How many Regency novels have you read in which the hero and his cronies share one or more rounds of brandy, drowning their sorrows, or in celebration? And how many times is that brandy served in a snifter, or a balloon? Yet that simply was not possible during the decade of the Regency or for many decades thereafter. It may surprise you to know that the brandy snifter was an American creation introduced near the end of the Victorian era. It did not become common in England until the middle of the twentieth century.
The word "snifter" had entered the English language by the second half of the eighteenth century, but it had other, quite different meanings having nothing to do with drinking vessels. So what was a "snifter" in the Regency decade, and how was brandy most probably served during those years?
A "snifter" in late eighteenth-century England was a term for a strong wind. And by the early nineteenth-century it was also an appellation for a severe head cold which was accompanied by a very stuffy nose and persistent sniffling. It was not until the 1840’s that "snifter" acquired a meaning with any relation to spirits. By then it has also come to mean a small measure of an alcoholic beverage, synonymous with "nip." But even then, it was not a word applied to the vessel in which these intoxicating liquors were served.
The brandy snifter was introduced in America near the end of the nineteenth century. However, this drinking vessel did not become common until the early twentieth century in the United States, and not until mid-century in England, where it was more often known as the brandy "balloon." A glass vessel in the shape of a brandy snifter would not have been possible during the Regency because the glass at that time was much too brittle, both as a result of the formulas used for making it, and for the impurities which the glass furnaces at that time could not eliminate from the molten glass, known as metal. It was not until a number of improvements were made to both glass formulas and the glass-making processes that such a vessel could be made. Such advances did not occur until the late nineteenth century in the United States, at which time glass blowers could then blow a brandy snifter which could stand up to the pressures exerted upon its thin spherical surface and the varying temperatures to which it may be exposed without shattering.
There was a glass vessel called a "balloon" which was first made in France in the late seventeenth century. These balloons were large glass spheres with one or more necks which could be straight or bent at an angle. These vessels were used for chemical experiments. Such vessels were still in use during the Regency for the same purpose, but no one was drinking brandy from them. A number of these scientific glass balloons are shown in a print at the Garwood & Voigt site. This engraving depicts a scene in a chemical laboratory of the late seventeenth century. Such vessels were widely used by chemists in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Antoine Lavoisier, known as the father of modern chemistry, frequently used such vessels. You will see two at his feet in this illustration, and a large one on the floor at the lower right in this painting of Lavoisier and his wife. Tragically, this brilliant man lost his life to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror.
Since there were no snifters or balloons in which to serve brandy during the Regency, how was it served and consumed? It is likely the brandy was most frequently quaffed from rummers, though it could have been dispensed in any available drinking vessel, glass or otherwise. A rummer was a short-stemmed drinking glass, its large bowl was the dominate feature of the design. The name rummer is a corruption of the word "roemer," a German word meaning "Roman." This name was given to an early form of drinking vessel with a thick hollow stem and a bowl in the shape of a sphere with a slice cut from the top. These glasses were not relegated only to the drinking of rum, many beverages were served in them. And example of a seventeenth-century English roemer can be seen on the left in this illustration from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Rummers were made in large numbers well into the nineteenth century though their shape had changed significantly. The stem became shorter, smaller in circumference, and solid rather than hollow, often sporting a knop. The bowls were less spherical and more ovoid through the end of the eighteenth century, while the bucket shape was introduced in the early nineteenth century. The bowls might be fluted or engraved, though some were left plain and unadorned. To see some examples of early nineteenth-century English rummers, please click the links below:
- A single rummer with a fluted ovoid bowl, c. 1800
- A single rummer with a bucket-shaped bowl, c. 1810
- A pair of rummers with engraved ovoid bowls, c. 1810
- A single engraved commemorative rummer with an ovoid bowl, early C19
When a character in your next Regency novel enjoys a brandy from a snifter, the author is signalling that they could not take the time to do their homework. Shame on them. However, if one of the characters in a Regency novel should commiserate with another because they have a stuffy nose as the result of a snifter, you can have confidence that author has taken the time to do their research.