“Does this float?” was not a question I imagined I’d be typing to an anonymous, San Francisco-based eBay seller. But I didn’t think I’d uncover an antique, music-playing decanter fashioned into the shape of a tugboat, either.
“I certainly don’t think that it was intended for use on water, but that is not to say that it would be impossible,” replied the seller, careful not to torpedo our dreams of launching a newly christened, whiskey-toting ship onto the high seas of an office kiddie pool.
Much like last month’s cocktail shaking yo-yo, what set the tugboat apart during our search was its uniqueness; equipped with four glasses, a golden mast and a built-in music box, there simply wasn’t anything else like it on eBay.
And that in itself is rare given the dozens of Ford Model A’s, dancing Elvises and, rather inexplicably, Viking helmets that you’ll find on the site, most of them priced at less than $100 a piece. Even musical decanters are surprisingly commonplace online, demonstrating that in today’s collectors’ market, the novelty decanter often times isn’t very novel at all.
Now a practically extinct aspect of drinking culture, specialty decanters were once an important part of spirits marketing, especially in the months leading up to Christmas. Spearheaded by Jim Beam, who released a decanter resembling a cocktail shaker in 1953, the trend was quick to escalate. By 1955, the company had partnered with the Regal China Company to release a ceramic ashtray decanter; the following year, which saw the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower, they released a pair of politically charged decanters in the shape of a donkey and an elephant.
Other companies were quick to catch on, so much so that in the fall of 1956, the New York Times argued that competitors were practically forced to produce their own holiday decanter lines simply to keep up with demand, quietly concluding that “some in the industry . . . are saying privately that they’re a little concerned about the extreme to which the trend has gone.” In 1968, the same year that Jim Beam purchased Royal China as a subsidiary, the company’s ad director told the Times that novelty decanters—which might take the form of a space needle, a cable car or a slot machine—were the “Frankenstein monster” of the industry.
But it wasn’t until 1973 that Jim Beam offered their most notable play on another midcentury trend—namely, that of toy collecting—when they released their “Wheels” series, which offered booze-filled versions of automotives. Just as the era gave toy collectors a new outlet to explore their shared pastime (via forums like Antique Toy World magazine, which launched in 1970), decanter hobbyists were finding camaraderie in the newly formed collectors clubs that were popping up around the country. The wholly ironic, kid-inspired casks became the company’s most famous decanters (and inspired, perhaps even more famously, Jeff Koons’ bourbon-filled Jim Beam — J.B. Turner Train), which were produced until waning interest caused Jim Beam to cease decanter production entirely in 1992.
Our tugboat finds itself occupying a similar space in the canon of novelty decanters. Add to it a music box—a popular decanter accessory since its invention in the late 19th century—and the boat effectively calls on the same kind of nostalgia as the yo-yo cocktail shaker, bridging the gap between adult recreation and a very particular brand of untroubled, childhood whimsy.
Now docked at PUNCH HQ in Bushwick, Brooklyn, it’s unlikely that the boat will see water after all; we’ve deemed it too heavy to float, and we don’t want to risk damaging its music box (which, as it turns out, plays the iconic 1951 hit, The Loveliest Night of the Year, when you lift the decanter from the hull). Of course, that’s not to say you can’t test out the Floating Booze Boat theory at home—you’ll just have to win it first.
Editor’s Note: The sweepstakes has closed; keep an eye out for the next installment of “Sh*t We Found on eBay” for another chance to win a strange-yet-wonderful cocktail collectible.