Almost any time I mention to someone that I dig for antique bottles, the first words out of their mouths is something along the lines of: “… you’re kidding! Well, as a matter of fact, one time we were digging a hole for a new water pipe behind our house and the back hoe started pulling up all these old bottles. We didn’t think much of it; we didn’t know they could actually be valuable! We just let them haul them all away in their dump truck. Wish we had known.”

The earliest 18th-century American-made bottles were free blown, and had crude and often misshapen lips. They are hard to know if they were made in the Colonies or imported from Europe because the techniques and glass colors were very similar at first.

Then they ask how to tell if a bottle is really old, and I try to give them a crash-course in dating old bottles or even bottle fragments they may come across. If the house was built before 1870 or so, there is almost assuredly at least one, and more likely many, old whole glass bottles either buried deep in the bottoms of what was 150 years ago an outhouse pit, a well or maybe a trash pit at the back corner of their yard. There can also be random dropped or tossed single bottles that were just “early American litter” that got covered by falling leaves one autumn and then the falling leaves and dust of the next 150 years, which left it protected in its natural cocoon, in the exact same condition it was when it was inadvertently left there.

When you dig and handle antique bottles for a few decades, you can’t help but develop an eye for old glass, and the ability to instantly identify even a small shard of glass as something common, and not so old, from something very special, hand-crafted by the earliest glass blowers in America.

These cork-topped bottles were manufactured prior to 1875 or thereabouts. If you look closely, you can see that the collar-style lip was applied as a separate piece of glass.

These cork-topped bottles were manufactured prior to 1875 or thereabouts. If you look closely, you can see that the collar-style lip was applied as a separate piece of glass.

These aqua-colored “flared” lips from the early 19th century rarely survive excavation in perfect condition, never mind the entire bottle. They were often chipped by the original user of the product when they pried open the cork. These were early medicinal bottles and vials.

Here in New England, some of the pioneers of utilitarian glass blowers were found in the towns of Stoddard and Keene, N.H., Coventry, Conn., and Sandwich, Mass. The rudimentary glass houses in these and other towns consisted of small log-built buildings with a furnace or kiln of some sort, and a source of water. If you find an old photo or sketch of these humble workshops, you’ll see scruffy men with dirty faces in ragged work clothes, with a couple of horses “parked” outside. They could not have thought, their wildest dreams, I’m sure, just how valuable and desired the simple wares they crafted each day would someday be. Like many people, I suppose, they were creating a long-lasting legacy just by what they did in their daily works. And they never even knew it.

A few of the early bottles they crafted are among the holy grail of antique bottle collectors. Even a tiny edge piece of one of these bottles has value to an avid collector. Not to say that you can generally go out and sell broken bottle pieces to anyone, but as a hobby, bottle collectors love to sit and sift through a box of old shards. They’ll go through each one, even tiny ones, and be able to name the bottle, its age, where it was made, what it contained, and its value on today’s market.

These colorful bottles would have dated to after 1875 or so, up to about 1900, which is when bottles began to be machine made. These have hand “tooled” lips, where they didn’t use a separate piece of glass to form the lip, but instead tooled the top of the bottle.

From the earliest free-blown American bottles of the late 18th century to the machine-made bottles that began to be produced after the Industrial Revolution, the manner in which the bottles lip was made give us urban archeologists a pretty clear timeline to go by. A bottle collector can identify a bottle using even a small broken piece of the lip, the way a “normal” person can identify their favorite candy bar by even a little piece of the corner of its colored wrapper.

Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He lives in Eliot, Maine.

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