A couple of months ago, I was sent a story by Stephan Visakay about swizzle sticks (which I happen to collect). I was so thrilled, I asked him, with Maddy Lederman, to write an article for the blog.
“The difficulty of securing a cherry resting at the bottom of a cocktail glass without resorting to boorish antics obnoxious to people accustomed to polite social usages is so well known as to have become a matter of public comment and jest.”
In his three-page patent copy, Jay Sindler used the cherry to describe how necessary his new invention, the Swizzle Stick, was, but legend has it the idea was sparked by an olive.
It was February 1934, a few months after Prohibition had ended. Sindler, an employee of the Converse Rubber Company and an avid inventor, sat contemplating his martini at the Boston Ritz Carlton’s bar one night, faced with the challenge of removing his olive without dipping his fingers into his gin. I like to think Sindler was on his second or third martini when it all came together. He envisioned a small spear with a paddle-like handle, imprinted with an establishment’s name like a miniature billboard. It would be something the patrons could take home, cheaper than a book of printed matches and cheaper still than the cost of vanishing ashtrays and cocktail glasses. Sindler’s patent, number 1,991,871, was granted on February 19, 1935.
Polite society caught on to Sindler’s invention and his new company Spir-it was off to a promising start.
There was some competition, however. With Repeal, all the great glass companies began to manufacture bar ware. Stirring rods once used by 1920’s Flappers were now mass-produced. Unlike the swizzle stick, glass swizzles didn’t have a pointed spear for fruit garnishes and were costly to silk-screen with a hotel logo. Some glass companies had the novel idea of inserting a tube of paper with advertising copy into a glass rod and sealing the end like a message in a bottle, but costly and impractical, this didn’t last. Today this type of hollow (and easily broken) stirrer is one of the most sought after by collectors. Other attractive materials include Bakelite and Catalin.
Major developments in plastic manufacturing came along with World War II. By the 1950’s swizzle sticks came in an incredible array of shapes and colors and served as inexpensive advertisements for clubs, casinos, restaurants and airlines. All establishments had a custom swizzle stick even if they made do with the cheaper, stock version; a straight, tapered rod with a paddle signboard imprinted with a tavern’s logo.
Into the 1960′s and the Space Age, there was a boom in the electronics industries calling for precision plastic parts which led to new technologies in thermosetting plastic injection molding. The period from the late 1950’s throughout the 1960’s was a Golden Age for signature swizzle sticks.
Drinks served on TWA flights sported a red propeller swizzle. At Trader Vic’s, a Hawaiian outrigger canoe paddle with a Tiki God handle graced the drinks at the venerable bar. The Thunderbird Hotel and Swim Club in Miami Beach featured a Flying Thunderbird on top of it’s swizzle with the name in large script over the shaft. Playboy’s signature bunny-head sat atop their swizzles which, for some reason, were extra long. Many people saved the Playboy swizzle if they ever came across it. In fact, most of us have a few swizzle sticks saved somewhere. Taking a swizzle as a memento was encouraged. They were a promotional calling card or a remembrance of a wonderful trip or night on the town and they disappeared from nightclubs and hotel bars as fast as they were set out.
The swizzle sticks’ popularity didn’t last forever, or even very far into the 1970′s. For example, during the Carter years, the White House was dry. It was beer and wine only at State functions, no doubt the reason why Jimmy was a one term President. When he derided the “fifty dollar martini lunch” for businessmen, former House Speaker Jim Wright (D-TX), replied, “If the Good Lord hadn’t intended us to have a three martini lunch, then why do you suppose He put all those olive trees in the Holy Land?”
Inventor Jay Sindler would have agreed.
Check out clubs such as the International Swizzle Stick Collectors Association (ISSCA), www.swizzlesticks-issca.com.
ISSCA President Ray Hoare and thousands of collectors world-wide, sociologists and anthropologists agree that these miniature, pop-culture icons give us an inside look at the past and are a valued collectable worth saving for future generations. And besides, they can still be used to stir your favorite drink.
If you’re looking for swizzles for your next party ask your parents, they probably have a box full somewhere. Or you can purchase swizzle sticks from the company started by Jay Sindler, they’re still in business. Spirit Foodservice, Inc has a fantastic web site with eco-friendly and biodegradable options. Marketing Manager Rachel Pantely tells us that swizzles are hotter than ever with the increased interest in retro cocktails. www.spiritfoodservice.com
Stephen Visakay is author of Vintage Bar Ware (Collector Books 1997) and has written for antique, collectible, and trade magazines. His cocktail shaker exhibition, “Shaken, Not Stirred, Cocktail Shakers and Design” has been featured in museums nationwide, including The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, The Louisiana State Museum, and The Milwaukee Art Museum. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Maddy Lederman is a writer and a filmmaker. email@example.com
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