a shield-shaped back to reflect the heat; it held the bottle on the hearth in front of the open fire. Cellarets must have been large enough for this to have been an unusual occurrence, for wine warmers are rare objects. If you see one, buy it, for you may never see another.

Wine and spirits were often drunk at higher than room temperature. Hot toddy, a fitting drink for a New England winter evening, was a mixture of alcohol and hot water, sweetened and spiced with cloves. It was drunk from toddy glasses, the largest form of drinking glass, which often had finely engraved bowls. Also popular was mulled wine, particularly claret, a hot, undiluted wine, spiced with cloves or nutmeg. Cloves simply floated in the wine; nutmeg was freshly grated into the glass. Nutmeg graters were ingenious and beautiful little gadgets, and every wine collection should include at least one. Mulled wine was either heated in a pan or warmed first by a wine warmer and then given a final boost by the mulling iron, a pokerlike device heated in the fire and then plunged into the glass. Despite the obvious dangers to both the claret and its consumer, this method apparently produced a more-than-acceptable drink.

Drinking

Devices for circulating bottles among guests seated around a large dining table became popular in the eighteenth century. Coasters were originally miniature wagons that carried two or three bottles and were rolled from guest to guest. They were exquisitely crafted of silver or mahogany, and their use, in the absence of any drunk driving laws, may well have caused some hilarity toward the end of a long dinner party. In any event, a coaster wagon gives today's collector an entertaining way of offering hospitality. The coaster that replaced it later in the century was a galleried tray that slid on its baize-covered bottom--perfectly functional, and more familiar to today's eyes, but much less fun.

The glasses to which the coaster delivered the drink were as varied as the drinks and the drinkers. The evolution of the wine glass from the late seventeenth through the early nineteenth centuries was towards taller stems and smaller bowls. Within this general development, the shape and decoration of both the bowl and the stem took many forms. Specialty glass collectors try to get a representative example of each form, but the collector of wine antiques might prefer to gather several examples of one form into a harlequin set composed of similar but not identical examples of the same form.

Eighteenth-century glasses are not exactly plentiful today, for their intended use put them at a high risk of breakage. Red-hot mulling irons offered only one of the many dangers early drinking glasses had to survive. A good evening involved drinking multiple toasts, and, as the empty glasses were rapped smartly on the table at the end of each toast, toasting glasses had to be tough. These glasses, often called firing glasses because the rapping sounded like a rifle volley, had thick stems and feet to withstand toasts of escalating enthusiasm. Other toasting glasses were designed not to endure but to be broken: their stems were thin so they could be snapped between finger and thumb to celebrate a special occasion.

The dram glass was used more often for drinking spirits than wine. A dram today is an eighth of a fluid ounce, but our forefathers were untroubled by such mathematical precision, using the word more loosely to refer to the smallest amount of strong liquor worth drinking. A sham dram was a dram glass that held even less than it appeared to; it was often used by innkeepers, who out of politeness had to drink with each customer but out of prudence had to remain competent throughout the evening. In the home, the toastmaster's glass served the same purpose.

The smallest glasses of all were those for drinking surfeit water, a ferociously strong, and oddly named, brandy. Their bowls were only about three-quarters of an inch in diameter. Cordial glasses, too, were small. These sweet liqueurs, such as crème de menthe, were often drunk at tea time, which may explain the ladylike delicacy of their glasses.

Another drinking vessel of a very different type was the wine taster, also called a "tastevin." Tasters were small silver or pewter bowls with one, two, or three handles, broad and shallow to give the wine maximum air exposure. A single-handled taster was often hung on a cord round the neck of the cellar master as he moved around the cellar sampling his maturing stock. Two- and three-handled ones were designed to be passed among friends who might have selflessly volunteered to assist him in his labor.

Other Necessities

Until the middle of the eighteenth century, merchants sold wine from the cask, and the customer brought his own bottle. Most were glass, of which the most collectible bore the owner's initials. Others, which are highly sought after today, are small delft bottles labeled to identify their contents: whit, claret, sack, and boy were the most common. Whit and claret referred to white and red wine, respectively. Sack was a widely popular wine in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but today we are not exactly sure what it was. Some scholars argue that sack was an Anglicization of sec or seco, a dry sherry; others say it derives from the Spanish sacar, meaning to take out, claiming it refers to any Spanish wine made for export. Boy is even more baffling: "The Boy" was aristocratic slang for champagne, and though champagne was being made by the 1670s, there's no record of its being called "Boy" until almost a century later. Many delft bottles are only about six inches high and hold half a pint--surprisingly small for an age when drink was consumed in hearty quantities. The likeliest explanation is that they were given as gifts on New Year's Day. (Christmas was not an occasion for gifts until the late nineteenth century.) The fact that many are dated, as well as labeled, supports this idea.

Fortified wines, whose bottles were not normally consumed at a single sitting, would be decanted, usually through a silver funnel. Wine funnels had filters at the top to catch the sediment, and their spouts were angled to send the wine running down the glass side of the decanter so that its color could be checked. A wine label would then be hung on the decanter. Wine labels were made of silver and porcelain throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; the most common were for port, Madeira, and sherry, and later for whiskey, gin, and rum. Labels whose only use today would be to arouse interest and conversation are those with obsolete names such as sack or wormwood; an absinthe-flavored liqueur, wormwood was taken both for pleasure and medicinally, to purge worms. We have to suspect that the label wormwood served more as a warning than anything else.

Drinking wine was fun, an occasion for merrymaking, and many devices were invented to ensure that laughter accompanied the wine in at least equal measure. One was the fuddling cup, a cluster of three or more drinking cups, connected so that when one was partially emptied, the contents of the others were suddenly discharged into it. Another was the puzzle jug, which was designed to spill wine down the shirtfronts of less skillful drinkers.

Later in the eighteenth century, glasses were designed on similar principles. Their stems were bizarrely enlarged to include hollow balls and tubes that held back some of the wine until the glass reached a certain angle, when it was released in a rush.

Furniture

A few pieces of colonial furniture were designed specifically for wine. One is the wine stand, like a low candlestand, sometimes only eighteen inches high, a convenient height for a wine glass when placed at the arm of one's easy chair. It has a dished or tray top to help protect the glass against hands made careless by the second or third refilling.

The huntboard was one uniquely American form of furniture intended, at least in part, for drinks. Huntboards were made in the southern Atlantic states from the end of the Revolutionary War until well into the nineteenth century. Fox hunters stood around these small, simple, and sometimes fairly crude sideboards for an informal buffet after a long day's hunt. What distinguishes them is their height--between about forty and forty-eight inches. These meals usually took place in the back hall, or out in the plantation office, which explains the lack of sophistication in the huntboard's design. Why the returning hunters stood for their refreshment is less clear: maybe because their muddy or dusty clothes would have dirtied chairs, or more probably, because after a long day in the saddle, standing was the most comfortable position. In any event, the height of the huntboard makes it as convenient for serving drinks today as it was for saddle-sore hunters in the newly independent Virginias or Carolinas.

The English wine table, sometimes also called a hunt table, served a similar purpose, but was more sophisticated because it resided in the main house. Shaped like a horseshoe, it allowed the butler to stand in the middle and serve guests around its circumference. More useful today, as well as more interesting, were the wine tables designed for self-service, equipped with coaster wagons that ran on brass rails around the inside edge of the horseshoe. The wagon shuttled the wine expeditiously among the thirsty hunters or guests.

In New England, side tables for holding drinks were once called toddy tables--an alliteratively apt name that seems ripe for revival. Certainly David Hicks, the interior design guru, would approve of their use, if not their name. Drinks, he told the readers of Antique Interiors International (Vol. 29, 1997), should always be kept on a marble- or stone-topped table and never in a cocktail cabinet, which he disdains as suitable only for the outer reaches of suburbia.

Huntboards and toddy tables were made of wood, but tables with marble, slate, and tile tops were made in both the Queen Anne and Chippendale periods. Though predating by many generations the fashion for mixed drinks, they were often called mixing tables, and they are very rare. Much more common are the marble-topped console and pier tables introduced by Chippendale. After briefly falling out of fashion in the early Federal period, these tables regained their popularity in the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and many were made in the Classical and Empire styles. Today, these make perfect drinks tables.

Good wine is one of life's great pleasures, and drinking it with antiques can lend it an extra zest. Antiques remind us that drinking wine has a long history, and that our ancestors valued a fine wine every bit as highly as we do. So, every once in a while, let's fill the cellaret, rap our firing glasses on the table, and join our forebears in the pleasures of the grape.

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