News & Events
Discover Mid-America January 2006
History in a bottle
Who collects bottles? Bottle enthusiasts include serious “diggers” who spend their weekends, vacations and retirement years probing garbage dumps and old privies. Others do their “digging” at shows and on eBay, buying and selling old bottles for fun and profit. Then there are less avid, casual collectors, including folks who just like the looks of colorful bottles lined up on their windowsill.
My wife fits the latter category. As she accompanies me on my visits to antique and collectible shops, she keeps her eye open for colorful bottles. She especially likes bottles in hues of pink. Usually these began life as clear bottles that change color after being exposed to natural and UV light.
My research shows that between 1880 and about World War I, certain glass manufacturers used large quantities of magnesium chloride to decolorize clear glass. The idea was to keep the glass from becoming overly dark, but the result gave the glass its own beautiful hues ranging from pinks to lavenders. A bottle that’s truly pink is hard to find, and makes searching for it a challenge.
Digging for bottles
At the blue-collar end of the collector spectrum are the “diggers,” who travel miles to spend hours and days unearthing bottles and other artifacts. A few have earned the credentials of archeologist. One of these is Jerry Chubbuck, whose digs in eastern Colorado have uncovered the bones of the Imperial Mammoth and paleo-Indian projectile points at a huge bison burial ground.
The latter dig bears his name in the archeological community as the Olsen-Chubbuck Site. Chubbuck has spent much of his life unearthing old guns, arrowheads, tools and bottles. His treasures can be seen at the 1920s-vintage Wonder View Tower Museum near Genoa, CO, on I-70 about 75 miles east of the Colorado-Kansas line, where Chubbuck and his wife live and welcome visitors.
Chubbuck has collected thousands of bottles, many unearthed from old privies and trash sites of Colorado’s early settlers. They fill one room of the museum and spill outside onto several tables and in old cars. The older and more valuable examples are inside.
“The people who settled this area used medicines, liquors and other items that originated in the East,” Chubbuck said. “Bottles and other artifacts you find here are similar to those excavated anywhere else in the country.”
Several of Chubbuck’s “better bottles” include an old soft-drink bottle with a marble that served as a stopper in a separate compartment within the bottle.
“There aren’t many around,” he said. “Boys usually broke the bottle to get to the marble.”
Other bottles on display and for sale in the rambling museum once contained bitters, poisons, perfume, etc. in many colors, shapes and sizes. Most of Chubbuck’s better ones date from the mid-1800s and include both hand-blown and machine-made bottles.
Diggers are everywhere, and many have websites and blogs detailing their finds. One group of glass enthusiasts concentrates on the Cape May, NJ, area, and maintains a prominent Internet site. Other diggers in Wisconsin and Illinois post their finds on websites that are linked from www.antique-bottles.net. Other links on this site direct enthusiasts to diggers throughout the world, including Europe and Australia.
The website is maintained by the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management and includes valuable tips on identifying and dating historic bottles, particularly in the western states. The emphasis on the western states doesn’t eliminate many bottle manufacturers, according to William Lindsey, content manager for the website.
“There were relatively few glass companies operating in the West during the period covered by this website (1800 and later),” he writes.
Charles M. Cook, writing about his own digging experiences on www.jldr.com, said that during the restoration of Nauvoo, IL, where the LDS (Mormons) left in 1846 to begin their trek to Utah, the outhouse of Joseph Smith was excavated. Artifacts were found, including a shaving mug with Smith’s name on it.
Cook, who lives in Louisiana, said most of his own digs were made in New Orleans, a rich source of 1800s bottles and other artifacts.
“There were something like a quarter million people there at the time of the Civil War,” Cook wrote, “and no garbage pick up. They often threw (bottles) down the outhouse hole.”
Other artifacts found by Cook were “clay smoking pipes, bone toothbrush handles, opium bottles and painted pottery marbles, doll parts, swords and knives, a flintlock pistol,” and many other items.
“For the squeamish,” Cook said, “after a hundred years or more, the outhouse pit is little worse than the surrounding soil.”
Another digging story, “Bottle Battles,” by Matt Schaeffer, he recalls the bottle hunting exploits of two boys growing up in eastern Iowa.
“We journeyed vicariously back through time as each
new specimen came to light,” Schaeffer recalled. “(There were)
Hall’s Catarrh Cure, Dr. Miles Restorative Nervine, Kemp’s
Balsam for the Throat and Lungs, Chamberlain’s Colic, Cholera and
Diarrhea Remedy, Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery, Healy and
Bigelow’s Kickapoo Indian Oil …”
A few years ago, I wrote an article for Discover Mid-America about Charles Sands, an archaeologist and historian in Lexington, MO. Sands bought and restored the William Daugherty house in Lexington, built in 1847. An old map showed that two privies had once stood on the property, now buried under a retaining wall that was soon to be demolished by construction crews.
After a bulldozer graded the site, Sands and his wife, Peggy, located the privies and dug deeper. They unearthed numerous jars and bottles, including several beer bottles from the Lexington Brewing Co. Sands estimated the bottles dated from about 1912. They also found an intact kerosene lamp (minus the chimney), and a small single-shot derringer pistol with a barrel that swiveled for loading.
“Hard to tell how it got there,” Sands said. “Maybe a crime was committed and the owner wanted it gone. Or maybe the homeowner’s wife didn’t like to have guns lying around.”
The couple also found a large candy jar, fully intact, including its ground-glass stopper. Sands surmised that the jar may have been stolen from a local drug store, and thrown in the privy by youngsters after they’d finished off its contents.
Diggers can usually tell a lot about old-time residents by the bottles and other artifacts found in their privies. The Lexington site was a veritable dumping ground for beer bottles. But was the owner a boozer? Maybe not. Sands said the brewery was once named Hoffman’s Brewery, and the man who bought the Daugherty house in 1912 was named Hoffman.
The birth of bottles
The idea of bottles is older than Western civilization. Archeologists have uncovered terra cotta and pottery containers in the ancient world — the Roman Empire, Holy Land, Egypt, Greece — that look remarkably like contemporary bottles.
Glassmakers were fashioning glass vases in Mesopotamia as early as the 16th century B.C. Much earlier, glass-like glazes were applied to pots and vases, and Phoenician merchants spread the technology throughout the Mediterranean region. By 1500 B.C., Egyptians were making glass pots by dipping compacted sand into molten glass. The process is thought to have originated in Asia, with the glassmakers brought to Egypt as slaves.
Early Syrians created bottles using long metal tubes, a process still used by glass blowers. Romans spread glass making across Western Europe and the Mediterranean by 100 A.D. By the Middle Ages, Venice had become a glass-making center, and continues to be important in the making of art glass.
Modern bottle-making technology took a leap forward in 1900 with Michael Owens’ invention of the automatic bottle-blowing machine. Financially backed by E.D.L. Libbey, owner of Libbey Glass Co. of Toledo, the company produced the Owens Libbey Suction Blow machines. By 1920 more than 200 were in use by glassmakers.
Most bottles manufactured during the 19th and 20th centuries were made in molds and not hand-blown. They were formed in two sections and joined to form the bottle. The joining leaves a seam along two sides, which is one of several keys in determining the age of a bottle.
By 1923, the gob feeder was developed, speeding up the bottle-making process, and in 1925 IS (individual section) machines were developed. Mechanical bottle production was here to stay.
How old is that bottle?
Determining the age of a bottle is not a precise science. Most utilitarian bottles can only be generally dated within a period of 10 to 15 years. The dating problem has several causes. Many bottle makers took their time to adopt new technology. Others would reuse bottles, allowing old bottles to acquire new labels (especially patent medicines). And some bottle-makers occasionally used older technologies to make certain bottles. A further problem: many bottles were made by small glass companies that went out of business leaving few if any records.
However, there are certain characteristics or “keys” that guide a bottle collector. The Bureau of Land Management website asks a series of questions that guide the collector through the dating process (using many web pages), helping to identify the approximate age of bottles through such things as embossing, mold seams, bottle shapes, etc.
In addition, there are numerous books available to help the collector identify, date and determine the approximate value of a bottle. Odell Publications, Mason, OH, publishes several price guides for old bottles. Subjects include Barber Bottles, Bitters Bottles, Flasks, Soda, Medicines, Saratoga-Mineral, Inks, Whiskey, Poisons & Drugstore, Black Glass, Colognes, Foods, Free Blown Bottles, Indian Bottles and Carbonated Beverages. There is also a book on Secrets of Privy Digging. Visit www.bottlebooks.com.
A sampling of other books includes Antique Glass Bottles: Their History and Evolution (1500-1850) — A Comprehensive Illustrated Guide with a Worldwide Bibliography of Glass Bottles by Willie van den Bossche; Antique Trader Bottles: Identification and Price Guide (4th Edition) by Michael Polak; Bottles and Bottle Collecting (Album Series, Volume 6) by A.A.C. Hedges; Kovels Bottles Price List, 12th Edition by Ralph Kovel; and Bottle Pricing Guide by Hugh Cleveland.
Those colorful bottles
Colors make old bottles interesting even though specific colors play only a minor role in determining a bottle’s age or type. Whether a bottle is free-blown, mold-blown, pressed or machine-made, it can come in about any color.
However, color is important, because it attracts enthusiasts to old bottles. And in general, certain colors tend to go with certain bottle types. For example, cobalt blue bottles frequently were used as medicine bottles and Civil War-era soda water bottles. Beer and ale bottles usually were amber.
Common bottle glass is made from silica (mostly sand), soda and lime. Impurities in the sand give glass its color, from shades of green in nearly pure ingredients to darker green in batches with higher amounts of iron.
To get other colors, glassmakers neutralize the iron and add colorizing compounds (such as cobalt oxide to make medicine bottles).
For centuries, colorless glass was a goal of glassmakers, but required materials that were free of impurities — a nearly impossible goal. “Colorless” glass nearly always has faint tints of pink, amber, grayish green, grayish blue or gray. Again, exposure to sunlight or UV light will usually turn the glass darker.
From the 1880s to World War I, glassmakers added manganese to offset the green tint caused by iron impurities. The result was a mostly clear glass that turns pink or lavender with exposure to light — the glass my wife fancies.
Aqua glass gets its color from iron impurities and can come in many shades depending on the iron levels. Different hues can also be produced by variations in flame temperatures or the amount of oxygen in the firing process.
Milk glass is produced by adding zinc oxide or calcium. It was primarily used to make cosmetic and toiletry bottles from the 1870s to 1920, and for ointments and cream jars from the 1890s to the mid-20th century.
Green glass in all its shades is probably the most common bottle glass color. It is produced with additions of iron, chromium and copper. Blue-green shades contain cobalt mixed with chromium.
Olive green and amber bottles contain larger amounts of iron oxide. They were generally much more common in the 19th century and are seldom found in bottles made after 1890. Amber ranges in hues from yellows to reds, and is frequently found in beer bottles.
More rare in bottle colors is amethyst, which can be the result of long exposure to sunlight, although some amethyst glass is created that way. Amethyst bottles that are not sun-colored usually date from the 1840-1880 era.
Black glass, made with iron, copper, magnesia and carbon, is usually very dark green or amber. It is one of the oldest bottle colors, used for liquor and ale or beer in the early to mid-1800s.
There are bottles of nearly every conceivable hue, making bottle collecting truly a “colorful” hobby. As for me, I’m still on the lookout for the perfect “pink.”
Ken Weyand can be contacted at email@example.com.
Bottles cover many types, and shows can feature everything from breweriana to insulators. Many antique and collector shows include bottles, as well. Follow the show listings each month in Discover Mid-America (www.discoverypub.com) and visit the advertised shops and malls.
Dennis Weber and his wife, Jeanne, promote an annual Insulator and Bottle Show in St. Joseph, MO. The upcoming show, slated for March 11, is at a new location, as the show outgrew its old venue.
“The show is about equally divided between insulators and bottles,” said Weber, who favors insulators, and has a collection of more than 800. “They come in all colors, and some are quite rare,” he said. “The first ones date from the 1840s and the last ones were made in the early 1970s.
“Insulator makers frequently were bottle makers,”
Weber added. “They used the colors that went into the bottles: ambers,
Ron Sterzik, a bottle show promoter in St. Louis, has been collecting bottles for about 20 years. “I’m not a digger,” Sterzik said. “I get my bottles from flea markets, antique shops and shows all over the country.”
Sterzik’s bottle collection, now numbering more than 3,000, is part of a private museum Sterzik maintains in St. Louis. Sterzik said the St. Louis area was a fertile source of bottles, due to the city’s brewery heritage.
Following is a sampling of shows.
JAN. 8: Muncie, IN. Midwest Antique Fruit Jar & Bottle Club Show. Horizon Convention Center. 765-213-3549
FEB. 12: Milwaukee, WI. Milwaukee Antique Bottle Club 34th Annual Show & Sale. Four Points Sheraton. 608-838-8041
FEB. 25: Grandville, MI. West Michigan Antique Bottle & Glass Club’s 16th Annual Show & Sale. Fonger American Legion Post. 616-667-0214
FEB. 26: (Tentative) Milwaukee, WI. Madison Antique Advertising Bottle Show & Sale. Quality Inn South. 715-341-6860
MARCH 11: St. Joseph, MO. 4th Annual Insulator/Bottle Show & Sale, American Legion Post 359, 4826 Frederick Ave. 816-364-1312
MARCH 19: St. Louis, MO. St. Louis Antique Bottle & Jar Show. Two Hearts Banquet Center, 4532 S. Lindbergh at Gravois 636-296-3112
APRIL 12-13: (Tentative) St. Louis, MO. 27th Annual Breweriana Show. 314-487-8403
APRIL 21-23: St. Louis, MO. Midwest Miniature Bottle Collectors 27th Annual Show. Sheraton Plaza Hotel. 800-822-3535
Discover Mid-America founder and Senior Contributing Editor Ken Weyand files regular reports on notable Midwest destinations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
> Discover Mid-America Archive Past cover stories