Cocktail Parties

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Cocktail Parties

Noted essayist and tippler H. L. Mencken once wrote that the cocktail was "the greatest of all the contributions of the American way of life to the salvation of humanity." While Mencken's effusive evaluation of the cocktail might be challenged today, the cocktail and the cocktail party remain a distinctively American contribution to the social landscape of the twentieth century.

Although the cocktail party is most closely associated with the Cold War era, Americans were toasting with mixed drinks well before the 1950s. The origin of the word cocktail remains the subject of some debate, with a few bold scholars giving the honors to the troops of George Washington, who raised a toast to the "cock tail" that adorned the General's hat. Whatever its origins, by the 1880s the cocktail had become an American institution, and by the turn of the century women's magazines included recipes for cocktails to be made by hostesses, to insure the success of their parties.

The enactment of the 18th Amendment in 1920 made Prohibition a reality, and cocktails went underground to speakeasies. These illegal night clubs caused a small social revolution in the United States, as they allowed men and women to drink together in public for the first time. But it was not until after World War II that the cocktail-party culture became completely mainstream. As young people flocked to the new suburbs in the 1950s, they bought homes that were far removed from the bars and lounges of the city. Cocktail parties became a key form of socializing, and the market for lounge music records, cocktail glasses, and shakers exploded. By 1955 even the U.S. government had realized the importance of these alcohol-oriented gatherings, as the National Institute of Mental Health of the U.S. Public Health Service launched a four-year sociological study of cocktail parties, with six lucky agents pressed into duty attending and reporting back on high-ball-induced behavior. The testing of atomic bombs during the early 1950s in the deserts of Nevada sparked a short-lived fad for atomic-themed cocktails.

The most emblematic drink of cocktail culture remains the martini. The outline of the distinctively shaped glass has become a universal symbol for bars and lounges. As with many aspects of cocktail culture, the origins of the martini remain hazy. One history suggests that the first martini was mixed by noted bartender "Professor" Jerry Thomas at the bar of the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco in the early 1860s for a miner on his way to the town of Martinez. The martini was insured lasting fame by being the favored libation of the popular movie spy James Bond, whose strict allegiance to a martini that was "shaken, not stirred" so that the gin not be "bruised," encouraged a generation of movie-goers to abandon their swizzle sticks in favor of a cocktail shaker.

In the mid-1990s, cocktail culture experienced a revival through the efforts of a few well-publicized bands interested in reviving the cocktail party lounge sound. The press dubbed the movement, sparked by the 1994 release of Combustible Edison's album I, Swinger, "Cocktail Nation," and young people appropriated the sleek suits, snazzy shakers and swinging sounds made popular by their parents' generation. Cocktail nostalgia reached its peak with the 1996 release of Jon Favreau's Swingers, a movie about cocktail culture in contemporary Los Angeles.

—Deborah Broderson

Further Reading:

Edmunds, Lowell. Martini Straight Up: The Classic American Cocktail. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Lanza, Joseph. The Cocktail: The Influence of Spirits on the American Psyche. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Murdock, Catherine. Domesticating Drink: Women, Men and Alcohol in America 1870-1940. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.