These days, you can’t open a home decor magazine or spend a minute on Pinterest without coming across a bar cart. This piece of furniture that would have been an anomaly just 20 years ago is now ubiquitous in homes and apartments of all sizes and styles.
How did this happen? And what makes a bar cart different than any other cart?
Mix yourself a 1950s-appropriate Rum Runner and put on your favorite Chuck Berry record — we’re talking about that mid-century staple, the bar cart.
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What Is a Bar Cart?
While any utility cart can be used to hold booze and glassware, the standard bar cart is meant to be on display, so they tend to come in attractive materials like brass, wood, glass, or nickel. A cart may have a handle and wheels for rolling about, but some carts are meant to be stationary.
Bar carts generally have two or three well-spaced shelves to allow room for tall liquor bottles. It should also have a guard rail around each shelf so your precious glass doesn’t meet a sad end.
Some bar carts have built-in wine racks or glass racks that hold wine or martini glasses upside down. This prevents them from collecting dust when not in use. But other carts are more simple, giving you the option to style them as you see fit.
The History of the Bar Cart
The bar cart’s origins are more Downton Abbey than a dirty martini. They’re an offshoot of the old-fashioned tea trolley, which maids in upscale houses would roll out so they could serve the lady of the house and her guests. This practical piece of furniture meant the women could enjoy their prim cuppa without disturbing their needlework — or indeed, moving at all.
The tea trolley reigned supreme through the late 19th century and early 20th century and kept afloat during Prohibition. Once alcohol became legal again (hallelujah!), the nation was in the grip of the Great Depression. So outfitting a home bar was low on the priority list for people struggling to get by.
Right after the Depression came World War II, with the Korean War close on its heels. By 1953, when the Korean War ended, Americans had been through 25 years of hardship and deprivation. They were ready to let loose!
The mid-1950s brought about the early heyday of the bar cart. City-dwellers were fleeing for the suburbs in record numbers. As the (predominantly white) folks created their own little hideaways in the ’burbs, the at-home cocktail party also grew in popularity. And how could the hostess easily get the Pink Squirrel ingredients, glassware, and cocktail shaker to her guests? On a rolling bar cart.
These carts were wildly popular throughout the 1950s and ’60s in homes and offices alike. (Yes, some people really did drink at work back then.)
These functional pieces lost some of their luster in the 1970s and 1980s. As houses grew in size, the need for a rolling cart diminished. Instead, homeowners invested in full-size wet bars in their homes, complete with a sink for rinsing out the shaker and strainer.
To explain the current popularity of these bars on wheels, look no further than Mad Men and the ensuing craze for all things mid-century. As the 1950s aesthetic took hold over the past decade or so, carts of brass, glass, and wood began to dot the Instagram and Pinterest landscapes. Not only do the carts look fantastic, but they’re also perfectly suited to an apartment and small-home living. As we say goodbye to the McMansions of the 1990s and early 2000s, bar carts feel both classic and modern.
Where to Find a Bar Cart
These days, home goods stores like West Elm and Wayfair are awash in options, from brass to industrial, from gold to teak. You can also scour vintage shops for an antique version to stock up with wine glasses, decanters, and everything else you need for cocktail hour. Expect vintage carts to show some wear with scratches or dents, but that just adds to their charm.
And these days, wheels are optional. While most modern options are technically mobile, they usually sit in one place just like any other piece of furniture. If you plan to roll yours around, look for locking wheels to keep it in place when not in use.