Time in a Bottle
By Maxine Carter-Lome
Antique glass bottles (essentially those made before World War I) are interesting historical artifacts – hand-made, mouth-blown works of art crafted in beautiful shapes and vivid colors not typically seen today. For these reasons and others, they are appreciated by historians, serious collectors, and enthusiasts who can’t resist picking up a pretty bottle here and there when stumbled upon.
America’s glass bottle and jar industry was born in the early 1600s when settlers in Jamestown built the first glass melting furnace; however, glass was not generally used to make items such as bottles or jars until the mid-1800s. Before that time, earthenware and pottery vessels were the preferred objects used for storage.
In the mid to late 1800s, Libbey Glass Company employee Michael Owens made a name for himself as an innovator and inventor. In 1895, Libbey’s Board of Directors felt it was too expensive to continue investing in production modification. Owens, along with his longtime advocate Edward Libbey, left the company and co-founded the Toledo Glass Co. in 1895. Shortly thereafter, in 1899, Owens was issued the first patent for a machine designed to automate the production of glass bottles, and ushered in a new era of mass-production. Glass bottle output quickly increased from 1,400 bottles a day to about 58,000 bottles a day.
The more economic production of glass bottles, combined with new patented technologies designed to more effectively seal carbonated beverages, was a boon to soda producers, who could now offer their customers the soda fountain experience at home or on a picnic. In the same vein, brewers could sell their ale or beer to customers who preferred to consume their products outside of a bar. Entrepreneurs who bottled and sold mineral spring water, which toted therapeutic properties and a variety of cures, distributed their goods to the public.
Mass production of consumer-sized glass bottles in the early 20th century provided new advertising opportunities on the bottle itself, on labels, and by designing a custom bottle. The results of this innovative era give collectors more ways to define their goals when building regional and brand-specific bottle collections.
For the purposes of this issue, we focused on antique glass bottles essentially 100 to 130 years old, from the era when bottles were still hand-made and mouth-blown, and had all sorts of charming idiosyncrasies that make them altogether more interesting than the mass-produced bottles that followed.
From an historical standpoint, antique bottles tell the story of a region and the people who lived there. The number of old ink bottles found tells you something about their literacy, while bottles for pills and elixirs tell you something about their health and gullibility during an era when snake-oil salesmen traveled the country selling fraudulent concoctions they claimed would cure whatever ailed you.
Before there were town dumps or garbage pick-up, there was no easy way to dispose of glass, which was typically used and re-used until it chipped, cracked, or was no longer usable. Most early discarded glass from our era of focus was thrown into the privy or outhouse.
Privy digging, the act of excavating at the site of old outhouses, is directly linked to antique bottle collecting. Privy diggers (yes, that’s a thing) and archeologists typically unearth bottles that once contained pills, elixirs, milk, beer, soda, whiskey, and ink. It’s a great way to make bottle finds but it’s not for everyone.
Old bottles can also be found at bottle collecting dump sites, washed up on beaches, along old dirt roads and river beds, and in old barns, cellars, and attics. Bottle pickers and collector enthusiasts who enjoy the hunt as much as the find will be the first to tell you the effort is worth it because you never know what you might find. We share some of these stories, places, and finds in our article “Diggin’ Old Bottles”.
In this issue we also take a look at glass insulators, which were first produced in the 1850’s for use with telegraph lines to insulate the wires so the electricity, or the message, would not travel down the pole and leak into the earth. As technology developed, insulators were used for telephone lines, power lines, and for signal applications such as at railroad crossings. With approximately 460 shapes, 2800 different embossings, and almost 9000 color combinations, there is a lot to keep insulator collectors busy building their collections. The most effective method to add new insulators to your collection is to obtain them from other collectors at glass and bottle shows, flea markets, and through insulator collectors and dealers.
In this issue we also meet Mark Vuono, a collector of Historic Glass Flasks, a hobby he shared with his father and now with his sons. Don’t miss his interview with Bob Strickhart.
As with any collectible item, the value of antique glass bottles depends on rarity, condition, and appearance. When it comes to buying higher end pieces, which could range from a few hundred to a few hundred thousand, working with dealers and auction houses that specialize in antique and historic glass, and buying from fellow collectors is the way to go.
We hope this issue helps you to see antique glass bottles in a whole new light.
Time in a Bottle