The History of Coasters December 1, 2015
Is anything more banal than a drink coaster, the little slab that sits between your highball glass and table? Its form is so basic, its functionality so plain, its manufacture so easy that the coaster has, paradoxically, taken on a wild variety of colors, materials and messages. Coasters may be cork, cardboard, wood, porcelain, malachite, plastic or steel. They may be shaped like buttons, Scrabble boards or squashed humans. They may convey information in German Gothic print or Italian Futurist lettering. In their spectacular breadth and profusion, they are the beetle of design objects.
Their history is fairly complicated as well, considering that coasters have a few different heritages. The object takes its name from a rimmed circular tray, often silver, that sat under wine and spirit decanters in 18th-century European dining rooms. After a meal, diners who remained at the table would pass the decanter around, sliding it along the edge, or “coast,” of the table, which had been shorn of its cloth. Originally called “sliders” and sometimes even furnished with wheels, these objects were later known as “coasters.”
Another forerunner is the bierdeckel, or “beer mat,” that evolved in late-19th-century German beer halls. At first, this was a piece of paper laid over the mouth of a glass set out for consumption, to keep insects or particles from falling in. Eventually, the paper migrated to the base of the glass to soak up beer overflow. Printed with an establishment’s name, coasters provided a promotional opportunity that continues to be exploited to this day.
And then there are the saucer and doily—ancestors that, like the coaster, intercede between messy vessels and pristine surfaces.
Coasters as we know them became domesticated in the early 20th century with the rise of the cocktail hour and most crucially the freezer. Previously, people would drink wine or spirits at suppertime and had no reason to worry about leaving rings on end tables or fireplace mantels. There was less wood to protect then, anyway, given the Victorians’ penchant for draping their interiors in fabric. And less easy ice was available to make drink glasses sweaty.
Then came sidecars, ice buckets and cocktail parties, not to mention the ritual of dining in the living room around the television. Today, coasters are de rigueur for anyone who, in the immortal words of Larry David, scolding his ex-wife, Cheryl, on the cult TV series Curb Your Enthusiasm, “respects wood.”