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The Evolution of the Humble Hip Flask

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The flask: Your boozy buddy who is always there for you anytime you need a quick nip of bourbon or to discreetly spike your coffee. It’s a veritable model of dependability. But as easy as it is these days to pick up the perfect flask made just for you, it wasn’t always that way. It took many years to perfect this symbol of illicit imbibing.

The flask, in one form or another, has existed for centuries and has gone by many names. The word “flask” originated at some point between the mid-1300s to the mid-1500s, and likely derived from the medieval Latin flasco (meaning container or bottle)—but that ancient flask was nothing like the contoured vessels we know and love today. Here, a brief but complete history of everyone’s favorite clandestined container.

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The Flask’s Earliest Ancestors

In the beginning, there was the wineskin, a vessel fashioned from animal bladder cured with beeswax and used to transport liquid—often wine—from one place to another. Wineskins were must-have accessories that were so ubiquitous, that they garnered mentions as far back as Homer’s epic poems and, later, in Shakespeare’s plays. In Henry IV, for example, Hal (or Prince Harry) mischievously awakens Falstaff from a deep sleep by squirting him in the face with wine from a wineskin. Fun fact: Though the wineskin is more or less lost to the sands of time, its basic design endures inside your favorite boxed wine.

The relatively crude wineskin was one of the first portable vessels of its kind, making it a distant ancestor of the modern day hip flask, but the handy pocket pal we know today is actually more closely related to powder flasks or horns carried by military men. Up until the mid- to late-19th century, soldiers commonly carried a container filled with gunpowder on a string around their necks on the battlefield. Often made from metal, staghorn or leather, the powder flask’s spout was narrow and used to pour gunpowder directly down a rifle’s muzzle—or booze down a throat. Soldiers soon realized that the flask had potential beyond the battlefield, and crafty civilians soon followed suit, filling them with alcohol.

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The Pocket Flask Is Born

The flask didn’t reach the zenith of its practicality and commercial appeal until one very important invention in the 17th century: pockets. Around the same time, distillation also gained a commercial foothold throughout Europe. With the newfound ease of acquiring liquor, drinkers needed a tool that made it equally easy to transport and conceal it—enter the true precursor to the modern day hip flask: the pocket flask.

The production and availability of these newfangled sidekicks skyrocketed in the following years. They often took the shape of a flattened oval and could be found on any British aristocrat worth his waistcoat. During the Victorian era, it wasn’t unusual to find ornate pocket flasks fashioned out of precious metals, or a combination of glass and precious metal. But it didn’t take long for more humble variations on these tools to find their way into the hands of ordinary European citizens and stateside drinkers.

Toward the end of the Industrial Revolution, in the early to mid-1800s, the glass industry in the U.S. exploded and glass flasks were used to not only carry a healthy measure of whiskey, but also to convey a statement, often a political one. Some historical flasks—as they’re known to collectors—feature American imagery like eagles and flags, as well as presidential portraits. These politically fueled flasks were produced throughout the Civil War, during which they promoted the Union, presidential candidates or other American issues, like the construction of the railroad.

Courtesy Library of Congress

Prohibition Skyrockets the Flask to Fame

One of the most important events in the evolution of the flask was Prohibition. Though it was meant to improve the moral standing of American citizens, this 13-year-long enforced dry spell had exactly the opposite effect, encouraging secret cocktail consumption. It also helped make flask-makers some serious cash.

Allegedly, more flasks were sold within the first six months of the Great Experiment than in the entire decade prior. And even though liquor stores shut down and it should have been nearly impossible to procure alcohol, all a thirsty flapper had to do was walk into a pharmacy to get a flask full of booze. Thanks to a few odd loopholes in the Volstead Act, certain distilleries were allowed to remain operational during the national dry spell and doctors could prescribe a generous dose of “medicine.”

Those without prescriptions, however, had to get even more clever when hiding their hooch. The flask itself was not enough, so people hid their flasks in objects like books and cameras—some of which are on display in the National Constitution Center’s exhibit, The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. It was during this time that the flask finally morphed into the perfectly concealable contraband sidekick we have with us today.

Flasks were so popular in the illicit drinking culture that some states took measures to keep them out of the hands of parched citizens. The state of Indiana even went so far as to ban the sale of cocktail shakers and hip flasks.

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Long Live the Flask

Nowadays, flasks are not as necessary as they were during Prohibition, but they remain a symbol of cool and covert imbibing. Plenty of people still use flasks to sneak their favorite libation into places it’s not allowed, be it ball games, concert venues or movie theaters—and hundreds of retailers have gotten in on the action—from specialized companies like Flask.com to big box stores like Bed Bath & Beyond and Walmart. There are also artisanal flask producers like Jacob Bromwell, an almost 200-year-old Indiana household goods maker, which sells a 100 percent copper Great American Flask, based on an original 1819 design.

Instead of staghorn, copper or sterling silver, most modern flasks are made from ultra-durable stainless steel—or even plastic. The invention of plastic in the 20th century proved to be a turning point in the hip flask’s evolution, leading to the creation of flasks that are at once undetectable in scanners and disposable. Some liquor companies even choose to bypass the middleman and sell their spirits in these plastic flasks—now that’s innovation. But aside from the material from which it’s made, the flask’s basic functionality and design haven’t changed much over the past century. Many still serve as a means of expression, emblazoned with sports team mascots or political messages, like the historical flasks of the mid-1800s, as well as less divisive illustrations like adorable kitty cats.  

All hip flask-carrying folk should keep in mind that carrying this handy drinking accoutrement isn’t always wise. In most public places they are illegal, thanks to open container laws—being caught with a flask could lead to a hefty fine or, perhaps, more serious consequences. But it’s hard to deny the greatness of the flask when you’re discreetly taking the edge off an uncomfortable holiday spent with family or slugging back some whiskey in front of a campfire. While you can legally buy a bottle at a liquor store or a measure of your favorite liquor at any bar, it’s nice to occasionally raise a flask in remembrance of scofflaws past.

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