Cracking Open a Cold One

by Erin Feith, Research Assistant
June 4, 2024

Long before coolers became a fixture at summer barbecues, the cellarette was the hot way to keep things chilled. Found mainly in dining rooms of the 18th to early 20th centuries, the small, cabinet-like furniture piece was primarily used to hold bottles of wine or other liquors. Becoming a prominent part of one’s interior décor, cellarettes appealed to homeowners through their elegant presentation and practicality.

Illustration from The Cabinet-maker and Upholsterer’s Guide, 1826 by George Smith that depicts a cellarette very similar to the Hall’s (top photo) with a matching sideboard.

Used in Europe since the 15th century, cellarettes gained attention in America by the 1700s. Thanks to their association with entertaining and valuable contents, they quickly became a status symbol, and were often made from finer materials, such as mahogany. Many cellarettes were also designed to slide within the bottom of a matching sideboard, a larger decorative cabinet used for serving and storage in many 19th-century dining rooms.

Though decorative, the cellarette’s design remained largely functional. Their interiors were lined with metal, allowing for them to be filled with ice or cold water that kept food and beverages cool and ready to serve. At the end of a gathering, any melted ice or water could then be drained through a small spigot. Wheels attached to their base provided the cellarette with a degree of mobility, facilitating access to its contents from any part of the dining room.  Their shape also evolved with changes in bottle height over the years with sarcophagus-style lids frequently replacing flatter ones to accommodate the taller, more slender bottles that emerged in the early 19th century.

The recently restored cellarette was likely a Hone family piece. It was left by Mary Crane Hone to MCHS’s collection (along with a key to the old sideboard) and is currently on display in Acorn Hall.

By the latter half of the 19th century, cellarettes were increasingly transformed into wine coolers directly built-in to sideboards. However, they [stand-alone cellarettes?] experienced a resurgence during Prohibition, when their solid wood exterior gave them an unassuming appearance, concealing their alcohol-filled contents. Following the introduction of the refrigerator in the 20th century, the popularity of the cellarette was put on ice, but not before it carved its own place in history.  

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