These little trinkets are pilfered from drinking establishments in the same way that little soaps and shampoos are removed from the hotels the world over. They pack well in one’s luggage and do not leak, chip or shatter like other collectables. In the United States, we call them “coasters” and Europeans call them “bar mats.” I once asked a collector from Europe why they call them bar mats? He simply said, “Because that is what they are!”
The name coaster is derived from an invention centuries ago that allowed the beverage of your choice to be sent down the bar. This invention was a little wagon-like device with a low center of gravity that allowed the barkeep to push your beverage down the bar. After numerous accidents and spills, the device fell out of popularity.
Bar mats, or blotters, as they are also known, came onto the scene in 1892. Robert Smith of Dresden, Germany, used pressed wood pulp to create a crude-looking device that looked like a cracker made of sawdust. The pressed pulp resembled that crude paper we learned to write on in grammar school. (Surely you remember that paper with the bark and wood chunks still in it?)
A few years later, people caught on that they could use these furniture savers to advertise their wares. Early printed advertising on this new collectable was very coarse and crude. Early coasters were also much thicker than those produced today, and the printing technology of the day sometimes left an embossed image of the design. Today’s inks, printing, and paper technologies allow the application of almost photo-like designs and logos.
Just like labels, the bar mats produced before Prohibition and the ones die cut in shape are the most sought after. To help date the coaster, check for various characteristics such as printer’s bugs or union labels, thickness and size. Bar mats made before and just after World War II were 4 inches round or square and relatively thick. Until the microbrewery revolution hit this country in the 1980s, most of the coasters advertising beer were 3 inches round or square, thin and getting thinner.
The micros have once again made an art form of this great avenue of advertising. Many have issued sets, printed maps to the brewery on the back, listed their website, or promoted their beer festival. In Europe, where pubs are viewed as a sort of an extended living room, materials such as cork, plastic and leather have been used for coasters.
Coasters have been produced large enough to hold a pitcher or even line a tray. Some are shaped to hold a pitcher and the beer glass next to it. They may have space for phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and that successful invention or idea that used to go from cocktail napkin to fruition. The coaster provides a smoother and less fragile surface on which to lay out one’s life plans and dreams. Another popular style comes in the size and shape of a postcard where the lonely patron can write, “Wishing you were beer.”
The act of coaster collecting is known as tegestology. If a stamp collector is a philatelist, then a bar mat collector is a tegestologist. The collector who specializes may collect from a certain country, state, city, or even a single brewery.
This 110-year-old invention is not limited solely to beer. Today, bar mats advertise any number of other items, such as wines, spirits, soft drinks, and food products, as well as hotels, taverns and restaurants.