As the world has slowed to a crawl because of global orders to shelter-in-place, billions of humans are living in a much-reduced footprint, often confined within the walls of their own homes. For those of us used to busy lives full of social activities, it’s a bit like being sealed inside a bell jar, or perhaps a large glass bottle—our lives go on, but their framing has drastically changed. A century ago, during times like this, self-taught craftspeople might have spent this required time at home making bottle whimseys, or miniature sculptures and scenes built entirely within empty bottles.
“I have always had dollhouses, and looking at these little scenes was like looking into a dollhouse.”
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as bottles became an abundant and disposable resource used to package liquor, medicine, food, cleaning products, and more, a subset of folk artists began using these discarded glass containers as stages for their miniature sculptures. Beginning with petite religious shrines made in Europe, the trend spread to the United States and encompassed a wide range of subjects. Most people today are familiar with the common novelty of a ship-in-a-bottle, but few have seen the true variety of bottle whimseys or puzzle bottles that were made, ranging from multi-level coal-mining miniatures to bawdy bar scenes, many featuring complex decorative stoppers in place of a standard cork.
Regardless of the subject matter, bottle whimseys have an innate appeal, due to their almost-magical unseen assembly process: Just how does one fit an elaborate wooden chair or boat or crucifix through an opening smaller than a quarter?
Susan D. Jones, author of Genius in a Bottle: The Art and Magic of Bottle Whimseys, explains that the term “whimsey” (sometimes spelled “whimsy”), simply describes a variety of small ornaments, doodads, curios, or whatever-you-call-them made by folk artisans. “Whimseys originated as nonfunctional articles made by craftsmen, and they were usually men, showing their skill,” Jones says. The result was a smorgasbord of little decorative trinkets made by metalworkers, glassblowers, potters, and woodworkers.
In Jones’ book, she writes that the spread of bottle whimseys in the United States is owed to a convergence of three trends in the late 19th century: “craftsmen with whittling skills and the leisure time to create, the mass production and ready availability of clear glass bottles, and earlier examples from various European traditions to inspire imitation and innovation.” Jones explains that there were four primary motifs seen in European bottle whimseys that became the basis for this form of folk art—religious scenes, mining scenes, spinning or weaving tools, and ships in bottles.
The art of bottle whimseys appears to have gotten its start in Germany with religious miniatures. From there, the trend spread across Europe and the United States. “I have seen very early shrines built by German nuns and monks with carved crucifixes and surrounding tools, but not put into a bottle,” Jones says. “They have three sides and a bottom, and a crucifix in the middle surrounded by what they call ‘instruments of the passion.’”
Whether made in Europe or the United States, religious bottle whimseys often mirrored this approach, with a central crucifix flanked by iconic Biblical objects.
“The tools included a hammer and nails, a spear, a pole with what’s meant to be the sponge with vinegar, and a ladder,” Jones says. “But later, they included pick axes, shovels, and pliers. Different makers added INRI banners, doves, lanterns, cloth representing Jesus’s clothes, and even angels and soldiers.
“The ones that originate in Germany,” Jones continues, “if they have a Jesus at all, almost always have paper Jesuses on the cross, either cut from a prayer card or drawn on paper. This is almost never the case with American ones.”
However, the first bottle whimseys weren’t limited to religious iconography: Other early artworks include Matthias Buchinger’s 8-inch tall bottle featuring a two-level mine and mechanical mill, and J. C. Held’s elaborate sculpture of a stocking weaver at his loom, both circa 1719.
While the earliest-known bottle whimseys date to the mid-18th century, the art form really began to take off once glass bottles were mass produced and easily procured.
“The vast majority of whimseys date from after 1900, even 1910,” Jones explains. “They didn’t become something everyday people could make until bottles became common and thought of as disposable. My guess is that the first disposable small bottles were patent medicine bottles; so many of my older bottles are stamped with the name of a drugstore.”
After the Civil War, handmade bottle whimseys became more popular in the United States and the themes expanded from the craft’s European roots: Some showcased Masonic or fraternal objects, wishing wells, farm or household tools, elaborate whittled fans, and other general whimsies. As Jones writes in her book, “A growing and mobile population of laborers spread the art form through contacts on the job, in the Army and Navy, in prison, and by the late 19th century, through the hobo communities connected by river, road and rail. Houses, intricate interlocking wooden puzzles, shops and saloons and brothels, fans and birds, framed pictures and memorials, tools, chairs, and wishing wells all became the subjects of this folk-art expression.”
“I think the yarn winders and niddy noddies and spinning wheels were popular because they are difficult to make and wind,” Jones says. “The kinds with different levels of spokes coming out from the center, wound with thread around them and sometimes with beads, are very challenging. So there is an extra ‘gee whiz’ factor. And yarn winders were something many people had at home to copy from.”
Bottle whimseys offered a novel way to present familiar sights and objects, like those depicting the tools and machinery used for ore mining in the late 19th century. “I’m not sure why mining bottles came to be made, but it could have been prompted by a town or a mining guild which had one made for their town or guildhouse,” Jones supposes.
“They consist of either three or four levels, depending on the size of the bottle. On the bottom level, miners are digging coal or ore. Sometimes it is actually sparkly material. The next level up, miners are sorting coal, often on what looks like conveyor belts but which are obviously surfaces for washing. If there are four levels, there is sometimes a big oven where they are smelting the ore. The top level is often a town council meeting, or something with dignitaries. A marching band is a common feature, too.” A few mining bottles even included mechanical cranks to turn the machinery inside them.
“The mining bottles were always rectangular, and may have been decanters for spirits,” she adds. “The one I own has carved details along the edges of the bottle, clearly not a mass-produced thing.” During the 18th and early 19th centuries, bars would often have their liquor delivered in barrels, which they would decant into large glass bottles—about 17” tall with room for a gallon of liquor—to serve customers from. These spacious clear bottles were perfect for constructing bottle whimseys.
While chronologically parallel, the trend for building little ships inside bottles has since become more mainstream than other folk-art whimseys. Most ships-in-a-bottle were actually realistic scale models of ships that eventually inspired an industry of how-to books and kits.
“The earliest ship in glass, which is not really a bottle, that we know of is in a museum in Europe,” Jones says. “It’s in a big glass bubble, full rigging.” Created in 1784 by Venetian sea captain Giovanni Biondo, this miniature ship built in a blown-glass oval and mounted on a wooden stand is now in the collection at the Museum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, Hansestadt Lübeck. “Ships in bottles were rarely made on ships since bottles were scarce on board, but they were popular subjects after 1900,” she adds. According to Jones, the creation of “ships-in-a-bottle” really took off after “Popular Mechanics” began holding contests for these miniature replicas in the first half of the 20th century.
Although bottle whimseys derive much of their appeal from the seeming impossibility of their creation, the craft is rather straightforward: A whimsical miniature sculpture or carving was made to fit inside a certain bottle and then dismantled, its parts slid inside the glass container beginning with its largest pieces. Segments of wire with hooked ends were used to maneuver the pieces into place, where they were glued or fitted together. Other items, like chairs or framed pictures, were made to be flattened or rolled up and then expanded once inside their glass cage.
The objects inside of bottle whimseys were typically made from wood, though paper, fabric, and other common materials were also used. To literally top it all off, artisans often created ingeniously carved bottle stoppers to finish their work. “The more collectible ones have carved locking stoppers, and the fake ‘lock’ is always impressive,” Jones says. “A simple cross piece is easy to figure out, but I have one that has three levels of fake locking devices. I have no idea how it could’ve been made, and it’s tiny to boot.”
“Most of the common whittling ‘tricks’ like chains, scissors, balls in cages, and pen knives made from single pieces of wood were put on stoppers outside of the bottle,” Jones continues. “Daniel Rose—circa late 1890s to 1920—put working scissors inside bottles, and I’ve seen working pliers inside bottles. The one common whittled subject inside bottles is the fan, carved from a single piece of wood and opened inside the bottle.”
Many of these decorative wooden whimseys are incredible because their pieces could only have been formed from a single scrap of lumber. “Stoppers with whittled whimseys, like chains or balls in cages are always impressive,” Jones says. “I have one with a fist holding a stirrup with chains and pen knives at the end dangling from the stirrup. It almost has to be one single piece of wood. I have several towers, one with four pillars, four cannons, and a tower with a cross on top; the edge is inlaid with two colors of wood. The ‘Book in Hand’ artist’s stoppers have a hand holding an open book. They’re beautiful.”
In the United States, most bottle-whimsey artists are unknown, as they didn’t sign their work and were never made famous by it. However, research has identified a few bottle-whimsey craftsmen, such as Carl Wörner (sometimes spelled Karl Worner), a folk artist who often hid a figure under the floor of his bottle scenes.
“Wörner, circa 1860-1930, was very prolific and very recognizable,” Jones says. “He started with crucifix bottles and is most known for bar and other shop scenes in bottles. He even did a funeral home in a bottle. The only bottle whimseys I know that were made for payment were Wörner’s—he paid bar bills with them and bought shoes and food with them.”
Though Jones has heard of a few whimsey bottles displayed in public places, it’s likely most were kept in private homes by the artists themselves or those who were gifted or purchased them. “I assume Wörner’s bar bottles were displayed prominently at the bars,” Jones says, “and I know one of his shoemaker bottles was displayed at the shoe shop. Ones made for someone as a gift were most likely displayed in their home.
“Wörner was self taught, I’m sure, but others learned the craft from people who already did it—at hobo camps, prisons, veterans’ homes,” she adds. “A very recognizable chair-bottle form was made by several residents of the Odd Fellows’ Home in Liberty, Missouri, in the 1920s. And I’ve seen several bottles made by prisoners that follow almost the exact same form. I’m sure the art was passed around, but others must have figured it out on their own.” Other known whimsey-makers include Daniel Rose and Adam Selick, both of Pennsylvania; “The Caveman” of Branson, Missouri; the “Book in Hand” artist of Vermont; and Thomas Edwards from Dayton, Ohio, who made little ships inside glass flasks. Multiple bottles have been identified as the work of each of these artists.
In fact, it was a Wörner bottle purchased by her folk-art dealing brother that sent Jones down the rabbit hole of bottle whimseys in the first place. “I have always had dollhouses, and looking at these little scenes was like looking into a dollhouse,” Jones says. “My brother let his fellow dealers know I wanted them, and they all helped build my collection. In those days, you could also find great ones on eBay.
“I think Wörner’s funeral home with two undertakers and a casket with a body in it might be one of the most unusual,” she continues. “I don’t own it; wish I did. A Wörner rarity, but by no means unique, is what he called ‘The Happy Home.’ A dining-room table and a family seated around the table, usually a baby in a high chair too. My favorite that I own is a Wörner chicken-and-egg store, ‘Bill’s Place,’ which is two levels deep (a room behind the front room) and shows a woman buying something, crates of eggs around the shelves, crates with chickens’ heads poking out between the slats on the floor.”
Despite these standout examples, the vast majority of bottle whimseys featured much simpler sculptures inside—something a person with limited woodworking skills might be able to put together without much instruction. Their popularity widely subsided as the United States pulled out of the Great Depression in the 1930s and more folks found full-time jobs, reducing free time and increasing discretionary income. Perhaps during this surreal moment in 2020, with a global recession and public-health demands to stay indoors, some of us stuck at home because of COVID-19 will learn to build our own little worlds inside empty glass bottles.