A Brief History of Shot Glasses

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The term “shot glass” is relatively common and just about everyone knows what a shot glass is. In fact, shot glasses make great collectable souvenir items to remember a vacation or a special occasion. They often are printed with a bar’s name or a brand of whiskey and can even be found in fun shapes like a cowboy boot or a mini beer mug. They can be short and squat or tall and thin. Of course, besides being collectables, they serve a purpose. They are used to measure liquor to be used in a cocktail or you can simply drink the liquor straight from the shot glass.

There are many other names for shot glasses. Earlier they were referred to as jiggers or ponies to measure out a set amount of liquor. A jigger is bigger than the shot glass. They can also be called whiskey glasses or whiskey tumblers since as long ago as the 18th century whisky was typically served in these smaller glasses. They usually hold one to two ounces of alcohol.

The word “shotglass” or term “shot glass” was first used in the 1940s and it was in a news story that discussed ways to regulate the size of a shot of liquor in the restaurants and bars in New York City. The term didn’t become widely used until much later than this.

There are many unsubstantiated stories about how the shot glass came to be, each originating long before the word was ever found in any printed material. Some of the stories don’t even have to do with the serving or drinking of alcohol.

One supportable fact is that glasses called a “whiskey” were given out by American distilleries to advertise their brands beginning in the late 19th century until prohibition temporarily squelched the liquor industry. For collectors, these glasses are rare and can be worth $100 or more these days. There are also old shot glasses known as “Depression glass” that actually came as part of sets of dinnerware during the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s.

Substantiated or not, many of the old stories about the origin of the shot glass are, at the very least, interesting. One of the most well-liked of these stories is that the shot glass came to be in the saloons of the of Old West. After all, what Western movie worth its salt doesn’t have at least one scene with the cowboys coming in off the trail and slamming a few shots of whiskey out of small shot glasses? The story goes that cowboys would trade one cartridge for a little bit of alcohol. There are several problems with this story. First of all, most of the saloons in those days would never have been able to afford to have this new style of glass made just for this purpose. Plus, alcohol was much more expensive than one cartridge.

One relatively far-fetched story claims that small glasses were used at the dinner table in which to place or spit any lead shot still in the meat from the shotgun used to kill the game. Most “shot glass historians” believe that there may have been a glass used for this purpose, but don’t believe that the shot glass as we know it originated from this.

Others say that the shot glass was originally used to support quill pens over 100 years ago. Supposedly, small glasses with thick walls were filled with BBs or lead shot and when the feather quill was not in use it would be placed in the glass to hold it up straight. Skeptics say that a glass used for such a purpose would have to have been wide at the base and thin at the top in order to support the pen, not wide at the top and thin at the base like the typical shot glass.

History most often supports the origin of the glass stemming from prohibition and the Depression as talked about earlier in this article. Whatever you choose to believe is up to your. After all, it does not affect your enjoyment of being a collector or simply savoring a shot of whiskey “neat” or a jigger of tequila with salt and a wedge of lime.

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