The Mostly Unknown History of the Shot Glass

A shot glass is synonymous with alcohol consumption. Be it a classy jigger at a nice bar, a tacky collection above a home bar, or a cheap collectible in a college dorm room, wherever alcohol goes, shot glasses follow.

Shot glasses can be artistic, funky, or just cheap, and they can be used as units of measurement, or simply as easy vessels for quick imbibing. And they’re everywhere. Yet despite being found at every bar and souvenir shop in the country, little is actually known of the history of shot glasses.

How long have shot glasses existed?

There are two answers to this question. The first is: “unknown”. The second is: “a long time”. Though the term “shot glass” was not attached to the earliest iterations, the 1800s were littered with references to tiny glass receptacles used for holding whiskey. Many of these early versions of the shot glass had relatively thin glass; the thick glass models that we see today weren’t common until after prohibition.

While shot glasses from the 19th and early 20th century existed, they are extremely rare today. It wasn’t until many years after prohibition that shot glasses actually became popular. A few years after the Great Depression ended, and commercial manufacturing took off once more, the shot glass began to become a common item. As such, it is incredibly difficult to find shot glasses from before the 1940s, and those that can be found are usually quite valuable.

Where did the name come from?

The origin of the term “shot glass” is up for debate. The OED notes that the earliest literary use of the term came from the New York Times in the 1940s, but the term “shot” preceded that Times article by many years.

As far as historians can tell, the earliest written reference came in 1913, in the book A History of Cass County Indiana from its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time. In the book, the author, Dr. Jehu Z. Powell depicts a story from roughly 1857, in which townspeople protested a man attempting to open a saloon. When the barkeeper received his first barrel of whiskey, an angry townsperson shot a hole through it, immediately draining it of its contents. In the words of Powell, “The remedy was effectual, and the saloon was not opened, and ever after, when the boys wanted a drink they would ask for a ‘shot of redeye’.”

While this seems a likely reasoning for the name, there are plenty of theories. Some have posited that shot glasses were first used for placing lead shots in at the dinner table, as meat often still had shards from the bullets. Others say that “shot” is an Americanization of the name “Schott”, and that the founder of the shot glass is the glasswork company Jenaer Glaswerk Schott & Genossen.

As history is, undoubtedly, moving forward and not backward, it’s likely that we’ll never know exactly where the name came from. But it’s always fun to speculate.

How do shot glasses differ?

In America we tend to think of shot glasses as differing only on the outside. You can get the fun jiggers with measuring units, or the logo of your favorite sports team, or a pretty hand blown glass, or even a bizarre shape. But depending on where you travel, the size of the shot glass is what really changes.

Every country has a base size for a single shot, and that size can vary drastically. In Germany, it’s as small as 20 mL, while in Japan, it’s as large as 60 mL. In America, the standard shot size is 44 mL, or 1.5 fluid ounces (though that is only official in Utah; elsewhere in the US a shot can technically be any size, though 44 mL is the accepted size).

Shot glasses are popular now, and they probably always will be. So the next time you put a shot of tequila to your lips, think about the history that went into that little glass you’re holding.

Brady Klopfer

Brady Klopfer is a freelance writer and film actor originally from Mendocino, California. He believes that we were given two hands so that we can always have food in one, and alcohol or caffeine in the other.