Spotlight on Summer: The Vacuum Bottle

by Jennifer Scerra

What could make for a more perfect lazy summer day than time spent at a picnic?

Picnicking in Southern California has long been popular, but as technology and society change, so do even the most simple of pleasures. Essential items for a picnic today might include a blanket, sunscreen, and paper napkins. But in the early 1900s, magazines and advertisements reminded picnickers to bring along another item—a vacuum bottle.

1 McCalls Magazine, July 1928
McCall’s Magazine, July 1928. From the Homestead Museum collection.

The vacuum bottle (sometimes called a vacuum flask, or thermos) was invented by Scottish scientist James Dewar in 1892. Dewar wanted to study what would happen to substances when they were cooled to a very low temperature. Refrigeration at this time was expensive and inefficient. To make useful observations, he needed a container that could keep a cold liquid from heating up too fast.  The idea that he came up with was simple and effective.

2 Vacuum Bottle Patent, 1912
Vacuum bottle patent. Daggett and Stilling, 1912. Courtesy of Google Patents.

A vacuum bottle is a bottle within a bottle. The inner bottle is suspended within the outer, and is usually connected only at the rim. The vacuum part of the name refers to the removal of the air that is in between the two containers. Once most of the air is gone from between the inner and outer bottle, the empty space does an excellent job of keeping heat from moving in and out. A cork stopper, or other lid, seals the top opening. Now, a cold liquid that is placed inside will stay cold for a long time, and a hot liquid that is placed inside will stay hot for a long time.

The vacuum bottle was used first in laboratories, then produced commercially beginning in 1904. By 1926 the Every Woman’s Cookbook called the item “almost indispensable” for a picnic.

3 Vacuum Bottles- Montgomery Ward, 1921
Vacuum bottles advertised in Montgomery Ward Catalogue, 1921. From the Homestead Museum collection.

The market for vacuum bottles took off once consumers realized the usefulness of a container that could “keep drinking water icy cold for 2 days or coffee, tea, and other liquids hot for 24 hours.” The Icy-Hot Bottle Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, began making its products in 1908. The Thermos brand (originally from Germany) opened in the United States in 1907 and grew so popular that its name eventually came to describe all vacuum bottles. In 1913, William Stanley created the first all-steel vacuum bottle and began its mass production. Other innovations included wider mouthed bottles for storing non-beverage foods and stylish, narrow-necked vacuum carafes for use in the home.

Vacuum bottles were available across the country through mail order catalogues. Companies like Montgomery Ward had several models available at a time, and even sold replacements for the sometimes fragile glass insides.

And what was everyone doing with these vacuum bottles? The suggestions made in magazines and cookbooks go far beyond coffee and water. In the book What Shall We Eat?: a practical plan for choosing the right food, the author suggests that many beverages, including  buttermilk, cocoa,  lemon juice with sugar, postum (a coffee alternative), or soup could all be brought to a picnic successfully in a “thermos bottle.” The Every Woman’s Cookbook suggests “caramel ice cream in a vacuum container” to accompany a picnic lunch menu of fried chicken, deviled eggs, whole tomatoes, and dates stuffed with peanut butter.


Here at the Homestead Museum blog, we’ll be talking more about picnics and other summer fun in conjunction with our new First Sunday Picnics. Keep an eye out for future posts on picnic foods, games and more.

From June through September, the museum will open its gates to visitors from noon to 4:00 p.m. for picnicking on the first Sunday of every month. Visitors can enjoy the beautiful grounds of the Homestead just like the Workman and Temple families did when they lived on the site between the 1840s and 1920s. Special surprises await picnickers each month!

The First Sunday Picnics will take place on June 5, July 3, August 7, and September 4. No reservations are required, however, only traditional picnic setups are permitted (please no umbrellas, pop-ups, grills, radios, or access to electricity). Sorry, no alcohol or pets. Admission is free.

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