A Sip from History: Reclaiming Antique Glassware

by Sarah Shotwell
Two-GlassesImpractical Treasures
My first contact with vintage and antique glassware came through my Great Aunt Frieda, a woman of the 1920s and a self-professed Francophile. Her sprawling mid-century house, looming over the edge of the Puget Sound in Seattle, contained a museum’s worth of warm-hued Parisian furniture, pink Turkish rugs, and Neoclassical porcelain lamps -- objects that filled and decorated my childhood imagination. When Aunt Frieda passed on, many of these heirlooms appeared in our home. My favorite piece was a gilded, bowed-glass, claw-footed curio from Paris. I loved the beautiful cabinet, but what sparkled inside was what drew my true affection: the curio was stuffed with Aunt Frieda’s drinkware.

I don’t know where it all came from, or when it was made, but when I was a kid, the tiny crystal coupes and hand-etched cordial glasses were wonderfully satisfying to my eye. I would stand in front of the case, hands pinned behind my back by a mother’s order to look, not touch, imagining all the parties the stemware had seen as I yearned for the holidays, when I would get my own thimble’s share of champagne and sip it ever so precociously from one of the glistening, rose-hued port glasses. While I used the glasses whenever I was allowed, my parents never did -- not for wine, and especially not for champagne. Perhaps it was the tiny size, the shallow brims, the stubborn glaze of dust on them, or the long, spindly, spill-prone stems, but that stemware, long retired of its days of cheering souls through the long, gloomy Seattle winters, stayed in the case-year round while my parents spun Cabernet in globular, 20-ounce Riedel glasses.

Sip from a Glass, Taste of the Past
A few years ago, I inherited Aunt Frieda’s stemware from my mother, and I’ve made the decision to reclaim these precious little works of art, and not just for my living room display. But where to begin? If you are like me, you may have your own curio full of vintage or antique glassware. Perhaps you aren’t sure how to use it; maybe you even question if you should. After all, it’s breakable, oddly shaped, and impractically small. (Most vintage wine glasses won’t accommodate more than three ounces!) Despite that, sipping from family heirlooms is a special way to keep the past alive. As the weather chills this fall and we all begin to retreat to the indoors, it will be the perfect time to treat your guests to an elegant new tradition. Whether it’s a Bordeaux sipped from a delicate, antique wineglass or a passed tray of cordial glasses brimming with Cointreau, putting vintage stemware to proper use is an eye-catching gesture of hospitality. And don’t forget: antique crystal always looks its best by firelight.

A Guide to Your Antique Glassware
Preeminent up through the mid-century in the states, this wide, shallow, short piece of stemware was used for centuries in France for swilling champagne. The reason? The French nobility apparently found aggressive bubbles a bit gauche. The coupe, with its shallow bowl, mellowed the perlage for an understated experience. Rumor has it, the glass was even inspired by the curve of Marie Antoinette’s bosom! While this may be the stuff of legend, we do know one thing is certain: in the 20th Century, the flute replaced the coupe as bubbly’s vehicle of choice. Bring the coupe back this season for an elegant, European touch.

The Rummer
Popular in Germany and the Netherlands in past centuries, green-tinted rummers are large-mouthed, heavy drinking glasses with fat, short, studded prunts — additional glass pieces fused onto the stem for decoration and a hefty grip. If you’re lucky enough to be in the possession of a set of authentic rummers, take note: original glass may be quite valuable! Luckily, these heavy-bottomed pieces are hearty enough to last generations. In the Rhineland, they were used for slosh-free toasting, so at your next celebration, fill up with a good, aged Riesling and raise those rummers high.

The Port Glass
This petite beauty traditionally stands around five inches tall and two inches across at the bowl. Depending on the era, it may sport a flared rim. Little feels more elegant and time-honored than enjoying a sip of port by the fire with just a nibble of dark chocolate in hand.

The Sherry Glass
This pretty little piece of stemware is a cousin to the port glass, but is slightly larger. Into the 20th Century, the enjoyment of a glass of cream sherry after dinner was a deeply satisfying sign of distinction.

The Goblet
The history of the short, beefy-stemmed goblet can be traced to ancient times. In the modern age we use these large glasses for water. In the past, they took on a variety of profiles, from the flared-rim tulip to the clean-lined and conical. Some argue that anything much larger than three ounces is considered a goblet. Use it for wine or water.

The Flute
We use it for champagne now, but before the 20th Century, the flute, shorter stemmed and heftier than it is now, was used for ale. Vintage ale flutes are often cylindrical.

The Stemmed Dram / Cordial Glass
The tiniest of stemware, dram/cordial glasses can come in any shape, though most often they appear with a cylindrical or conical profile and a short stem. They are typically 1.5 ounces in size and used for sipping liqueurs, whiskey, and gin.

The Wine Glass
Antique wine glasses, usually made from decorative crystal, are small-bowled with long, elegant stems. They may be tulip-shaped, rounded, or cylindrical, but they are almost always petite - around 3 ounces, the perfect size for enjoying a different wine with each course. Until Riedel came along in the 1960s, making popular our modern, olfactory-centric glassware, less distinction was made between the wine varietal and the shape of its vessel. Traditional etiquette and simple logistics would teach us that wine is best served with a meal while seated at a beautifully arranged table. For standing cocktail hour, you may wish to stick with tumblers, highball or Collins glasses, or for the very self-assured, coupes full of sparkling.

Cocktail Glassware
As cocktails really didn’t come to cultural prominence until the early 20th Century, etiquette and tradition in regards to cocktail glassware is still in a constant state of evolution. Some modern craft mixologists have ditched the Martini glass and co-opted the coupe as the cocktail vessel of choice for drinks served “up,” but as we are still on the frontier of cocktail culture, there are lots of options. Have fun by experimenting with different sizes and shapes of vintage glassware, making note of your personal preferences for practicality, sensory experience, and visual charm.

Revisiting History
To drink wine and spirits is to engage with history, and to sip from a vintage or antique glass, though it may not be considered technically correct by the sommeliers who ought to know, is a whimsical, elegant way to connect with our past. So next time you have a gathering, consider getting out your old glasses, dusting them off, and offering your guests a little sip from history.

How have you put your antique glassware to use? Wed love to hear your tips and traditions!