No matter who you are, or what social media platforms you frequent, it’s statistically very likely that you or someone you know has a Pinterest board with an image of a vintage gold bar cart.
You can already picture it, right? A copper pineapple-shaped cocktail shaker, some peonies in a vase, a bottle of St. Germain, and a Kate Spade gold polka dot wall in the background.
On Pinterest, saves for “gold bar carts” saw a 300 percent increase between January to June 2017 and January to June 2018. And the #barcart hashtag on Instagram? It’s soaring with over 118,000 posts total, and there are 20 gold bar carts laced with twinkle lights for every wood or metal option.
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The cart du jour has a spirited, aggressively feminine look. It’s a far cry from a macho “Mad Men” aesthetic, despite the 2007 show coinciding with the last bar cart resurgence.
In reality, bar carts have always belonged to women. They might seem silly or indulgent or ubiquitous on the internet now, but they have long provided a source of pride and identity for the women who used them.
Bar carts have Mason jar-esque appeal: They connect us to a past that was far from ideal, and give us the opportunity to reclaim and repurpose it.
Early years and a quasi-beloved relative
The bar cart’s crotchety ancestor is the tea trolley, which was big in the late 1800s and a cornerstone at Victorian-era tea parties. In typical upper-class homes, a maid would wheel out some loose tea and scones on a simple, dignified mahogany cart. The hostess would chat with her guests about cucumber sandwiches and such, as their corsets and arsenic veils slowly killed them.
Entertaining was essential to an otherwise idle, turn-of-the-century upper-class life. The tea cart stood strong in the early 20th century, especially during Prohibition. It remained in private homes all the way through the early ’30s — even though, by that point, nobody had money and most young women were beginning to see tea time as, well, a little antiquated.
Once Prohibition ended, the bar cart arrived, but slowly, and without too much fanfare. Extraneous furniture, not to mention alcohol, was a luxury in the Depression-era ’30s and wartime ’40s. The bar cart’s golden years were yet to come.
It’s the 1950s, baby, and everyone’s ready to party! The rise of the American middle class brought in-home cocktail soirees to the suburbs. Yes, there were also utilitarian office bar carts where a man could have a Manhattan, another Manhattan, and an affair with his secretary. We’ll get there. The cart was a vital part of domestic entertaining and, in a hetero household in the 1950s, that space belonged to housewives.
Jen Benson owns vintage barware shop Retro Reclaimations in Leland, N.C., and is fascinated by the origins and contexts of furniture and fashion. Benson thinks the roles of 1950s housewives were more complex than we tend to believe.
“She was the CEO of the home and the kitchen served as her corner office where she organized and executed every detail of family life,” Benson says. “The bar cart was essential to home entertaining — that reflected a well-organized and thoughtful hostess.”
Turns out, entertaining stylishly had a lot of exhaustive protocol, from invites, to food preparation, to choosing which cocktails to serve (typically, two options, Benson says).
The bar cart “served as a platform where the cocktail recipes and all ingredients, from garnishes and ice-filled buckets to cocktail shakers and swizzle sticks, were set up so everything needed to prepare drinks was readily accessible,” Benson says. “The presentation was just as important as having the correct barware on hand, as everything was a reflection on the hostess.”
Essentially, a mid-century housewife had a performative ritual with the bar cart: It was her tool kit for the perfect party, and having those items on hand was essential. While today’s bar carts do have performative aspects, women’s role — and the sociocultural landscape — has shifted.
Screens brought bar carts back
Cut to 2011. The world is four years past “Mad Men,” and one year past the launches of two photo-sharing platforms, Instagram and Pinterest. The stage was set for the bar cart to reemerge. Roxy Te, founder of Society Social, a furniture design firm in North Carolina, launched her company with six original bar carts.
“I’m an avid reader of design publications,” Te says. She noticed that many people were blogging about bar carts (“this was back in 2010,” she says), but no one could say where to buy one that was affordable and well-maintained. “I knew there was a huge gap in the market that I could go after, I latched onto it,” Te says. When she debuted Society Social in August 2011, her tag line was “the bar cart is back!”
“The Bar Cart is Back” is, incidentally, also the name of Society Social’s bar cart Pinterest board. It has more than 17,650 followers and offers a vivid, intoxicatingly beautiful world. That informs another concept: There’s still a love for appearances, but this time, the bar cart is all about personalization — and the rise of lifestyle culture means we can share our aesthetics outside the home.
Wheeling in identity
Like tea and cocktail parties, social media is rife with customs and rituals that can be difficult for outsiders and newcomers to decipher. It’s how we connect with old friends, make new ones, and chat and entertain today. In the 2010s, we no longer reside in Victorian sitting rooms or pastel suburban homes. We live on the internet. Bar carts endure, and there are big issues riding on those four wheels.
In January 2019, when Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez publicly shared her skin care routine, commentators praised it as a feminist statement. The message? Women can enjoy something as classically feminine as wearing makeup, or pinning bar carts, while maintaining myriad other interests.
Turns out women, like all people, have always contained multitudes. You might be a successful economist who wears mascara. You might also be a smart, talented engineer who, in her free time, enjoys styling a vintage bar cart beneath a lopsided banner that says, “Cheers, babes” in copper-toned glitter letters. There may be no such thing as “having it all”; but, did you maybe want another drink? In vintage glassware? You got it.
Cheers, babes, indeed.