By Margo McCutcheon, Site Educator, Sam Rayburn House State Historic Site
At the Sam Rayburn House State Historic Site, staff members are constantly learning about the home we preserve and interpret. One of the ways we learn is through visitors.
Whether it is because of their personal connection to the Rayburn family, their historical knowledge, or their own curiosity, visitors provide us with new ways of thinking about the house and the artifacts within it.
For example, one visitor asked if a bell, sitting atop a shelf in the sitting room of the house, was used to alert congressional representatives to the floor of the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. Doing my best to find the answer, the staff and I soon discovered that this chrome-plated bell is actually described in our artifact system as a decanter, and may be more accurately described as a cocktail shaker.
The staff quickly agreed that we needed to do some more research into this unusual novelty. From a visitor’s perspective, “bell” is the only word for this object. A wooden handle with a silver cap connects to a bell-shaped section with a wide bottom and a silver or chrome polished, reflective surface.
Should you pick up this bell, however, you would discover that the bottom of the bell is closed, not open as a bell should be, and slightly recessed. The section connecting the bell to the handle unscrews, revealing a circular strainer with a thin rod hanging from the strainer as well as an empty bell-shaped container. A small ball is attached to the rod, which swings freely within the empty bell-shaped container and acts as a clapper.
The top of the handle also unscrews to reveal a channel through the center of the handle. This “bell” does ring thanks to the clapper within it, but someone could also pour liquor into the bell section for later use, or mix a drink with the clapper and filter it through the handle. The filing system we use split the bell into two separate sections—the handle and the bell vessel, labeled officially as the “stirrer” and “decanter,” respectively.
The stirrer measures 6.25 inches tall and a 2-inch diameter, with the stir rod measuring 3.25 inches tall. The decanter measures 5.25 inches tall with a 6-inch diameter. In contrast to the outside of the decanter, the inside is not polished. Both the stirrer and decanter have some corrosion and tarnish.
Our files describe the artifact as chrome and wood, and estimates its date of creation between the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. Although some physical details of the decanter are documented, facts about its possible origins remain unknown.
Typing “silver bell-shaped decanter” into a search engine mostly reveals glass bell-shaped objects for storing liquor. The image results that look like our artifact are described as cocktail shakers. According to Merriam-Webster, a decanter is a glass container mainly used to serve wine, and “decant” is the action of pouring a liquid or transferring it to another container.
Most decanters contain wine because the decanter allows sediment to separate from the wine. However, decanters may store other types of liquid or liquor as well. A shaker can describe basically anything used for shaking, with a cocktail shaker specifying what the person is shaking.
There are three types of cocktail shakers: the Boston Shaker (two pieces—glasses or tins that just barely fit together at the rim), the Cobbler Shaker (three pieces—a base, a strainer contained within the shaker, and a lid/cap), and the French/Parisian Shaker (two pieces—like a Boston Shaker, but with a tighter seal).
Even without confirming that the Rayburn bell-shaped decanter may be better described as a Cobbler Shaker, the “silver bell-shaped decanter” search still led me to several sites that feature items with the same basic look as our artifact but described more specifically as a mid-century town crier bell shaker.
The shaker is likely chrome plated, meaning chromium was applied to another object resulting in a chrome finish on the outside. An additional obstacle to identifying what exactly the shaker is, and what person or company made it, is the fact that no markings of any kind appear on the artifact.
An article in the Baltimore Sun states that shakers rarely included trademarks of any kind. The Asprey & Co. in London created silver-plated bell shakers during the 1930s, but they marked their creations and did not use wooden handles—such handles seem to be specific to the United States.
Art deco remains one of the few descriptors applied throughout all the different variations and possible origins of bell-shaped cocktail shakers. Named for the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, France, Art Deco broadly refers to an artistic and design period from the 1910s through the 1940s. The Art Deco Society of New York embraces the hard-to-define artistic style and includes several definitions of Art Deco on its website.
Art Deco designers drew inspiration from geometry, practicality, and then-modern technology to create everything from skyscrapers in New York City to functional items for the home. Chrome-plated cocktail shakers represent just one of the many ways Art Deco lent itself to the culture of its era—the Roaring Twenties and the end of Prohibition marked a booming period for all things cocktail related.
Within the span of a few days, my perception of this artifact went from thinking it was an actual bell to knowing that it is more of an Art Deco chrome-plated town crier bell cocktail shaker in the Cobbler shaker style.
The luxury of time—in the sense of the time I had to research this artifact and the period within which we live where I can type a few words into a computer to find some answers rather quickly—has allowed me to select an artifact from a house that has existed for over 100 years and learn something new about it.
This bell is just one of many items within the Sam Rayburn House waiting to get your attention, so please plan your visit and help us find the next hidden treasure in the house.