Digging Antique Bottles

“Nothing warms up a room like an old bottle in the window.”

The real question is “Where exactly do you find them?” Well, locating bottles is not an exact science, but I can narrow it down for you. Certainly, they occasionally turn up at flea markets, antique shops, auctions, etc., However, the most memorable hunting experiences I have had has been taking them out of the ground for free, like discovering buried treasure! There is nothing like hunting for these glass treasures in the woods on a clear, dry, sunny day. You will have to “exercise your eyes” as well as your feet, and your imagination too for that matter. A few of these tips will help make your search successful.

Try to put yourself in the shoes of a 19th century American. Especially in rural areas, you had to make your own choice on where to throw out your garbage. As it turns out (remember Alice’s Restaurant)? Arlo Guthrie was right, in many cases off a cliff! I just moved to the town of Sea Cliff, NY, and at the very end of the town, guess what ……. “surprise, surprise, surprise,” ……… a cliff. It didn’t take me long to investigate and find a very old town dump. Here is a photo of just one of my finds there: A hand blown late 19th-century “blob top” beer/soda bottle. This was the forerunner of the well known “crown top” design that is still popular today. As you can see, this tree’s roots had grown around the bottle making it impossible to remove (though I did try more than once).

Sea Cliff is a Victorian town, but if ones’ land was settled earlier there was probably not a town dump. Garbage had to be thrown elsewhere. More specifically, on personal property. One must think that a property owner was proud of the appearances of his land much like today. So, garbage was disposed of in many different inconspicuous places. Ask yourself, where would I dispose/hide garbage on my property where no one would see it (or smell it for that matter)? Follow the old stone fence lines. These were created as property dividers. Many times in their corners, or just on the outside of the fence, you will find early small dumping sites. Check stream beds, ravines and gullies. Even under an old porch, in a basement, or in the walls of an old abandoned house could be great places to search. Leave no stone unturned. Be clever (you can assume that 19th century people were) in where you look. The most unexpected places can turn up great finds. If the property has not been abandoned, be sure to always ask property owners for permission to hunt their grounds and/or old building structures.

Searching inner-city neighborhoods can be like “shooting fish in a barrel.” Go to the local library and get the old 19th century fire insurance maps. All existing structures from that time will be listed on these maps and they can be very helpful in directing you where to look. You want to get the maps that predate 1870. By this time indoor plumbing and running water was installed in most cities replacing the need for outhouses. It is the old outhouse wells that hold the “finds” you are looking for. People used the well for disposing all kinds of things, particularly bottles. Locating the old abandoned out house well can be easy and quite productive. See the picture of our friends wearing hard hats for extra protection excavating a well. The stone liner of the well is quite evident in the background of the photo. This is the actual foundation that an old out house building used to sit on. Remember the old wood structures with a moon on the door? The actual out house is long gone, but the well (privy) still remains. These wells still exsist burried behind every mid 19th century home. An outhouse was almost always put as far away from the house as possible on the back of the property line. In those early days there were no sewers or running water, so every building had to have an out house. Because most back yards were small, you can easily narrow down the location of the well by sticking a probe (a “t” shape steel rod) at an angle in the ground and feeling for consistent solid rock. The yards usually had some rocks interspersed in the ground but mostly made of plain clean native soil. Digging and searching can be fun, but one must always expect the unexpected ……… i.e. cave-ins, collapses, cuts from broken glass, etc., etc……..SO REMEMBER …… ALWAYS ASK OWNER PERMISSON TO SEARCH, NEVER DIG ALONE AND ALWAYS BE SURE TO TAKE EXTRA PRECAUTIONS AGAINST ANY UNEXPECTED DANGERS. Keeping this in mind will make your hunting safe and pleasurable.

One style of bottle that you are likely to find in your search are ink bottles. Because of their size and durability, many have survived after being tossed out. Also, just about every home had one by the turn of the 19th century. You can start amassing a large and attractive collection of these sparkling gems ……. and because of their size, they are easy to display.

Collecting ink bottles can be a lot of fun! Their myriad of available beautiful natural colors and interesting forms is endless. If a little ink bottle could speak, it could tell you volumes. For one thing, you would hear lot about glassblowing development in America. Also, they would tell you about the limited literacy and its progress in this country during the 1900s. Unlike today, many people back then were not completely fluent in their writing skills. Also, the ball point pen was not yet invented, so these bottles would supply the necessary ink to write. The quill pen was still popular and necessary.

At first, most ink bottles in America were free blown (late 18th century). Early in the 19th century ink bottles were hand blown into intricate molds. Ink bottles had to be attractive because they would be sitting on ones’ desk on constant display. Later, after mold blowing became more prolific, as did literacy, the demand for ink bottles increased and they became available in many different (but simpler) forms and beautiful colors. Ink bottles were designed not to tip over and spill. Taking this into consideration, their exact forms were left up to their creators imagination. The “igloo”, “turtle”, “teakettle“, “umbrella”,”pitkin” and “cone,” were favorite ink bottle styles, to name a few.

One of the most popular mid-19th century designs was the “umbrella” ink bottle. This consists of an 8-sided inverted umbrella shape. This form came in many different sizes/panels/colors. We were very fortunate to find one of these bottles with an intact paper label which quickly disintegrated after it came out of the ground. It could not stand the atmospheric change as it had been buried for over 100 yrs.Most umbrella ink bottles are found in a light blue-green color called aqua. Assembling the many different colors can be quite a challenge. The available mineral (coloring agent) was limited. Bottles would only come in various shades of green, yellow, amber, clear, blue, and sometimes, but rarely amethyst. Finding all these different color variations can be quite a challenge. If you find a bottle in a wild, unusual, vivid color, chances are you have a reproduction (or a rarity worth a million bucks)! Some ink bottles even had the ink company name embossed on the side which would add to its rarity as this would involve another step in the mold making process and not often done. Paper labels were applied instead, a much simpler and cheaper production process.

By the late 19th century, the cone ink bottle became the most popular design and a replacement for the umbrella ink. As this country grew and glass blowing developed, production of color variation became more sophisticated. Many different colors and shades were made. Assembling a rainbow of colors of these can be an endless pursuit. No matter what style you collect, displaying ink bottles in your home will be a wonderful source of conversation and will provide beautiful decoration.

GOOD LUCK HUNTING!