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About Those Tom and Jerry Bowls

Though the Tom and Jerry's popularity has waned, its namesake bowl and cups have given birth to an avid collector's market. Megan Krigbaum on the cult of Tom and Jerry drinkware, past and present.

Tom and Jerry bowls are the cocktail equivalent of concert T-shirts in the vintage shop world. You can’t set foot in an antique barn without finding at least one dusty, opaque, 1940s milk glass version, decked out with stenciled green pine trees and a sleigh, with the words “Tom and Jerry” inscribed in the usual Old English font.

An early-1800s classic, the Tom and Jerry is made with a cake-like egg batter that’s combined with brandy and rum and topped with warm milk. It’s a kissing cousin of eggnog, only hot, which means just a small drinking constituency is interested in consuming it, and even fewer bars go through the trouble of making it.

But at the same time the drink’s popularity has diminished, the actual bowls and cups for the Tom and Jerry have given birth to a collectors market—both online and among bartenders. Through the years, they’ve come in myriad shapes and colors, with companies from Japan to England to Ohio producing vessels for this old drink.

While cocktail historian David Wondrich has done deep research on the Tom and Jerry itself—debunking the notion that Jerry Thomas came up with the drink, a falsehood that Thomas propagated himself—the history of Tom and Jerry drinkware hasn’t been well-documented. It’s very possible that the Tom and Jerry bowl (most often ceramic, with the punch’s name painted on the side) was the first piece of barware made expressly for one specific drink.

Wondrich points to the first appearance of a Tom and Jerry bowl in the New York Times, the recounting, on February 6, 1864, of a bar fight that ended in a death. “When deceased ran and jumped over the bar; as he went over he struck a ‘Tom and Jerry’ bowl and fell; while he was down the prisoner leaned over the bar and fired the pistol at him; deceased exclaimed, “I’m shot;” the prisoner then turned round and threatened to shoot us all: I ran away and went into the rear yard; the prisoner seemed to be sober.”

But finding bowls from those early days is near impossible now. Husband-wife collectors Robert Hess, a cocktail expert in Seattle, and Audrey Saunders, owner of Pegu Club in New York City, have been hunting down bowls of that era for years. Their oldest is a teal, floral-bedecked beauty with a scalloped rim from England’s Furnivals that dates somewhere between 1880 and 1890. They also have an Art Deco globe-shaped bowl with a lid and gold leaf lettering that appears to be from Japan. This is the one that tends to be their “traveling” bowl, which they take on the road, like punch troubadours, stirring up batches of Tom and Jerrys in friend’s bars for celebrations and openings. (The two also have a standing gig at Seattle’s Liberty Bar every Christmas Eve.)

Saunders’ long held interest in the Tom and Jerry and its stylish trappings is what brought bartender John Gertsen into the game of chasing these bowl sets. He distinctly remembers seeing the Japanese Art Deco bowl on the Bemelman’s bar in 2002 when Saunders was running the show there. He searched around and found a cream-colored Homer Laughlin ceramic version with gold leaf lettering and matching drawn-waisted cups; it became a fixture on the bar at Boston’s No. 9 Park, where he was in charge of drinks at the time. Over the years, he lived by the rule that he’d only whip up the first batch of Tom and Jerrys, which he refers to as a “liquid internal sweater,” with the first snowfall of the year. His guests were such huge fans of the drink (and the bowl) that, one year, a regular from New Hampshire drove down with fresh snow to encourage Gertsen to make the drink ahead of Boston’s first snow.

When Gertsen opened Drink with chef Barbara Lynch in Boston’s Fort Point in 2008, he made communal drinking the mission of the bar; Tom and Jerrys were a natural fit. He began stockpiling bowls—a black one from Hall China with glitzy gold writing, a cobalt blue Japanese bowl, which came as a gift from a friend. He even caved and bought some of the ubiquitous milk glass bowls and cups from companies like Hazel-Atlas, Anchor Hocking and McKee. When Gertsen left Boston to move to San Francisco a few years back (he now bartends at ABV), he left the bowls behind. Today, Meghan Powers carries on the tradition at No. 9 Park, and Ezra Star keeps the bowls full at Drink.

“I like that the Tom and Jerry involves ritual,” says Damon Boelte, owner of Brooklyn’s Grand Army Bar. “It’s like with the Remember the Maine, which is supposed to be stirred counter clockwise. This drink is supposed to be served from these bowls when it’s cold out. These things intrigue me and also inspire me.”

Boelte started his collection around the same time as Gertsen. He picked up his first bowl, a similar egg-shell, gilded, porcelain number, at an antique swap in Pennsylvania. He now owns ten of them. “At one point, I had to stop myself,” he said, but that wasn’t before he became the proud owner of a peach luster version from Fire-King. The bizarrely iridescent pastel orange bowl is inscribed in dark green, with a pine needle motif; it’s tied for his favorite along with a classic, well-worn, black and gold set.

At a moment when a hot egg drink isn’t quite in vogue, the necessity of a cache of fanciful bowls and cups is questionable. But perhaps it was never really about the drink at all. In a 1906 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, titled “Hot Drinks Not Popular,” bartender George Mitchell is quoted as saying “Half a dozen years ago, hot toddies and Tom and Jerries, hot whiskies and other potables of that same description were called for repeatedly. The Tom and Jerry bowl was always in evidence on bars, but now it is a rare sight, indeed, except on Christmas or New Year’s day, when there is always a revival of interest in the old drinks and eggnogs, Tom and Jerries and so forth.”

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