Bill Lindsey discusses antique bottles, including mouth blown bottles, bitters, figurals, inks, medicines, flasks, and many other varieties. He also explains the history and methods of early bottle production, and how diggers find bottles. Based in Klamath Falls, Oregon, Lindsey can be reached through his website, Historic Glass Bottle Identification, which is a member of our Hall of Fame.
My maternal grandfather and uncle got into bottles in about 1965 or ‘66 when I was in high school, and we started digging. My uncle was in Arizona, near some of the old mining camps there. Those were the glory days of bottle digging. People had access with four-wheel drive vehicles and gas was cheap and time-off was more abundant. Then years passed and people started really hitting the ghost towns and mining camps and logging camps of the West.
Anyway, we started by digging some of the mining camps in Oregon and Arizona and then eventually gravitated towards digging in downtown Portland, the urban renewal stuff in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. That was way better digging because that’s where people lived. Portland was the second biggest city on the coast, next to San Francisco in the mid to late 1800s, L.A. was nothing. Seattle was just a stump town. And so we got in there and started finding really nice stuff. Bottle clubs got formed, magazines came out. I never looked back, and have been collecting ever since.
Collectors Weekly: You must have a pretty big collection.
Lindsey: I have over a thousand bottles, which means something or nothing. Most of them are from the late 1700s to very early 1900s when they switched from hand-blown, mouth-blown bottles craft-type bottle production to machines. There was a glass blower with the mold boy producing them by hand – and they never touched it, of course, not literally. Michael Owens invented the machine in 1903, and it became more common by the 1908 or 1910. By 1915, probably half the bottles were made by machines. Machine-made bottles on average are worth much less and are much less interesting to collectors than are the earlier mouth-blown ones.
“William Radam’s Microbe Killer has a picture of a guy beating a skeleton embossed on the front.”
Mouth-blown is probably a more correct term than hand blown, though they’re synonymous. The air from a glassblower was used to inflate and make the bottle versus a machine, which produced pressurized air.
In terms of what I’m most passionate about it’s Western mouth-blown bottles, bottles that are clearly identified with the West or made in the West. Most all of the glass producers in the West in the 19th century were in the San Francisco Bay Area, there wasn’t any up here in the northwest until the early 1900s. And almost everything good that was made in the West for Western businesses – the liquor companies, the druggists, whatever – they used bottles made in the San Francisco Area although a lot of them were brought in by train from the East Coast, too. And those bottles date from right around the early 1860s when the first successful glass factory started in the Bay Area to the 1910, 1920 era when machines took over.
Even after that point, people collect ACL, applied color labels, soda bottles which are machine-made, and milk bottles which are machine-made, the vast majority of them. So machine-made bottles aren’t un-collectible, it’s just that what feeds the passion of most collectors through the years has been the earlier things from the late 18th century through the 19th century. I just collect everything. My Historic Bottle website, the reason it has so many pictures of all different types of bottles is that I just love all old bottles, from the flasks to the medicines to the liquor bottles to whatever, soda. I have a little of everything.
Collectors Weekly: Do you specialize in anything?
Lindsey: The only thing I really specialize in is medicinal tonic bottles. There’s one on the desk right above me here, Dr. Kurnitzki’s Aromatic Wiregrass Tonic. Tonic was a medicinal product. Spring tonic, some claimed it rejuvenated and invigorated, back then during the great age of quackery. There’s another one I have, not a tonic bottle but it’s called William Radam’s Microbe Killer. It has a picture of a guy beating a skeleton – this is embossed on the front of it – beating a skeleton with a club, and it boldly states at the bottom, “Cures all diseases.” Tonic bottles are just a subcategory of the huge variety of patent medicine bottles.
Nobody seemed to collect tonic bottles much, so I just started collecting. I have 150 or 175 different ones and I know of over 400 that exist, ones embossed with the word tonic. So-and-so’s wiregrass tonic, lung and liver tonic or whatever. It’s roughly equivalent to bitters bottles, which is another category that people have collected for decades.
Some bottle categories are sexier than others, like the bitters bottles and the earlier historical and pictorial flasks. It’s hard to describe them, but these flasks date from the first half of the 19th century. Most bitters bottles date from the last half of the 19th century, the most collectible ones, and they come in the shapes of ears of corn, Indian maiden, fish, barrels as well as the square bottles. People have collected bitters for a long time. It was another genre of medicinal, but it was usually 30 to 40 percent alcohol. Most medicines had alcohol back then because that was the primary preservative, but it was also thought to have medicinal qualities – a belief somewhat supported by research today.
A lot of bottle collecting trends came down to who wrote the books and some of the earlier bottle books back in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s were on bitters bottles and the “figured” or “historical” flasks. They’re called by different names. Those types of flasks were being collected as early as 1900, and by the 1920s and ‘30s a lot of people were collecting them and writing books on them. That generated a critical mass of collector interest.
Collectors Weekly: How many different types of bottles are there?
Lindsey: I break them into eight different big categories on my Historic Bottle Website. From when they first started making bottles in North America in the late 1700s to when machines took over, there were probably hundreds of thousands of uniquely different bottles made within a lot of different types. The major types are liquor, spirits-type bottles, soda and mineral water, wine, beer and ale, medicinal and then household things like ink and cleaning products…and miscellaneous bottles that don’t fit the other categories.
As an example of the variety of mouth-blown bottles, Ron Fowler in Seattle is doing a website just on one bottle type: the Hutchinson soda style, which was made from about 1880 to 1915. He’s got over 16,000 different examples just for that one style of soda bottle. What’s different between them is the embossing. There’s one from right near here that says Merrill, Oregon, and there’s one from Lakeview, Oregon just east of Klamath Falls. There are dozens of them from San Francisco. And when you go back east where the population was in the 19th century, there’s a lot more. Pennsylvania has almost 2,000 different Hutchinson soda bottles alone!
Embossing accounts for a lot of a bottle’s popularity. So do shapes. And color and age also help determine value or collector interest. With mouth-blown bottles, it’s the rarity and visual aesthetics. You can look at a good bottle, barrel-bitters or a figural one and you know it’s a good bottle. It just looks like it. It’s shaped like an ear of corn. It has beautiful color, bold heavy embossing, and a neat name like the Radaem’s Microbe Killer. There’s also local appeal, like the soda bottle I was telling you about from the little town south of Klamath Falls of Merrill, Oregon. They just look like every other Hutchinson soda. An equivalent Portland one would be a 20-dollar bottle. The Merrill one’s a 300-dollar bottle because it’s from a little town in eastern Oregon – and people collect such things – and they’re rare.
Collectors Weekly: How much variation was there among mouth blown and machine made bottles?
Lindsey: Earlier machine-made bottles have some variation because sometimes there are more bubbles in the glass or the machines were cruder in production. But the hand-blown ones used the same mold. Most hand-blown bottles were molded, not free-blown, which is blowing them without the aid of a mold. They would drop the hunk of glass – on the end of the blowpipe – in the mold and then expand it with the glassblower’s lung air, fill the mold and impress the embossing and the bottle shape. Each one was different because the color varied even through the same day.
An aqua bottle, later in the day when the glass batch oxidized more, might turn out deep blue-green or blue-aqua was a classic San Francisco glassworks thing. Or they had a leftover bunch of glass from the night before or earlier in the day and they end up starting another run of bottles for some other customer with the old glass. There’s a blue green soda bottle from Portland that has an embossed eagle on it. They’re really nice bottles. But one run of them, they blew in amber. They’re very rare; there’re three or four known. For whatever reason, they blew only a few like that. That kind of variation is common in the bottle world.
Even beyond that, sometimes they have more crudity because the guy didn’t inflate it enough or he blew over the top of the mold and it made a longer neck. There’s just all kinds of variations, so when you compare two mouth-blown bottles to each other, even if they’re from the same mold, the glass color differs, the crudeness differs, the bubble pattern differs.
In the mouth blown days, there were a lot of glass companies, also called glass works. In San Francisco, you had the San Francisco Glass Works and the Pacific Glass Works. In 1876 they combined into the San Francisco and Pacific Glass Works and were in business until 1902.
They glassblowers were essentially artists. It’s a complicated process to get the glass on the end of a blowpipe, roll it into a shape where you can expand it, drop it into the mold because it’s like a big hunk of really loose taffy. So they’re always spinning the blowpipe to keep the thing from blopping off the end. From colonial times until the late 1800s, they were one of the highest paid craftsmen. It was a long apprentice process and it was hot, tough work. It was so hot, almost all of the mouth-blown factories shut down in the summer.
Collectors Weekly: How long did it take to produce one mouth-blown bottle?
Lindsey: I have this little film clip, an early black-and-white clip I got from an engineer of the Owens-Illinois Glass Company. It shows two guys and the mold boy – who opens and closes the mold and pulls the bottle out – producing bottles. These guys are good. It probably dates right around 1900 to 1905. The clip’s only a minute long and they’ve blown two bottles. So they can blow a bottle in about 30 seconds, two guys working hand in hand because they’re using the same mold. While one guy is rolling the bottle and dropping it into the mold to expand it, the other one’s gathering the glass on the end of the blowpipe just behind them and then they switch. After the guy finishes blowing the bottle, the mold boy opens the mold and pulls out the bottle. The other guy is coming around, and he’s just ready to drop his gob of glass into the mold. Two guys getting two bottles a minute. It’s really amazing. It’s the only clip of early glassblowing I’ve ever seen.
Collectors Weekly: What are pontils, and why are collectors interested in them?
Lindsey: I’d been wanting to do a field guide to bottles for a long time, which is how my website is organized. Back in the early ‘80s. I was working for the Bureau of Land Management. Most archaeologists don’t know much about bottles, but they’re always finding them during cultural surveys, particularly out West here, usually at old 19th Century mining or logging camps. They’d find broken or whole bottles, but not know anything about them. I was always helping them out – telling them how old a bottle was, what it was used for. So my website was nominally designed for archaeologists and others to be able to figure those things out.
On the website, I break bottle identification into different parts. Pontil marks are one of many attributes that make a bottle better to a collector. Everybody wants a pontil mark on the base of a bottle, it makes the bottle more valuable. A pontil mark is a little glass or iron deposit on the base of the bottle. It means the bottle was held with a pontil rod during the process of making it. After they blew the bottle, they took it out of the mold and fused this rod onto the base, so they could break the bottle off from the blowpipe – it allowed somebody to h old the hot bottle. They did this with all kinds of glass things, with early glassware too, not just bottles.
The pontil mark is a scar. There are three or four different basic types. One just leaves an iron deposit; others leave a chunk of sharp glass and can cut your finger even. If you look at that film clip I noted earlier, you’ll see they don’t use a pontil rod. They’re just doing it for demonstration and they don’t finish the process on the bottles. They’re just blowing them in the mold. The mold boy would just take it out with a pair of tongs, because of course it’s still a couple thousand of degrees, and drop it in a bucket off to the side.
In the early days, after bottle expansion, they would open the mold, and the bottle is pretty solidified by then. They cool quickly and it’s still attached to the blowpipe. So they would take a rod or sometimes another extra blowpipe or something with a little chunk of hot melted glass on the base and fuse it to base of the bottle. Once it’s fused on there, you can hold the bottle with that, and they would just tap the blowpipe and the bottle would break off where the metal meets the glass on the blowpipe.
Now the guy could hold it with the pontil rod. And they could do whatever they’re going to do with the lip of the bottle, put a lip on. That was always the big bugaboo prior to the 20th century was how to seal bottles. They used cork but you’d have to have a somewhat uniform lip or surface to seal so it didn’t evaporate or get bacterial spoiling. So they’d hold it with a rod and finish the lip on the bottle, which they called “finishing.” That was the old glassmaking term for putting the lip on or forming the lip into some shape.
Then they would lay the bottle over a little cradle or something and tap the pontil rod and break it off from the base of the bottle. Then they’d anneal the bottle, or slowly cool it in an oven by dropping the temperature slowly. Otherwise it would break. Bottles are not very strong if they’re not cooled – annealed – slowly.
Collectors Weekly: How many different types of bottle bases are there?
Lindsey: There are three or four different major types of bases, and thousands of different looks to the base of the bottle, and several attributes that can tell you something about the bottle. My website was designed partly for archaeologists, who find bottle fragments too. There’s the keyed base, which is an early style, a post mold, which is an in-between style, and a cup base. The website describes what they look like, with illustrations. Almost all machine-made bottles were made in cup-based molds. So when you get to the machine era, the variety goes down, and there’s much more uniformity.
There’s also the push-up or kick-up base. During the free-blown era, when you pushed up the base of the bottle, it gave strength to the base. It also insets the base so when you break off a pontil rod, sometimes it leaves a chunk of glass, and if it’s pushed up, it doesn’t affect the bottle setting. One theory is that most bottles back then were either liquor or wine bottles – the free-blown ones – and the kick-up would allow for the sediment in wine to collect in a little narrow area and pack down and be harder to pour out. Then there’s the theory that they pushed the base up just to make the bottle contain less and be cheaper to fill. I think it’s more to do with bottle strength, and maybe the sediment thing. Today it’s used purely for tradition, it’s just how wine bottles are done.
Collectors Weekly: What about the bottle lips?
Lindsey: Finish and lip mean the same thing; they’re synonymous. It’s a glass-maker term, calling it a finish. There are cork lips, screw tops, crown tops, all different types of lips. For everything but fruit jars, corks were used for sealing for hundreds of years. They didn’t get replaced until the 1920s, even though the screw top was invented in the early 1800s. Because of the hand-blown production and the variations and crudeness of that process, screw tops didn’t work well because they couldn’t make them uniform enough. The crown top was invented in 1892 but really didn’t take off until the machines started dominating the market. Corks were compressible, and could form themselves to irregular shapes.
Collectors Weekly: Can you tell us more about the beginning of the bottle making process?
Lindsey: They’d have a hot crucible or a vat of glass. It could be huge. And they’d take the blowpipe, roll it in there and get the appropriate amount of glass on the end. And then while spinning it with their hand, they’d blow on the one end to inflate it slightly to get it into a shape where they can drop it in the bottle shaped mold, which is on the floor, and then finish blowing it so that it conformed with the inside of the mold. Once it’s in that shape, they take it out and they would apply the pontil rod. After about 1865 they didn’t use pontil rods anymore. They used what they call a snap tool, which is somewhat like the little tool people now use to pick up their dog poo. Instead of fusing this rod on to the base, they would just grab it by the base with a snap. The glass is over 2,000 degrees, and even after it’s been in the mold and cooled slightly, it’s still a thousand something so no one could actually touch it – thus the need for these tools.
Collectors Weekly: What about the embossing?
Lindsey: That was done by engravers when the mold was formed, in reverse on the inside surface of the mold of course so that it looked right. One of the hardest letters to do in reverse is the N. So a lot of times, the older bottles particularly, have a reverse N or S. They would get it right most of the time, but not always. And you can’t go back once you’ve engraved it. In the early days, they didn’t have processes to fill in the lettering if they did it wrong. I’ve seen bottles where the mold engraver ran out of room at the end, and had to squeeze two letters where there should be one letter, that kind of stuff. They didn’t always plan well and some mold makers were much better than others.
Actually San Francisco is famous for an engraver from about 1875 to 1885 of unknown name. No one knows who it was, but all the bottles this guy did have an R embossed on it that has this distinctive flair, the way the curved leg sticks out on that R. They’re all the same, identical. He’s famous in the West with bottle collectors, whoever he was, that engraver. No one’s found any information on him, looking through old San Francisco papers. But he left his legacy with these curved R’s.
The engraving was done with a chisel and a hammer, quite an art. Just forming the mold itself, especially the fancier designs of the figural shaped bottles, is tough enough. But then the mold engraver would come in afterwards and put the embossing or engraving inside the mold like the rings on the neck of the bottle, or the pedestal base. Some were just true artisans, their embossing is beautiful. The guy beating the skeleton with a club, it’s quite heavily embossed and it’s really neat. You just think, how could they ever do this? I guess they penciled it out on the inside of the mold and then just carefully engraved into the surface of the mold.
Collectors Weekly: So there was a different person for each job in the process?
Lindsey: Yes. There was the glassblower – the actual person who blew the glass was called the “gaffer” back then. I don’t know where that term comes from. Then there was a “mold boy.” They used a lot of child labor before 1910 just like in every industry. Then there was what they called the snapping up boy who worked the snap tool that grabbed the base of the bottle, or before that, the pontil rod. Then there was somebody who took the stuff to the lehr, the annealing place. So, yes, there was usually a group on the glass floor making bottles, which at the time was called a “shop.” And there were probably other workers who kept the furnaces going.
But machines changed everything. One guy could run a machine, and it would produce 50 times the number of bottles. I have a clip somewhere from the same Owens-Illinois engineer, showing a modern machine making over 600 bottles per minute. It’s like a machine gun spewing them out!
Basically the earliest Owens Automatic Bottle machines sat over a pot of glass and the machine would have a number of heads on it, anywhere from five or six on the early ones up to 12 or 15 or whatever. The machine would rotate around. And each head or section of the machine had two molds. There are different methods, but the Owens machine was the revolutionary one, invented first in 1903. It would dip the first “blank” mold down and suck up a measured amount of glass, then rise up and it would be blown a little bit in that mold. It’s really hard to describe.
Anyway, it picks up the glass, starts to blow it a little bit, then it’s shifted into a second mold, which they call the “blow mold,” and it’s fully expanded there and the mold pops open and the complete bottle is dropped on a conveyor belt to be annealed. It’s really fascinating to watch, almost as fascinating as the guys blowing the bottle. There’s also something called the ring mold. It holds the lip of a bottle, and that’s part of the original blank mold. It’s hard to visualize. And that shifts it into the second blow mold and then pulls the bottle out when it’s finished as it’s rotating around on the machine.
Today’s bottle making machines are a little different. They don’t dip down. The Owens machines became passé by the 1930s and ‘40s and were replaced by machines that dropped the glass into the first blank mold instead of sucking it up from below. They’re called individual section or IS machines, and are engineered differently, but they still go through the same two-mold process, except the glass drops in from the top into the first blank mold. The two-mold process was the real revolutionary part that made machines viable in the early 1900s. Today’s machines just take off from that original concept.
Collectors Weekly: Tell us more about some other types of collectible bottles.
Lindsey: There’s people who collect everything. Some people just specialize in pharmacy bottles from the 1870s and early 1900s, and there’re people who collect what I call the ACL soda bottles, the painted label ones, which didn’t originate until the early 1930s. Some people collect nothing but free-blown early American stuff. But historically, the most popular and probably the priciest bottles are the bitters bottles and figured flasks, which are really early American.
Figured flasks were made from about 1815 up through the Civil War, often with presidents’ faces on them and embossed, patriotic themes, like this one that says, “Success to the Railroad” and has a picture that looks like a train being pulled by horses. I’ve never quite figured that out. Other ones pictured Jenny Lind, a Swedish singer. She was a big fad in the late 1850s, being brought over by P.T. Barnum for a one-year stint in America in 1857 or ‘58. And they made bottles with her likeness on it. Figural bottle means it’s shaped like a fish or whatever. Figured flasks just means it’s a flask that has figures on it. They’re two different things. Most people call the figured flasks historical flasks.
Collectors Weekly: And how far back do people collect?
Lindsey: Bottles were produced in Roman times, 100 B.C. or maybe just after zero A.D. There was almost no change in the way bottles were made from back then until almost the mid 19th century. Through the Byzantine era, medieval times, the Renaissance, it was mostly free blowing, although they had some molds too. They would roll it around on a table or use paddles and different tools to form it. The earliest molds were like a hole on the floor or a block of wood that was just carved out. They would just drop the glass on the blowpipe down the hole, and when inflated it would form the squarish or roundish shape of the body. The rest above that, the shoulder, the neck and whatever were just produced by the skill of the craftsman.
It wasn’t until the snap case tool and molds came into effect in the early to mid 1800s, 19th century that revolutionary changes started occurring. I’ve got some that were free-blown, probably in New England in the 1790-to-1820 range, and they’re not much different than bottles that could have been made a thousand years earlier.
In Europe there’s collectible bottles that were made in the 1500s. In the U.S., the first viable glass companies or glass producers were in the 1780s and ‘90s. So that’s the true early American, the earliest collectible bottles in the U.S. Most bottles that people collect are from about 1820 to 1910. Bottles were used for a lot of things back then. Like bug traps. There are these bottles they made that had these little chambers so the bug gets in it and it can’t get out. They’re like a funnel thing. And there’s some kind of liquid inside. There were other bottles that you’d put into a little metal container that had disinfectant, and you’d put it out as poison for cockroaches.
There were ink bottles, and barber bottles, which are real decorative beautiful things from the late 1800s early 1900s. People could have their own bottle in a barbershop. They’d go in once a month or whatever. They had their own hair tonic. There were candy bottles, little figural type things that had wide mouths with screw caps. Usually from the late 1800s or early 1900s, that had little, hard candies in them. They had them in the 20th century too. I remember them from when I was a kid.
And there were all kinds of medical bottles. Drugstores had big, huge bottles that would hold large quantities of liquid that they’d pour into smaller ones and sell. They had show globes, which aren’t really bottles, but colorful things to just decorate their shelves. It was just a fad or style. They’d hang them in the windows. And they had what they call shop furniture, the big bottles with the glass stoppers that they would also use for bulk storage. And a lot of druggists would mix up their own concoctions of medicines, and these bottles contained their bulk supplies.
Collectors Weekly: Were bottles not initially used for drinking liquids?
Lindsey: No, they’ve always been primarily for liquid storage. In the 1500s, 1600s, almost all bottles then were liquor or wine. Then they started perfecting methods for preserving foods, vacuum sealing and that kind of thing. It actually started with France, in the early 1800s. Napoleon offered a big reward to someone who would figure out how to preserve food. And this French guy invented the heating and sealing process where you kill the bacteria and then you vacuum seal it and got a big money prize. Fruit jars and all the canning stuff stemmed from that point.
Glass jars were used for dried goods back to the 1400s to preserve meats and peaches, vegetables, what have you. But it wasn’t really until 1820s and ‘30s that they really started going and really by the 1850s with the invention of the Mason fruit jar, which was patented in 1858, that they really started using actual preservation methods that worked. Preservation before that meant drying, salting and soaking in alcohol, like the brandied cherries.
I have some fruit jars. I find it a really fascinating field, unbelievable, all the different ways they tried to fix the age-old problem of preservation. It always boils down to the seal. The most successful one was the Mason’s patent in 1858, just like what my grandma used to do, heat the jars in hot water. It’s like pasteurization where you kill the bacteria and stuff, and then you seal it while it’s still hot. It produces a vacuum. You put a lid on it with a rubber seal, like the Mason jar used, and you preserve it.
Most bottle collectors also collect fruit jars as a sidelight, but a lot of fruit jar collectors only collect fruit jars. A jar is really just a bottle with a wide mouth. There’s just a lot of variety of them. There’s a lot of different colors, shapes and particularly the closures from wax sealers to screw caps, all kinds of paraphernalia with wire and cast iron and clamps, most of which weren’t really that successful.
Collectors Weekly: How were the different glass colors for bottles produced?
Lindsey: Glass is basically just lime and silica and soda ash, with different additions for the colors. For cobalt blue, you put cobalt in the glass batch. Ruby red glass is produced with either a lot of selenium or gold. That’s why ruby red was expensive. Typically the standard mixes had iron and other impurities in it, and iron tends to make bottles green. That’s why you see a lot of olive green or aqua type glass which is just called bottle glass. Amber I think you get with selenium or by throwing wood chips in it. Milk glass is produced with fluorspar or zinc oxide.
People would want certain colors for certain types of bottles. Most beer bottles are brown because it protects the beer. Amber filters out the light waves that turn beer skunky. Most bottles, like aqua medicine bottles, were that color because it was the cheapest glass to make. A lot of bottles, like wine bottles, are in darker colors, which hide sediment. They were kept in cellars anyway, so they weren’t really getting a lot of light. Some bottles like soda bottles, cost was less of a factor because they used them over and over. So there’s a lot of cobalt blue and emerald greens and just beautiful colors in mid 19th century soda bottles. I guess it was just a way to attract customers.
Another great type of bottle is the umbrella ink bottle. They first started making them about 1830 or so and made them up through the 1800s. They’re neat bottles, all kinds of colors of them. That’s one of those bottles where people will collect 50 different colors or subtle different shades of colors, from dark chocolate amber to cobalt blue to clear, aqua, emerald green, blues, black glass. They’re commonly made in black glass, too, the umbrella ink. The blue ones tend to be a thousand bucks or more. There are some rare ones like puce, plum purple and stuff like that that are worth up to a couple thousand. And they’re only, what, 3 inches tall, those little bottles. The style is not rare at all; they’re very common. Again, color is king. And condition matters. If it’s chipped or cracked, it’s worth very little.
Collectors Weekly: What about the figurals?
Lindsey: The figural bitters and the different shapes, they’re just wild. There are lots of them around because people kept them, since they were neat-looking even to the original buyers back in 1870. So there’s a lot of Indian queen bitters – the Indian maiden bottle. There’s the ear of corn, the fish bitters and a lot of the barrels. They’re highly collectible and a lot of them are worth thousands of dollars.
It was an early marketing thing to attract the eye. Figural bottles were used for all kinds of different things. Bitters was a common one, but there’s a lot of figural liqueur and liquor bottles. Barrel shapes were common, but ones like a pitcher with a handle, cabin shapes were common with bitters and liquor bottles. I like the Drake’s Plantation Bitters, which are shaped like a tall log cabin. There are tens of thousands of them around now. They’re all made between the 1860s and 1880s. But they’re still worth a hundred bucks or so each and up just because they’re so popular and attractive to collectors.
The thing with liquor bottles, everything ended with Prohibition, which happened to be in 1919, right at the end when machines finally took over from mouth-blown production. That’s when all the interesting liquor bottles disappeared. There was some medicinal liquor made during Prohibition, and of course moonshine, but they just reused other bottles.
The early patent medicine producers were some of the earliest advertisers, with trade cards and signs and the bottles themselves. People are just fascinated with glass, I think. It’s a weird substance. Bottles are pretty simple relative to say, art glass, with all the layers of glass and different colors mixed in.
Some of the most valuable bottles are Western bottles, as far as selling prices. The attractive thing about Western bottles is the connection with the Pioneer Era, the Gold Rush Era, especially California, the mining boom, the Indian Wars, the history. The West just fascinates the world. There are a lot of people now in the West, but proportionally to the East, they didn’t make as many bottles in the early days. Back in the 1870s, there were 50 people in the east for every one out west. So the bottles made in the 1860s and ‘70s out here tend to have a higher value than their rough equivalents back east.
The highest selling bottle, if I remember right, was around $60,000, and it was a bitters bottle from San Francisco from the late 1860s. There’s another one that they call Bryant’s Stomach Bitters, and it sold for about the same, $60,000, and it’s from San Francisco. In fact they found one in downtown San Francisco about 10 years ago, it was the third known example.
They called it the great San Francisco dig of 1998, I think. They were tearing down some area in the old part of the city, and apparently it was a used bottle dealer, which wasn’t uncommon back then. Bottles were a fairly cherished commodity. They were excavating this lot, and what was left behind and covered over were the bottles the dealer couldn’t get rid of. The weird shapes. They were the great bottles, but they weren’t reused because they were quirky.
They found some incredible things that they’ve never seen elsewhere. They found two of those Bryant’s Stomach Bitters there. One had a chip in the lip and only sold for almost $12,000. The other was perfect and sold for almost $70,000.
There’s cobalt blue figured flasks from back east that will sell for $20,000 to $40,000. Color is king in bottles. The aqua version of these would sell for a few hundred. An emerald green might go for $5,000 or $10,000, because people just love the colors of bottles. And a lot of times you can get a run of a certain flask or even bitters in many different colors. I have an assortment of barrel bitters, although I got rid of my green ones, in several different colors. When you set them in the window, they’re just fantastic.
Probably the best bottle show in the West is the first weekend of December in Auburn, just near Sacramento. If you’re ever interested in going to a bottle show, go to that one. To me, bottle collecting was always appealing because we used to find them ourselves, just like treasure hunting. They’re like a little symbol that represents the miner or the homestead or whatever in the West. That’s always fascinated me. It’s like a little piece of history.
I haven’t dug in decades, but plenty of people still do. Particularly in California, they’re still working the gold rush mother load country. There are still people who dig Oakland and Alameda and the areas around the Bay Area there. There are also people I still think are poking around the mud where the various ferries used to put in.
Years ago they used to find a lot of bottles there, that were thrown out in the 1850s and 60s. Early stuff for California. They’d get buried in the mud, and react with the chemicals and turn these beautiful almost tiffany-like rainbow colors. Even though stained bottles are generally worth less, these were so fantastic they call them nature’s tiffany. You get stains in bottle digging too. Most of the time its the reaction of the hard water and the lime in the glass, and will turn it whitish. Occasionally you get ones where the reaction is a more iridescent color.
When we were digging bottles in Phoenix in the late ‘60s, the desert alkaline soil there would react with the glass, and you’d get a lot of those iridescent rainbow colors. You’d also get ones that are so corroded, and whitish encrusted that they’re worth nothing. People like bottles that are original as though they just came out of the factory, whether it’s crude and bubbly and lopsided. They like crude bottles that were made crudely. Once it’s buried and reacts to the soil, it’s usually worth less.
There’s a lot of people that clean their bottles. They have lapidary type machines, the ones people polish rocks with. They’ll polish the bottles and try to return them back to their original look, by getting rid of the white encrustations. They will put them in a tumbler which rotates them slowly, locked in so they’re not beaten around. And they’ll put little pieces of metal – copper – inside with a polishing compound, and it polishes the insides of the bottles.
Many collectors love imperfections in crude bottles. They add to the character and personality, the whittle marks, the bubbles in the glass, the lines, the twists. The bubbles were a function of how they mixed the glass, where they drew the glass off. The bubbles are like the bubbles in sink water – they typically rise to the top. The whittled look, that’s a reaction of the mold to the glass when you expand a 2,000-degree chunk of glass into this mold that’s colder. Basically its goose bumps on the bottle, and people love that.
Then there’s ‘stones,’ or unmelted chunks of silica in the glass. A lot of times they didn’t mix it up well. Glassmakers got paid by the number of bottles they had produced, so the faster the better. And as long as it would stand up, didn’t fall apart and had a lip or finish that would accept the cork, wasn’t too out of round, they were acceptable. So a lot of the crudeness came just from doing it fast.
When the machines came around, it took all the craftsmanship out of bottle making, including the bad craftsmanship of crude bottles. There are some variations however. The earlier machine-made bottles, they didn’t have the glass batch mixing down very well so you still get bubbles. Colors will vary depending on how they mixed it up. But by the 1930s, you hold two bottles together from the same mold, and they pretty much look identical. There are very few irregularities, the stretch marks, all that stuff that some early machine bottles do have. But as soon as they started using machines, the individuality of each bottle diminished quite a bit compared to the mouth-blown days.
Collectors Weekly: Who were some of the big bottle manufacturers?
Lindsey: Owens-Illinois Glass Company was a biggie from 1929 when they were formed, but their predecessors were the Owens Bottle Company and the Illinois Glass Company, which goes back to the 1870s. Owens-Illinois is, of course, still going. In fact if you look at a beer bottle now, you’ll often see down on the heel a little O with an I in the middle. That’s their current mark.
The biggie on the West Coast was the San Francisco and Pacific Glass Works. Some of the big ones back east were Whitney Glass Works, in New Jersey, and Whittall Tatum, which made most of the druggist bottles from the 1870s or 1920s. In New England, a lot of the little towns back in the first half of the 19th century were the big producers, until they ran out of wood to fire the furnaces. Gradually, bottle making moved to Ohio and western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh was a huge area for bottle making, and glassmaking in general. From the 1820s to late 1800s, Zanesville, Ohio produced all kinds of bottles.
I’m actually working on a book with several archaeologists on glassmaker’s marks. Dr. Toulouse did a book years ago, Bottle Makers and Their Marks. He was an engineer at Owens-Illinois. We’re expanding on it massively. I would guess there were 30 to 50 manufacturers back east in the 19th century to early 20th century, for every one there was out west. There was one in Denver. There was one in Seattle in the early 1900s, that only lasted a few years. The ones that made it were the ones around the Bay Area.
Collectors Weekly: Did any of the manufacturers produce catalogs?
Lindsey: If you look on my site, under ‘Bottle Typing and Diagnostic Shapes,’ you’ll see a link that says Illinois Glass Company 1906 Bottle Catalog. I scanned the whole thing. It shows you all the standard shapes they offered. Most people would buy the standard shapes, but a lot of people would just want like the figural bitters. They’d want a bottle shaped like a log cabin and submit a design, usually carved out of wood, to the glass company, which would make a mold to fit the customer’s design. But the stock designs were cheaper. The catalog shows stock bottles – all mouth-blown.
Actually, this catalog does have some machine-made bottles right at the end. They got the machine in 1905 and they were just starting to produce some bottles. They were the biggest bottle-making company in the U.S. at the time, which is why their catalogs are still available. They disseminated a lot of them, and of course the catalogs themselves are highly collectible (and tend to be expensive). It has everything, all kinds of druggist bottles, liquor bottles, food bottles, toiletries, colognes, bitters.
Collectors Weekly: Can you tell where a bottle was made by just looking at it?
Lindsey: Not necessarily. All the figured flasks, and almost all of the figural bitters were made back east. A lot of times bottles were made for a customer who wanted their name and where they’re from embossed on it. So a bottle that says Portland Soda Works, Portland, Oregon, was almost certainly made in San Francisco because that was the closest (although there were some bottles made in Pennsylvania that were shipped out here). There’s another Pacific Soda Works bottle from Portland that actually has a little maker’s mark near the base that says the McCully Company, which was in Pittsburgh. So they shipped them, probably by train, maybe it was cheaper?
Collectors Weekly: Are most bottles marked?
Lindsey: The earlier they are, the less they’re marked. There’s a lot of early American bottles made back east prior to or around the Civil War, that have the glass works’ names on them like Dyottville Glass Works which was in Philadelphia, Keene Glass Works which was in Keene, New Hampshire. But that died out a bit after the middle of the 19th century. Then when you get into the early 1900s and particularly by the 1930s, almost all bottles have some mark on them that tells who made it.
It’s unclear whether hand blowers used marks, we’ve found almost nothing that indicates that. There’s a few instances where we find these little Maltese crosses on the bases of bitters bottles, and a few others made east of the Mississippi that we think might be the mold maker’s mark. But I know of nothing where the mark of the person who actually made it, its glassblower, is indicated.
Collectors Weekly: Who collects bottles? Have you noticed any big trends in bottle collecting?
Lindsey: It’s a wide array. There’s a lot of baby boomers like myself that got into it back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. You go to a bottle show now, there’s a lot of gray heads, but there are a lot of younger collectors too. There’re a lot of well-heeled people who collect the big money bottles, the ones that have the million, two-million-dollar collections. But I’d say in general it’s middle-aged people.
There have been cycles where certain bottle categories or types are booming and then crash. For example with bitters, a few big collectors with a lot of money come in and start driving up prices at auctions, and then they’ll pull out or get off on some other interest and prices will sag a bit. When eBay came of age, that was a big boom for bottle collecting, but it crashed with the tech crash. eBay initially drove prices of more common bottles up quite a bit. The good ones stayed up. A lot of the mundane bottles tanked in value.
Pontiled colored soda bottles became really popular about 10 or 15 years ago. Western bottles in particular have become much more popular in the last 10 to 15 years. Prices have just skyrocketed, I think because of the increased population of the West, the potential base of collectors has grown and there’s still the same number of bottles. There’s a whiskey flask from the 1870s called Miller’s Extra Old Bourbon. They used to sell for $125 at shows for years until about eight or 10 years ago. Now they’re close to a thousand.
I’ve been collecting since 1966 when I was in high school, and I collect a little of everything. Most of the bottles on that Historic Bottle Website are mine. If you look at the typology pages, there’s the liquors, the wine champagne, beer and ale bottles. I get pictures from people, and I’ve also bought bottles and resold them again just to get pictures of them. I have to keep turning them over or I’d be totally inundated with bottles around here!
I’m collecting less now that I retired, but I just can’t stop, I still do accumulate. I don’t dig anymore, mostly because I live in areas that really there isn’t much left or its illegal. I go to bottle shows, auctions, whatever, which is where I’ve gotten most bottles in recent years. I go to the Auburn one, and the ones that are closer, like Chico and sometimes the one over in southwest Oregon, Canyonville, and Reno and Las Vegas.
Collectors Weekly: Do you have any books that you can suggest?
Lindsey: Actually I have a whole page on the website that’s reference sources, but the ones marked in red are what I consider to be the ‘Canon’ of bottle books, books that any collector should have. Creswick’s book on fruit jars is a classic. Probably the best bottle book to get – it’s long out of print, but they sell them used on the Internet – is Cecil Munsey’s book called the Illustrated Guide to Collecting Bottles. One of the better books is McKearin and Wilson’s American Bottles and Flasks and Their Ancestry. Again, a little bit expensive, they run $75 to $125 used. So those three, for sure. There’s also the Bottle Makers and Their Marks, the one I mentioned by Dr. Julian Toulouse. They reprinted it two or three years ago and it’s available through Blackburn Press.
Most bottle-specific research has been done by collectors, not archaeologists. The good bottle books that deal with the history of companies that used bottles, have virtually all been done by collectors who just love the topic.
Collectors Weekly: Where do diggers tend to find bottles? How did people dispose of them?
Lindsey: Bottles are found by diggers in three or four primary places. One is outhouse holes. People would just throw them down in the outhouse and then when it was full, dig another pit next door and move the outhouse over. After 150 years, there’s nothing but glass and metal and whatever else they threw in there left. When they put water systems in cities in the late 1800s, they filled their wells up with garbage. So those were always great places to dig. They’re usually brick-lined and relatively safe, although it’s hard to say when you’re 30 feet down, looking up with a little light hole. It’s pretty spooky.
Then there’re just plain old trash pits. You get out in the countryside around mining camps, they would throw bottles in ravines, or just toss them out on the ground to be covered by pine needles or whatever or trampled by livestock. People threw them all over. When I was working on the public lands, I’d find broken ones usually, where some sheep herder or cowboy or miner doing exploration had tossed their bottles. Sometimes they had a tent or a little camp and would throw a few more out because they were there a while.
It takes a little sleuthing to find where the outhouses and trash pits were.Almost always, they wanted to put them as far away from the house as possible, in the back ends of the lots, in the corners. Sometimes there will be three or four because they moved it after a time. Diggers use what they call Sanborn insurance maps. Back in the 1800s and into the mid 1900s, this company would produce these to-scale maps for local insurance companies. They now have them all on microfilm, and for a price you can get all the information for just about any town, from at least the 1870s in the West – and I think 1860s back East – up until the mid 1900s. I actually have one of the original books form Portland, Oregon, published in 1889. It’s about three feet tall over two feet wide and it’s these big, huge paper-on-canvas pages. They updated it with layers they glued on top as things changed – in the case of my book up until 1898. They’re really phenomenal.
We used to use Sanborn maps that when we were digging downtown Portland as a teenager, we’d carry the book around. I’d go with my grandpa a lot, my brother and I. We’d put the book on the backseat and drive around looking for old houses or abandoned or urban renewal-type things, or where they were tearing something down to build something else. We’d look up where the property lines were, because often the original individual smaller lots would be combined or half a block would be combined into a business. The outhouses were usually around the back perimeter of the property lines, and these maps were to scale, so we’d actually go measure the property lines. We’d find an auto shop or something that got torn down, and from the book, we knew it was originally five different lots. We could then measure back to those corners and probe for the soft spots, essentially, which could be an outhouse or an old well.
It was a lot of fun. They were the best times of my life. I wish I could do it now. It’s really treasure hunting. Even back then, the bottles had value. But also the history, in that we would find this bottle was used by somebody in 1870 who tossed it. For example, the early Gold Rush soda bottles were all from Sacramento or San Francisco. They were made back east – because there was no glass company in the 1850s on the West Coast – and they were put on sailing ships and went around the horn to San Francisco, to be filled with soda water. Somebody would buy it, use it, and throw it away.
I just find that phenomenal! They would be reused for sure, but at some point, they’re all tossed after this 12,000-mile voyage, for whoever to find. So I have 12 or 15 different Gold Rush Era soda bottles from San Francisco, and Sacramento. Actually there’s one from Eureka, too, which was an early Gold Rush town. I just look at those things and I know they came around on a sailing ship. They were tossed by some gold miner or whoever, someone who was servicing the gold mines in California.
A lot of those early San Francisco sodas are plate molds. In fact there’s one on the shelf here that says Sac City, which the old name for Sacramento. On the backside, it’s Union Glass Works Philadelphia. So you know where it was made, but it’s a plate. The iron plate on the front of the mold was replaceable so they would just engrave the plate, take out whatever plate was in the mold prior, put this new plate in there and they could blow a bottle for that purchaser, in this case soda, the Sacramento soda bottler. The next day, they’d take the plate out and put in something for some place in Connecticut that had sent in an order. The bottles are otherwise identical except for the plate embossing. They did that with druggist bottles, liquor bottles, all kinds of things. About 1845 or 1850, the first soda bottles with plates show up, and then druggist bottles, almost all of those are plate molds.
Druggist bottles – there’s probably hundreds of thousands of different pharmacy or druggist bottles, and most all of them are plate molds, which was a cheap way to get your own embossing on a bottle. Back then it cost upwards of a hundred bucks or more to have a private mold made. But you could have a plate made for a couple of dollars. Whitall, Tatum & Co. is the glass company that really made it into an art form. They were highly successful with prescription bottles for about 50 years – they dominated the market.
Collectors Weekly: Are those plates collectible? Do you find them ever?
Lindsey: As a curiosity, yes. I got the two I have off eBay. You don’t see them very often, because most of them were recycled, melted down to make other stuff. Dominion Glass Company in Ontario, right at the start of World War II had this huge pile of molds left over from as early as the late 1800s. They melted them all down for the war effort. That would have been a great resource, but all that’s left behind were the records of the molds, not the molds themselves.
Collectors Weekly: Is there anything else you’d like to mention about bottles?
Lindsey: I can’t think of anything, but I’m sure I will in five minutes!
Images in this article appear in the following order:
(All images courtesy Bill Lindsey and Historic Glass Bottle Identification & Information Website)
1. Chamberlain’s Cough Remedy medicinal bottle
2. Example of liquor bottles
3. Rye Whiskey liquor bottle
4. Lactopeptine medicinal bottle
5. Amber “pint” picnic flask
6. Hoffman & Joseph mineral/soda water bottle
7. Benedictine liquor bottle
8. Lactosum, Carbo Avtivus, Sodii Citras chemical/druggist bottles
9. C & K Eagle Works mineral/soda water bottle
10. Wide mouth food storage bottle
11. Plantation bitters bottle
12. Ball Ideal fruit jar
13. Chemical/druggist poison bottle