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Drinking to the Future

Cellarettes in Nineteenth Century America
By Erica P. Lome
“In the corner [of his grandfather’s house] as you enter the door in the dining room stood the ‘wine cooler’ of polished mahogany, inlaid with wreaths of satin wood, octagon in shape, about three feet high, on six spindling square legs, divided inside with compartments, each to hold a bottle of wine. ‘The fashions of the world change,’ and those who have been accustomed to partake of its contents, now that it was all gone and never refilled, have failed to return, and for years it was debased to the humble purpose of a scrap box, its glory had departed and like its owner seemed to be growing larger in body, and more spindling in the legs.”  – Reminiscences of Old Charleston (c.1840)

This passage, written in 1840, used a description of a cellarette to lament both the passage of time and the antiquation of furniture that belonged to an earlier era of American life. For many who collect vessels, drinking apparatuses, and wine accessories, the cellarette is a well-known form: A piece of furniture designed to contain and display bottles of wine or other alcohol. Often portable, and with hollowed out compartments lined with zinc or lead on the inside for storing bottles, they were an indispensable part of a tasteful household from the late eighteen to the mid nineteenth century.
The growth in popularity of cellarettes was due to changes in the American home during the early years of the nineteenth century, which saw the dining room enlarged to accommodate larger numbers and function as a performance space in the domestic sphere, where family and guests could display their wealth, good taste, and cultural capital. The ritual of imbibing wine in wealthy households became as much of a social requirement as it was for leisure and enjoyment, and appropriate accessories for drinking wine developed to follow suit. Cellarettes allowed the host to dismiss their servants without interrupting the flow of libations, and provided a repository for their rare and expensive vintages, most likely imported from Europe. In Henry Sargentís 1821 painting ìThe Dinner Party,î a gathering of gentlemen around the dining table is underscored by the presence of a cellarette.
The cellarette, originating in London and peaking in popularity in New York City, also acted as a complementary piece to the sideboard. Cabinetmakers who excelled in producing pieces in the Regency, Federal, or Empire style found a furniture form that could exhibit the stylistic tendencies of each. Furthermore, cellarettes could reflect a regional character, and examples ranging from Boston to Charleston indicate changing consumer tastes and transatlantic design influences.
Regional Distinctions
In the South, cabinetmakers more closely followed eighteenth century Regency designers such as Hepplewhite to create cellarettes distinct from their northern contemporaries. While Southern cellarettes shared common attributes such as simplistic geometric forms without carving, sparse inlay and an emphasis on verticality (termed the ìNeat and Plain Tasteî by scholars), they could also be idiosyncratic, often owing to the desire of clients to have little personal touches on their pieces. They are predominantly segmented, with the bottle case placed atop a small table with a drawer. Interestingly, these pieces are more often identified as Bottle Cases or Liquor Stands.
Scholars have theorized that Southern tastes in cellarets were less quick to change, either due to a slow dissemination of styles from North to South or an ingrained sense of tradition that took pride in vernacular craft practices.
The ancestor of the cellarette developed in Europe around the early eighteenth century, as a hollowed-out rounded form that could be filled with ice and bottles and displayed during parties. Designs for more standardized and domestic examples did not appear until the latter half of the century when Robert Adam and George Hepplewhite produced variations on the form in Cabinetmakersí Guides.

First Phase, 1796-1817

Early forms of the cellarette, as listed in the 1811 Journeymen Cabinet and Chair Makersí Pennsylvania Book of Prices, included three types: a Cellarette (unspecified shape), an Octagon Cellarette, and an Oval Cellarette. These popular models were produced between 1794 and 1817 primarily in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. New standardizations to the form included casters and lids for easy maneuverability and storage.
The Empire style of cellarettes, prominent in the first few decades of the nineteenth century, spoke to a consumer interest in antiquity as interpreted by the French. Ornamentation in the shape of sphinxes, urns, and classic details were weightier and more prominent. This style was exemplified by ÈbÈnistes such as Charles-HonorÈ Lannuier (1779ñ1819), who was a French transplant in New York and took with him a tradition of French-made brass casting to create a plethora of accessories for mahogany furniture. Many other cabinetmakers in New York worked in a similar idiom, signaling a shift away from British-influenced designs.
Second Phase, 1817-1834
The Second Phase of cellarette design was most active in New York, as affluence and higher standards for domestic interiors culminated in a renewed interest in objects of taste and status.
Between the 1817 and 1834 more cellarette forms were introduced, including the popular ìElipticî and ìOgee.î The latter two did not appear in London or Philadelphia price books, leading to the conclusion that they were New York-specific styles. The “Eliptic” form in particular was important because it introduced the design feature of having the hollow for bottles to lie on, maximizing efficiency. As sediment would often build up in bottles held vertically, it was seen as better for the wine to have them resting on their sides before a meal. Thus, the form of the cellarette altered to suit the new demands of the dining room.
In this Second Phase, no cellarette was more popular and in demand than those of Scottish cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe (1768-1854).
Among the characteristics of Phyfe-attributed cellarettes are proportion, balance, symmetry and restraint. Mahogany from Cuba or Santo Domingo or rosewood was used, in lieu of flashy brass or colorful inlays, to create lavishly-veneered panels rich in tone. Due to the popularity of Phyfe furniture, many cellarettes produced during the Second Phase are attributed to his workshop.
Cellarettes were also made to resemble sugar chests, bookcases, or end-tables to conceal their connection to alcoholic beverages during the years of prohibition. Their dual-function also meant that they werenít often produced in conjunction with a sideboard.
Cellarette production in America peaked during the Second Phase, which ended around 1840. After this period, very few cellarettes can be found. One theory for the waning popularity of this form was its size, as craftsmen were asked to adapt larger cabinets for storing alcohol, and simultaneously smaller liquor boxes by makers such as Tiffany & Co became more popular into the early twentieth century. Large mansions of the Gilded Age often had their own rooms devoted to wine, preferring the formality of having different bottles served by domestic help during meals. Temperance movements in the 1840s might also have stalled the production of furniture forms for storing alcohol, particularly in the South. Lastly, the economic crash and recession during the middle of the century might have dissuaded most Americans from purchasing expensive pieces of furniture to hold wine, particularly wine imported from abroad.
Cellarettes reemerge as an antique collectible in the 1920s-30s, owing to their rarity in the later nineteenth century. Today, not many people are aware of this unique furniture form, yet for the historian or enthusiast they provide a look into how High Culture was performed in the domestic realm in the early nineteenth century.
Erica Lome received her MA in Decorative Arts & Material Culture from Bard Graduate Center in New York City, and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Delaware studying American Civilization and Material Culture.
Drinking to the Future