Found these three this week in a 1920s dump along a highway. A square poison, a slag glass auto ashtray, and a slag glass 1940s hotrod stick shift knob!
My daughter Annie called me from school at U Maine Oromo, and said she needed to do a 5 minute documentary for her new media class, and could she do it on me bottle digging. Of course I said yes because I want to help in any way, but all I could picture was spending an afternoon at some old dump digging through shards. So I was stoked when I managed to scratch up a smooth base W.E. Bonney barrel ink! Here’s the video! Great job Annie
I was excited to find this stone ink bottle behind a 1700s house dump! It has four holes on the corners as quill rests, plus the center hole for the ink. I love to picture what documents might have been signed with this one!
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If I’m lucky enough, my son Quincy come with me digging, and has just started doing some river snorkeling with me over the past year or two. He is braver than I was at his age. You couldn’t have got me to snorkel in a murky river for all the money in the world when I was his age.
Here’s a quick video of a river muck excursion we did a couple of months ago. I had found a riverside trash dump in the city. We floated a basket and walked up the river. It was a hot day, so the water felt good after digging in the dusty bank. We took home a dozen or so bottles, with the best find of the day being a little Holloways ointment pot, which among other things cured “sore breasts”, which I had to explain to Quincy, in not too much detail.
Many advanced collectors of early American glass bottles will tell you the category they first started collecting was ink bottles. Their diminutive size and alluring colors and shapes catch the eye of anyone with an appreciation for detail and a fascination with the early glass-blowing trade as it developed on this continent.
For a beginner collector, or an interior decorator in search of vintage accents for old cupboards and desks, a 120-year-old ink bottle will often fit the bill and is very affordable. For a few dollars, you have an authentic glass container that was used every day by someone with a quill pen, sitting at a desk, filling out bills or invoices, or carefully writing a letter by hand in cursive (which is becoming a lost art).
I have been a bottle “digger” in New England for 30-plus years, digging in the forest, in foundations, in old outhouse pits and even under water with the help of SCUBA equipment. If I didn’t have other responsibilities, this is probably all I would do; it is simply that much fun. Compulsive bottle hunting doesn’t lend well to raising a family and paying bills, however, as the following story attests.
One chilly spring day several years ago, that compulsion to find new old bottles was filling my mind as I drove down the main street of our town. In the back seats of my minivan were my two toddler daughters.
Right on the main drag, I noticed some renovations being done on a large colonial house. But what really caught my eye, was a pile of dirty black bricks that had been dug out of the basement and dumped, along with some other construction trash, next to the side walk for disposal. This simply needed to be investigated.
I parked up the road a bit, put my daughters into the double stroller and, rolling and banging the stroller across the potholed sidewalk and over some curbing, headed towards my target.
When I got to the brick pile, and could see the bricks were ancient and covered with decades of chimney soot. My eye caught a black, disk-shape object in amongst the rubble and I knew instantly what it was.
“Look!” I said to my little toddlers. “There’s a bottom of a pontiled geometric ink bottle in that brick pile there! Man, I wonder how many other bottles they smashed while digging out that basement.”
I left them briefly in the stroller on the sidewalk and mucked through the mud a few steps to gather the shard. But it wasn’t a shard; it had somehow survived intact while being dumped along with the bricks! The bricks were so sooty, and there was so much ash and dirt that must have cushioned the fall—to this day still I don’t know how it survived—but there it was, flawless, without a chip on it.
I grabbed it and ran back to the stroller, yelling to the girls about what I had found. I showed it to them both while hooting and hollering and shaking the bouncy stroller in celebration.
My older daughter laughed at the strange way I was acting, my younger daughter, who had been sleeping, cried in horror at the crazy man who woke her up (they are now accustomed to this behavior).
Upon further inspection, I held a geometric ink bottle. It was a round, disk-shaped bottle with embossed patterns in squares, diamonds and triangles over its entire surface, except for the base, which has a round, usually sharp pontil scar at its center.
These bottles were blown into a three-part mold, and had a uniquely wide, flared lip, which was lifted up as it was blown, and then pressed back down onto the top of the bottle, basically eliminating the neck of the bottle, producing an almost hockey-puck shaped bottle, with a hole in the top for dipping the quill.
Any geometric ink bottle is a great find, with a value spectrum varying, depending on mostly on two things—mold rarity and color. The two I have pictured here (center photo) are from one of the most common mold patterns and in the most common colors, olive amber. There are several dozen different mold variants of New England geometric ink bottles, with the rarest obviously being the most valuable. The effect of the colors of these bottles on their value is less obvious, ascending in value from dense olive amber, to medium olive amber, to pure olive green, to light olive or light amber, to the rare clear flint glass, to the most rare and gorgeous sapphire blue or cobalt blue (made at Sandwich Glass Works), which can be worth more than $10,000, depending on the mold variant.
I was more than happy to find the “common” geometric ink bottle, considering the circumstances.
Part of the appeal of antique ink bottles is that with their small and consistent size, a collector can display 100 beautiful colored bottles in a shelved bay window, creating a colorful spectacle that you can just sit back and watch as the sun sets behind it. The idea that such beautiful pieces of glass were discarded when they were empty is hard to believe when you hold one in your hand.
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure is an old cliché, but couldn’t be more precise in this case. Each of the bottles pictured in this article was dug in New England, and while bottle-digging sites are harder to find today, there are still many more to be found.
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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Here in New England, if you look carefully with a “pickers” eye, you may be lucky enough to come across artifacts from one of its signature touchstones from its historical past—fishing and whaling. These maritime treasures are sought after by collectors, and the demand for them isn’t fading away any time soon.
A couple of years ago I went for a dive in search of antique bottles for my collection. I was in a small, coastal river, in about 15 feet of water, slogging along at the murky bottom. About a foot deep into the mud at the river’s bottom, my gloved hand ran across a lump of something that I could tell wasn’t a rock. I gripped it and pulled it up. In the swirling, dark brown silt I had stirred up, I couldn’t see a thing, so I swam to the surface and pulled it out of water, where it was draped with water lily vines and leaves.
It was heavy, with a rock in the center, and I had no idea what in the world it was. But it looked very primitive. The rock was held in suspension by hand-cut dowels, amazingly snugged, kept in place on a wood-pegged crosspiece base.
I showed it to some friends and they were as fascinated and perplexed as I was. Someone suggested I immediately begin treating it with linseed oil to preserve the wood, because if it had been underwater for a hundred years or more, the wood will likely disintegrate quickly when it hits the air. And boy was he right! It was becoming brittle within hours and it still is to this day. I oil it and it soaks the oil up like a sponge.
Finally someone suggested that it was a small boat or dinghy anchor. And after some Googling around, sure enough, it is something called a Killick anchor. There are a couple of things that made this discovery especially interesting to me. One is that a Killick anchor can be traced back to the Vikings, according to what I’ve read. But in general, it is considered to be native to Newfoundland and the Maritime of Canada (which was visited by Viking sailors centuries ago). The New Hampshire coast is a few hundred miles south of Newfoundland, but French Canadians settled all around our area over the centuries, as well as Scots down the coast from the Maritime.
So it’s not a stretch to think whoever crafted this anchor had the workmanship skills handed down from Viking ancestors. And speaking of workmanship, the other things that is amazing about this find is that the more you look at, the more impressed on becomes at the skill it took to make it. I would challenge anyone to replicate this Killick anchor using hand tools, or even with modern power tools of today, for that matter, and have it last for a couple hundred years without falling apart.
The center piece at the top is a straight, hand-hewn dowel that has been carefully and perfectly split for ways, then spread apart just enough so that a perfectly tapered rock is gripped tightly by the wood. Then two slats of wood are dovetailed in an X at the bottom and pinned together by the split dowel, through drilled holes that fit perfectly. The only metal pieces on the whole arraignment is one round iron ring that keeps the split on the wood from traveling further up the dowel at the top.
This is the only Killick anchor with this exact type of construction I’ve found while researching it, where the centerpiece is cut from one single piece of wood, as opposed to three or four pieces of wood tied together with twine.
An item like this is impossible to value. For a collector or investor who has no interest in it, it is worth nothing. To a collector of historical maritime pieces, it could be priceless. If I someday decide to sell it, I wouldn’t know what to expect. I am hoping it ends up in a local museum, where its historical context can be documented properly.
On the other hand, a piece like this old whale harpoon tends to be a bit easier to appraise. My buddy found this at a local yard sale and bought it for $10. He wound up reselling it for more than $900.
I asked what specific features added to the harpoon’s value, and he said the piece’s high points were that it had a makers mark (Peters) and the fact that it had a good patina with remnants of its original red paint. It was about 33 inches long and dates to the turn of the 20th century, and would have had a wooden handle attached to it originally.
During my dives for bottles, I have found solid brass propellers, brass rudders, even parts of ships wheels, like group of items that often offered on eBay. These are always easy to sell because people love to decorate their seaside homes with them, and they are items of much interest. Their values are determined in great part by condition, natural patina or original paint.
Any giant-size brass item will have great value in general, and if a maritime item was expensive when it was bought a hundred years ago, you can assume the price will still be very high today.
But the thing that drives the price higher is often the markings, especially the names of fishermen or fishing towns.
To attach historical provenance and context to an antique related to fishing, shipping or boating—especially the whaling industry—makes investment in such a piece a safe bet; sometimes a better bet than having your money in a boring CD somewhere.
These pieces bring back a romantic vision of working on the high seas, and ads character to any living space.
Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30-plus years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He lives in Eliot, Maine.
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