Until the late 1800s, most beer was sold in kegs since bottled beer had to be consumed quickly or it would spoil. But the advent of pasteurization in 1876 made it safe to bottle fermented products, and along with America’s growing rail system, the bottled-beer industry boomed. In the early 1890s, Congress passed taxes on bottled beer, along with legislation allowing companies to bottle their brews onsite and bypass an archaic process of barreling, transporting, and packaging their drinks into bottles elsewhere. Prior to this action, beer bottles often featured a bottling credit on them in addition to the name of the brewer, which is one way to date a beer bottle.
While early beer bottles came in a variety of glass colors, including brown, blue, green, and clear, the first American bottles were made from ceramic stoneware. This style was often used for dark beers like porters and stouts or non-alcoholic drinks like root beer or ginger ale. Since bottling was costly, many early containers were embossed with a company's name to help ensure their safe return, although this didn’t deter bootleggers from reusing them. At the time, many would-be brewers made their products out of their homes and used their bottles for multiple beverages, so some of these embossed bottles never even included the word “beer” on them (the brewer's company and city names were all a customer needed to know). As these fledgling enterprises grew into mature companies, though, phrases like “Brewing Co.” were added. Less common embossing features included a company's phone number and graphic icons like animal mascots.
William Painter’s invention of the single-use “crown cap” in 1892 sealed the deal for mass-produced beer bottles. The innovative design, with its crimped edge and cork lining, overtook some 1,500 different styles of bottle stoppers used prior to 1892. The crown cap also led to more uniform, machine-made bottles. Previously, the majority of beer bottles were made with a “blob top,” a rounded lobe at the opening. Typically these bottles came with a porcelain or cork stopper which closed using a wire bail.
As breweries began bottling their own products, they capitalized on the new process, as seen in a 1903 Evans’ Ale ad explaining that its makers “know precisely when and how to handle it, and preciously guard the goodness of the brewing against danger from outside bottling.” Many bottles from this era also included labeling to indicate that the drinks were produced and packaged in the same plant, such as the bottles labeled Trenton Brewing Co. Bottling Dept. or Dawson & Son Brewers and Bottlers.
Before Prohibition, breweries frequently identified their products using paper labels, since embossing was more expensive and required bulk bottle orders. These were initially simple black-and-white printed sheets, improved with color lithography towards the end of the 1800s. During the years when beer was outlawed, from 1919 to 1933, breweries used their facilities to manufacture a variety of food products and soft drinks, as well as “near beer,” a similar tasting brew that contained less than half of one percent alcohol by volume.
Once alcohol was legalized 1933, a few companies switched to applied- or painted-label bottles. The mandatory three-tiered beer distribution system, from brewery to distributor to bar, also spurred developments in beer packaging to allow for easier shipping, like the squatter “steinie” bottle size.
Highly collectible bottle varieties include extinct styles or bottle sizes, such as those labeled “Weiss Beer,” a malt variety made by most breweries in the late 19th century which entirely ceased production after Prohibition. The “picnic bottle,” an oversized container holding a half-gallon of beer for serving a large group of drinkers, also disappeared during the mid-20th century.
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Clubs & Associations
- Red Fox Chapter
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- Brewery Collectibles Club of America
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- Midwest Antique Fruit Jar & Bottle Club
- Findlay Antique Bottle Club