During the first quarter of the last century, T. Coleman du Pont, former president of E.I. du Pont de Nemours, became a United States senator for Delaware.
His business and political activities coincided with an era when the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition shared a temporal stage, a time when just about every gentleman, and a goodly number of ladies, toted flasks—on their hips, in their jacket pockets or, in the case of the ladies, strapped to their garter belts.
“The late 1800s—but especially 1900 to the 1920s—was the era of the flask,” says Steve Nelson of New York-based Nelson & Nelson Antiques. “I have a good collection of them, and there’s still a lot of interest in flasks among silver collectors.”
Nelson notes two he currently has for sale that are indicative of the era. “One is of sterling silver from 1910, is engraved with the lettering ‘The 19th Hole’ and has a golfing scene decorating it.”
That one has a list price of $2,450. Another—made by Tiffany, still a leading producer of collectible flasks—is composed of three materials. A glass container has leather covering its top two-thirds. Cutouts in the leather reveal when the booze is getting low, and a sterling silver drinking cup fits snuggly over the bottom. It is listed at $4,000.
Although the early 20th century may have been the “silver era” of gentlemen’s flasks, the curator of metals for Winterthur Museum, Ann Wagner, reminds us that their military and great-outdoors cousins have been with us as long as people have had to carry their liquids—drinking water, alcoholic spirits and even medications—with them whenever they traveled. Winterthur has a large collection of them dating from colonial times. “Even native Americans had forms of flasks made from animal bladders, hides and gourds,” Wagner notes.
Some of Winterthur’s rarest flasks are made of ceramic or glass. Historians point out that whiskey was often sold in jugs before it was marketed in individual bottles, so pint-sized flasks were a more-portable way of carrying a dram or two of rye or corn whiskey. Some of Winterthur’s more interesting flasks are on public display on the fourth floor of the former home of Henry Francis du Pont.
Glass flasks from the mid-1800s are particularly collectible. A lot of them were made by glass manufacturers in eastern
Pennsylvania, particularly at the Kensington Glass Works in Philadelphia and Henry William Stiegel’s early glassworks in Manheim. Many had embossed pictures of places and animals, while others depicted historical or patriotic themes, often commemorating a particular event. Others were more general, bearing likenesses of George Washington or the American eagle.
The shapes of many of these early versions bear little resemblance to the body-fitting 20th-century collectable flasks. They were often round or oval glass, with squat necks. One popular model, the Pitkin, was originally manufactured by a Connecticut firm by the same name. Gradually, though, Pitkin became a generic term for a flat, oval glass flask with prominent ribbing. “Chestnut” flasks were round (like a chestnut). In later years, some flasks were shaped like objects. They are somewhat similar to the commemorative ceramic or glass whiskey decanters that continue to be made today.
The value of many of these 19th-century glass decanters—in addition to their age and rarity of production numbers—often depends on the color of the glass, as it does with many antique glass objects. Cobalt blue continues to be a favorite color for collectibles.
Historically, pewter was a primary metal used in flasks, and pewter flasks can be valuable if they pre-date the 20th century. Materials used in 20th-century flasks can be anything from tin to silver, silver-plate, stainless steel, even opaque plastic—but Nelson says that he only bothers to buy and sell sterling silver flasks, “preferably from Tiffany or those from England.” Engraving, either lettering or pictorial, can also add to the value of a flask.
Flasks are still being made today by Tiffany and other silversmiths. Many people still carry one or keep it on their desk—as a decorative accessory or perhaps for instant refreshment.
The chances of finding a rare flask by chance at a local antiques store or yard sale are slim. More likely, a collectible one will appear when the estates of grandparents or great-uncles are being settled. “Because they’re silver, people often tend to sell them rather than keep them,” Nelson says.
Who buys from Nelson & Nelson’s catalog of sterling silver antique flasks? Nelson says it’s not always collectors. “Women often buy them as presents for their husbands,” he says.
Typically, it’s to commemorate a special achievement or birthday. Flasks also make excellent holiday gifts, Nelson says.
One hopes the spouse first fills the flask with a great scotch or rye whiskey—or at least a medicinal potion of gin—before putting them under wraps.