The St. Louis Party That Started a Phenomenon

9, June 2017
Color scan of the cover of a cocktail bookCover of a cocktail mixology book, ca. 1900. Missouri History Museum.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon in May 1917, a group of St. Louis’s A-list gathered at a home in the Central West End neighborhood. The occasion was relaxed, a way for friends to enjoy conversation and cocktails on a pleasant spring day—it was also the first organized cocktail party in recorded history.

The History-Making Hosts

Julius Walsh Jr. was the son of one of the city’s most prominent and successful bankers. (His father also played a major role in financing St. Louis’s business and industrial development during the Progressive Era.) Clara Bell was the only child of a successful Lexington, Kentucky, commodities investor. At the time of her marriage to Walsh, she was considered the wealthiest woman in Kentucky because her father had recently died and left her his fortune.

Despite their privilege, neither of the Walshes sat idle. Julius managed shipping for the Wabash Railroad, and Clara led fund-raising efforts for anti-poverty charities and home-front activities during World War I. Clara also kept a stable of champion horses and competed against some of the world’s top riding athletes in both American and British horse shows, often bringing home blue ribbons.

Color scan of interior page from a cocktail mixing bookThe Walshes hired a bartender for the first-ever cocktail party. He likely served a variety of classic cocktails such as these, which are from an early 20th-century mixology guide. Missouri History Museum.

The Walshes were also known for their love of partying, and their fetes often made the papers. One of their most outrageous affairs was the baby party they threw at the St. Louis Country Club. The guests—all men and women of St. Louis society—wore ruffled baby clothes and bonnets and nursed cocktails from baby bottles. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted that to get to where the drinks were located “guests had to climb a ladder [and] slide down a board, and to get out they had to climb another ladder and slide down another board.” Odds are the trip became more difficult as the evening progressed and the empty baby bottles piled up. 

Several months after the raucous gathering of tippling “toddlers,” the Walshes invited their friends over for a much more subdued event. They hired a bartender and sipped cocktails midday, no doubt conversing about the ongoing war and other news. This type of occasion seems anything but newsworthy to us today, but back then drinking and socializing during the day was unheard of unless you were sipping tea and eating finger sandwiches. The Walshes once again made the society pages for hosting a risqué to-do, and a new trend took hold across the nation.

The Beautiful Backdrop

Because the local newspaper documented their midday May 1917 gathering, the Walshes can take full credit for hosting the first-ever cocktail party. The location of the gathering, however, requires some clearing up. The site of the first cocktail party is often identified as the Walshes’ residence at 4510 Lindell, present home of the Archbishop of St. Louis. However, the couple didn’t move into this home until 1919, two years after the documented party. In May 1917 they lived across the street, at 4499 Lindell, in a beautiful brick home built in 1899 by St. Louis businessman Edwin Stanard. Eventually the home and its immediate neighbors were razed, and the DeVille Motor Hotel took their place—it too is now long gone.

Black-and-white photo of 4499 Lindell, site of first-ever cocktail partyThe last photo of Julius and Clara Walsh's home at 4499 Lindell, before its demolition. This was the site of the first recorded cocktail party. Missouri History Museum.

What’s left behind is an American phenomenon with its own particular fashion—the cocktail dress—and signature imagery of individuals discussing art, culture, and world politics while drinking martinis, manhattans, and single-malt Scotch. One hundred years later, the party continues, so cheers to the Walshes for creating yet another St. Louis first!

—Christopher Gordon, Director of Library and Collections

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