In jam-packed booths at antique malls, online auctions like eBay, and e-commerce marketplaces like Etsy, there’s no shortage of barware waiting to find a space on a bar cart or home bar. From glassware and decanters to shakers and branded beer and spirits swag, the challenge is recognizing the usefulness and value of the bar tools and accessories available.
As of 2020, the online market for vintage and collectibles alone is worth $1.5 billion in the U.S., up more than 5 percent per year since 2015, and that growth is only expected to continue, according to market research firm IbisWorld.
The rise in popularity of classic cocktails, coupled with period TV shows that regularly showcase those drinks in vintage barware like, “Downton Abbey,” “Mad Men,” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” have contributed to a demand for retro and antique styles, like those from Cocktail Kingdom, and for true vintage finds.
Additionally, according to this year’s DISCUS press briefing by senior vice president of economic and strategic analysis David Ozgo, the return of the bar cart as a “decorative, nice piece of furniture” is a trend to watch. As for what to put on those bar carts, we spoke with accessory-obsessed bartenders with timeworn collections of their own to offer tips for finding the very best vintage bar tools out there.
1. Case the Joint
When outfitting a home bar with vintage barware, the two most important factors are persistence and patience. Upon entering a vintage market, Morgan Weber, co-owner of Agricole Hospitality, recommends doing a quick lap through your hunting grounds first.
“If there’s one booth that sticks out with a bunch of good mid-century modern furniture, I’ll stop in and take a closer look,” he says. Don’t forget to look up, down, and in every nook and cranny.
“There are probably a hundred things hanging from the ceiling or on top of shelves or under the tables that most people miss,” says Josh Harris, owner of San Francisco’s Trick Dog and Bon Voyage and an avid thrifter with his own Instagram vintage shop, @BVintageSF. Past items for sale include covetable antique bitters bottles and a large silver-plated Napier jigger. With more than 2,000 followers, his pieces tend to sell quickly.
“I think one of the biggest distinctions that you want to make is, do you want to use it or do you want to display it?” says Harris, noting that metal items like spoons hold up well to use, while a vintage mixing glass might be best for display.
Additionally, when making his rounds at markets or weekly trips to estate sales, Harris says it’s helpful to have a particular item in mind. That way, “you’re going to be acutely focused on it and things will sort of [be more visible in] the jumble.”
Weber’s approach is similar. When adding to his extensive collection of Napier barware and other vintage tools, he keeps an eye out for old bottles that can be retrofitted into bitters bottles — and anything silver.
“[Silver is] usually not polished, so it sells for pretty cheap,” Weber claims. Outdoor markets are best, he says, “because by and large it’s just bins of stuff. You have to be willing to sift through it and hunt it down.”
2. Familiarize Yourself with Maker’s Marks
While finding vintage barware isn’t always about hunting down high-value pieces, it’s helpful to be able to identify the historical significance of a piece — all the better if it’s at a steal. For example, according to Weber, Napier was the preeminent maker of home barware in the early 20th century. Weber has an extensive collection of the company’s stepped jiggers, a design that Cocktail Kingdom remade in 2018.
Finds from Napier include stylized jiggers in a saint-and-sinner theme, penguin-shaped shakers, and multi-use spoons (a predecessor of the contemporary Swiss army-style bar tools). A Napier jigger that doubles as a music box sold for $90 on Harris’s Instagram shop. Many Napier items are silver-plated, but the company also made solid silver pieces, so be sure to look for a hallmark, denoting its precious metal makeup, in addition to a trademark or maker’s mark. Also keep an eye out for solid and plated tools with a Reed & Barton maker’s mark.
Harris warns that a mark doesn’t always denote high value or rarity, but sometimes you get lucky. Not long ago, he came across a Luc Lanel-designed cobbler shaker for Christofle silver. He investigated and then listed it in his shop for $275.
The post reads: “It with many others was created for use on the S.S. Normandie. Most will recognize this liner from the famous travel poster advertising its ‘Transatlantique’ route from Normandie to New York.”
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SOLD – Beautiful Art Deco Cobbler Shaker designed by Luc Lanel $275. This cocktail shaker, designed by Luc Lanel for Cristofle’s silverplated Gallia line, was titled Ondulations with its clean ring pattern. It with many others was created for use on the S.S. Normandie. Most will recognize this liner from the the famous travel poster advertising its ‘Transatlantique’ route from Normandie to New York. This liner was the fastest, largest, and most luxurious afloat. The Normandie was first deployed in 1935. During World War II, it was seized by U.S. authorities at New York and renamed USS Lafayette. In 1942, the liner caught fire while being converted to a troopship, capsized onto her port side and came to rest on the mud of the Hudson River. Although salvaged at great expense, restoration was deemed too costly and she was scrapped in October 1946. This shaker is a gorgeous one. It’s been in my collection for years. It’s design is striking and functional. Much bigger than most other examples front the era. I’ve shown it pictured next to 3 other antiques shakers in one of the photos for scale. It measures 10” tall, 3.75” diameter at the shoulders, 2.75” diameter at the base. It has wear and feel consistent with age and use. Some little ripples here and there but no major dents or the like. The inside is visually clean but I have not made cocktails in this so I would recommend buyer cleans the interior before making cocktails if they choose to use it. I have used this as a display piece. This would make an incredible addition to any bar or antique barware collection. Look at all the photos as they are part of the description. Ask any questions. Sold as is, as described, and as pictured. Must DM “SOLD” to confirm your intent to purchase. First to do so takes it. Buyer to pay actual shipping, or welcome to pickup locally of course. Treat yourself or someone you love! #bvintagesf . #antiqueshaker #vintageshaker #cocktailshaker #vintagecocktailshaker #galliashaker #luclanel #cristofle #ssnormandie #normandie #antiquecocktailshaker #antiquebarware #vintagebarware #vintage #antique #silverplated #silverplate #barware #vintageforsale #sanfrancisco #joshssundayscores
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Glassware, on the other hand, doesn’t always have markings indicating its maker, but hand-painted details, which often have inconsistencies, are often a vintage indicator. If you do come across sets of fairly priced and fantastically patterned Georges Briard, Culver, or Fred Press marked glasses, nab them.
3. Network & Travel For the Goods
While Harris prefers to hunt for finds “in the wild” with his experience and personal taste as guides, Weber stresses how helpful befriending vendors and other vintage fanatics can be.
“Network, network, network,” says Weber. “My buddy up in Fort Worth, the barware thing is not on his every day agenda, but since we have a relationship, he’ll ping me if he’s out in the wild and sees something cool.”
Weber also has a friend who regularly visits markets in Italy and France and brings certain bar items back that are harder to find in the U.S. “It used to be so much easier to find stuff, and then “American Pickers“ started and everybody started doing it,” he says, referring to the History Channel show hosted by Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz, who scour everywhere from junkyards to people’s homes across the country searching for hidden treasures. “You’ve got to be willing to travel for it.”
4. Know When to Bargain
Depending on what and where you’re trying to score, striking a deal with a vendor is a possibility. Harris recommends a delicate set of glassware as a particularly good target at temporary market venues.
“If you’re a flea market vendor, you want [glassware] to [sell] because every time you pack it up and unpack it, there is the chance that shit is gonna chip, crack, break, etc.,” says Harris. If a set you have your eye on hasn’t sold by the end of the day, that’s the best time to strike a deal, he says.
5. Be Creative
Keep an open mind in your search — just because something isn’t traditionally used in the bar doesn’t mean it can’t be. When listing items on his Instagram shop, Harris shares ideas on how an item could be repurposed. “I’ve found that it helps nonprofessional bartenders to have some suggestions,” he says.
He notes a set of painted Japanese sake glasses that he had trouble selling until he suggested they be used as mezcal copitas. Harris also enjoys using large vintage Kodak beakers, which were intended for photo processing chemicals and are marked with detailed ounce measurements, as mixing glasses. “The greatest [finds] are the ones that you never knew you were looking for,” he says.
Published: March 15, 2020