It’s been said that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, and when prohibition bootleggers in the 1920’s needed a clever way to stash their hooch, they looked no further than their hard-drinking, forebears and their fool-proof cellarettes.
First appearing as a traditional European style liquor cabinet, cellarettes, in early Colonial America, were popular pieces of free-standing furniture which could be locked to prevent theft – a common problem in the local taverns and guesthouses – soon becoming a staple in upper class homes throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Cellarettes were typically fashioned out of decorative hardwoods such as rosewood and mahogany, and their designs ranged from the plain and utilitarian, to the luxurious and unique, such as Hepplewhite’s octagonal or elliptical shaped cellarettes.
Many cellarettes contained fitted interiors with compartments for bottles, pitchers, decanters and goblets, and the number of cellarettes within a household was more an indication of wealth and status than familial drinking habits. While Prohibition saw a number of inventive ‘trompe l’oeil’ cellarettes in the shape of everyday pieces of furniture, such as tables or bookcases, earlier examples were proudly displayed in the dining room and used throughout the course of the evening, some even bearing handles for easy transport by household staff. The mobile nature of these decorative yet functional objects was the inspiration for standardizing the French word bouteillier to the common English ‘butler’, as reference to the person or persons in charge of keeping watch over the liquor cabinet.
Great Gatsby’s Auction Gallery is pleased to be offering, at their October 14, 15 and 16, 2016 auction, two fascinating period examples of cellarettes. The first is a handsome and impressive pair of 18th century English George III mahogany lidded wine coolers in urn form on associated bases, one with its original lead liner still intact. Each measures a stately 36”h and would be the perfect addition to any neutral interior or warm-hued ‘man cave’ with a love for history.
The second example comes from the celebrated collection of the Honorable Beverly White Yeager of Palm Beach, Florida, whose love of fine English furniture is apparent in her large George IV mahogany cellarette of sarcophagus form dating from around 1825. This cellarette features an applied armorial crest and a hinged lid with a beautifully carved rosette, opening to reveal a fitted tin-lined interior – a technique used to prevent ice from melting too quickly and into the wood of the associated case – the whole measuring 19″h × 34″w × 22.5″d.
These charming pieces speak to an historical love of revelry and celebration, no matter where the party ended up, and a testament to the craftsmanship of those who would later embellish and improve an already ingenious piece of furniture.