It would be natural to assume that ink bottles date to the beginning of glassblowing and the written word, but prior to the 18th century, the most common form of ink was a cake or powder, which the writer would mix with water. It was only in the late 1700s that liquid ink in wide-bottomed bottles was widely available for sale.
Ink bottles differ from inkwells in that the bottles were designed to serve a purely utilitarian purpose (i.e., to hold ink). Inkwells, on the other hand, were often more decorative, the sort of thing you’d want people to notice on your desk. Consequently, inkwells were more expensive than ink bottles.
One way to categorize ink bottles is by size, though they can be divided in plenty of other ways as well. Small ink bottles, which tended to hold just 2-4 ounces of ink, often ca...
Of the cylindrical bottles, there were various versions. The 'cone' shape was the most common. These bottles had flat bottoms and sloping sides, making them steady and unlikely to spill when a pen or quill was dipped—this is the main reason why cone bottles are so prevalent.
Square or rectangular shaped bottles often came in different and creative forms. For example, San Francisco & Pacific Glass Works was responsible for making school house and cottage shaped bottles adorned with faux windows. Even more interesting are the multi-sided (more than four) ink bottles. These often look like a combination of rectangular and cylindrical bottles. Then there are the oddball shapes, which tend to be more sought-after, including 'teapot,' 'umbrella,' and 'turtle' (it really does look like a turtle!).
Though many ink bottles are made of glass, not all are. In fact, it is difficult to come up with a material that hasn’t been used for ink bottles at some point—stone, wood, metal, bone, and rubber have all been shaped in the service of holding ink. Of the glass ink bottles, some were hand-blown while others were molded.
No single manufacturer had the monopoly on ink bottles. Indeed, just about any company that produced glass dabbled in ink bottles at one point or another. Many makers had their own distinct stamp or scar on their bottles. For example, the Owens-Illinois Glass Company’s machine-made bottles had a suction scar on their bases. Some manufacturers, such as Caw’s Ink & Pen Company, made both ink bottles and fountain pens.
Some collectors accumulate ink bottles by era. For example, there are those who prefer 19th-century bottles to all others, while others fancy just the ones produced during the middle of that century. But as with all glassware, color is paramount to collectors. The most valuable colors are unusual ones like yellow and purple, while colors like aqua and clear are more common. Embossed bottles or ones with intact labels also increase an ink bottle’s value, adding aesthetic appeal as well as important information about the bottle's origin.
Interviews & Articles
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Clubs & Associations: Bottles
- London Pen Club
- Pen Collectors of America
- Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors
- Little Rhody Bottle Club
- The Writing Equipment Society (UK)
- International Perfume Bottle Association
- Midwest Antique Fruit Jar & Bottle Club
- Findlay Antique Bottle Club