Terms of the Trade: Tantalus

A tantalus is a small cabinet designed for housing a set of cut-glass spirit decanters, usually constructed from exotic woods such as mahogany, walnut and coromandel. The cabinet’s most distinguishing characteristic is a locking mechanism, installed to protect one’s alcohol from the temptations of servants or younger members of the family.

The name derives from the Greek mythological figure Tantalus who was punished by the gods and made to stand in a pool of water, beneath a fruit tree. The fruit was always just out of reach and the water receded when he bent down to drink, making the term tantalus an amusingly appropriate title for a cabinet that is always on display but permanently unavailable.

The tantalus was a late Victorian creation, first patented in England by the German cabinet maker George Betjemann in 1881. Surviving models by the firm of Betjemann & Sons remain amongst the most highly sought examples on the market.

As the tantalus grew in popularity, demand for the cabinets flourished spawning a great many variants on the original design, with silver proving a particularly popular medium. Ingenious designers also added creative features to the original patent such as a drawer for storing playing cards or a cribbage board.

Click here to view a selection of tantaluses currently available from BADA members.