“The influence of cocktails on modern life cannot be exaggerated,” recalled the English author E.M. Delafield, following a visit to America in the 1920s.
She was referring both to the cocktail’s ubiquity (it was a touchstone of American life, even during Prohibition) and to its suitability as a symbol of the times. Around the turn of the century, the very notion of the cocktail in America represented a break from European traditionalism; in particular, it symbolized a rejection of the long-observed hierarchies of wine, spirits and liqueurs—which were thrown by the wayside as bartenders ushered in the trend towards mixed drinks.
Indeed, the notions of cocktails and modernity were so closely entwined that, in the 1930s, a Vanity Fair article declared that “the lifting of the glass” had been embraced as “one of the modern gestures.” Likewise, the design of the cocktail shaker, an object that’d grown considerably more popular following its invention in the late 1800s, drew from the abstract art deco motifs of the day. In the years to come, shakers would be made in the shapes of zeppelins, airplanes and skyscrapers—icons of early-20th-century life.
So it is perhaps unsurprising that it was in New York—a pinnacle of urban development—that the cocktail shaker as we know it today was born. The oldest claim, recorded by the U.S. Patent Office for what would become the bar world’s most ubiquitous tool, dates to 1872 (coincidentally the year the word “mixologist” was first documented) and belongs to William Harnett of Brooklyn for his “apparatus for mixing drinks.”
Unlike the sleek, single-serving shaker that we know today, Harnett’s design consisted of six covered tumblers mounted on a plunger-based system. “A jumping motion is imparted to the tumbler-containing platform,” explains the patent, “… and the contents of the tumblers are readily and quickly mixed.” Needless to say, it’s not a design that stuck.
After more than a decade of failed attempts at advancement (calling on everything from air vents to hinged strainers), Edward Hauck, also of Brooklyn, registered a patent for a three-piece shaker in 1884, which included a standard mixing tin as the base and a top with a built-in strainer; its simple design offered little room for improvement in the years to come. This model would come to be known as the cobbler shaker, named for the ubiquitous Sherry Cobbler, one of the most popular drinks of the era and among the first to require shaking.
While the cobbler shaker has largely been outpaced by the Boston shaker among professional bartenders, its late-19th-century design remains constant—much like the very appeal of shaking a drink. As Albert Stevens Crockett observed in his 1934 The Waldorf Astoria Bar Book, it is, simply, “a good old American custom.”