Before we had dry bars, such as the 1935-1940 Chinese export owned by B.R., we had blind pigs or blind tigers, otherwise known as speakeasies. B.R.'s dry bar — a piece of living room furniture that can disguise itself — was built as a result of this era.
During Prohibition (1920-1933), the sale, manufacture and transportation (bootlegging) of alcohol was illegal throughout the U.S. By the time B.R.'s bar was manufactured, those speakeasies, those holes in the wall, were no longer necessary if you wanted to share a drink. The sequence goes like this: the saloon (1880-1920), the speakeasy (1920-1933), the era of drinking at home (1933-1950), the era of the cocktail lounge (1950-present).
The necessity of a bar in your home in the late 1930s was a response to the lack of development of bar stools in the US, although they had them in Europe. B.R.'s dry bar represents the era of drinking comfortably in your living room. As early as the end of Prohibition, Chinese craftsmen jumped to create home bars that could close up to disguise the guilty pleasure of drinking, along with bottles and fine barware.
In fact, a whole style of interior decorating grew around the culture of drinking in the American living room in the 1930s-1940s: the cocktail table; shakers; trays; martini glasses; cigarette boxes and ash trays; crystal stirring pitchers with long, sterling spoons; and little art deco cocktail napkins. Publicly frowned upon, exhibition drinking became a cottage industry in America, from which we developed a certain living room vernacular.
Drinking in a living room was a relatively late development. The late 19th century American saloon was a dirty, smelly, dark place, filled with sawdust to catch spit and, in some cases, urine. In the days before indoor plumbing, some saloons had a metal trough that ran knee level under the main bar. Coming in handy when men were drinking beer, these troughs were connected to one hole in the foundation.
Because of this environment, women of substance were not allowed in saloons. Yet the occasional gentleman wanted to treat his lady to a drink. Though U.S. hotels developed long bars in dining rooms from which waiters marched, it wasn't until 1935 that anyone thought of clogging up the bar area with stools, as they did in the smaller dining rooms of Europe. By that time, women would go out without men, and thus the barstool was dragged from Europe and placed under the long bar.
That's when China, which had discovered a lively U.S. interest in all things Asian, began exporting foldaway dry bars. China had access to carvable fruitwoods, and bars like B.R.'s were hand-carved with Asian themes. Exotic drinks and the "otherness" of an exotic buzz lead to exotic themes of pagodas and berobed ladies in Asian paradise gardens. These Chinese dry bars could be ordered in black lacquer with applied composition or semi-precious stone figures cavorting on the front cabinet doors; some lacquered pieces had disguisable side cabinets at the canted edge. All dry bars were works of ingenuous Asian engineering. Upon opening, a shelf might slide out, or a rack might swing out, or a disclosed slotted area might be revealed for various sizes of bottles. Some side shelves housed liquor glasses. Some had a cutout for an ice bucket. Some interiors were fitted with mirrors or colored glass. I own a dry bar with a hidden colored bulb that glows when the top is opened. The tops generally lifted back on a hinge, taking that opportunity to disclose an Asian-themed landscape.
These dry bars fell out of favor in the 1950s with the development of communal drinking, represented by the midcentury cocktail lounge with those huge leatherette banquettes and saucy neon lights.
B.R., my dry bar might just beat yours because of one irreplaceable distinction: a little pierced wood post for cocktail metal toothpicks, miniature cherries and olives in glass on the tiny ends.
The value of B.R.'s Hollywood Regency chinoiserie dry bar is $400.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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