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).

Three bottles that were found while digging (left to right): an unembossed pontiled, 12-sided ink bottle in medium green, attributed to the Keene, N.H., Glass Works, circa 1840 (value $150); an aqua, pontiled, eight-sided Harrison’s Columbian Ink bottle (value $150); and a rare sapphire blue eight-sided, pontiled Harrison’s Columbian Ink bottle with lip repair (value $1,000 as is).

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.

Two New England geometric ink bottles, circa 1820-40s, like the one I found in the brick pile. The one on the left is a G III-29, which has a value of $150-$250. The one on the right is a G II-18F, which is worth $350-$450.

“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.

Three bottles that were found while digging (left to right): an unembossed pontiled, 12-sided ink bottle in medium green, attributed to the Keene, N.H., Glass Works, circa 1840 (value $150); an aqua, pontiled, eight-sided Harrison’s Columbian Ink bottle (value $150); and a rare sapphire blue eight-sided, pontiled Harrison’s Columbian Ink bottle with lip repair (value $1,000 as is).

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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For almost 40 years, I have been on my hands and knees, digging through trash. It is to the point where more people know me by my “a.k.a.” name—The Downeast Digger—than by my actual name.

It started innocently enough, as my older brother towed my sister and me out in the trailer of our old farm tractor one day, deep into the woods behind our childhood home to a sloping patch of brambles and briars, littered with old pieces of farm equipment and scattered buckets. It was my first bottle dump, which is essentially a 100-year-old trash dump where any organic, wood or paper trash has long since rotted away and most of what remains were glass bottles still hiding beneath the soil and leaves.

I sometimes like to consider myself an archeologist or a historian or something with a more-impressive sounding title. And while I could spin it that way to some extent, the truth is that I am compulsively drawn to the hunt of other peoples trash, which has sat peacefully under the ground for at least a century, finding things that once had no value at all and bringing it out into the sunlight where it may have great value today. The value may be true monetary worth to bottle and glass collectors or the value may be just in my own fascination and interest in what I’ve uncovered.

But occasionally, if I’m lucky, I can dig something that has a special sentimental value. Those are the best of all.

During the run-up to Christmas, as we are being jostled down the corridors of the local mall, like cattle to slaughter, I find myself looking back longingly at a few Christmas presents that I was able to give over the years that were absolute home runs. They cost me nothing but the “hard work” of digging them out of the ground. The satisfaction of watching a loved one open that gift and marvel at its beauty how perfect a gift it was would make me calmly walk in to the next room, and give a silent but emphatic “fist pump” and whisper “yes!”

One such “home run” artifact was a small porcelain doll—or half a doll really—that I dug many years ago. I didn’t know at the time that what I had dug was a pin cushion doll. It was only the top half of a fancy Victorian-dressed woman, and around her corseted waist were three holes where she would be sewn on to a large pincushion to be set on a sewing table or dresser.

When I dug it, I remembered that my Aunt Dorothy had a row of similar dolls on a small shelf in her living room. So I washed the doll up and decided to give it to her for Christmas.

Now, Aunt Dorothy and I loved each other and got along fine, but we didn’t normally exchange gifts. And I always had the nagging feeling that she still remembered the time then I, as a 9-year-old boy, nearly set her daughter Heidi on fire after the grown-ups had gone inside after a summer BBQ and I decided that the hot coals needed a little more lighter fluid.

So, two decades later, after a big Christmas hug and kiss, I handed her a little box and she couldn’t imagine what it was. She opened it up and I’ll never forget the look on her face, she was speechless!

Evidently, the pin cushion doll that I had dug was especially rare and valuable, because the woman’s arm was extended out and not attached to her body, hands-on-her-hips style. Aunt Dot said that usually the hand or arm would have broken off, because they are so delicate. When I told her I dug it while bottle digging in Maine, she simply could not believe it!

“How could this have survived in the ground for a hundred years without being broken to pieces,” she asked. “And this doesn’t have a chip on it! Are you sure you want to give it to me?”


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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I am 54 years old. So if my math is correct, it would have been about 46 years ago (the late 1960s). Now, I’ll sound more like I’m 80 years old when I tell you that my dearly departed Mother would occasionally take me to the “Five ’n’ Ten” store down in the local village, which is when Matchbox cars became the gold standard of personal possessions for me.

She would shamelessly extort good behavior out of me, using the purchase or denial of new Matchbox cars for my collection to keep me in line.

In my oh-so-innocent boyhood days, I could bargain and cajole with her, using any other currency, and come out on top. But when Matchbox cars were brought into the mix, I grew weak at the knees.

And all these decades later, I can still remember vividly a memorable day when I had been sick and home from school and, as a treat, she brought me to the Five and Ten cent store. I’m not sure what I did to deserve it that day, but Mom said I could pick out ten (!?!) cars for myself. I couldn’t believe my ears. We went into the store, and I quickly ran to the back of the store where the Matchboxes were—half on the rear wall, while the rest hidden behind a store room door, where you had to swing back the door to get access to an additional six-foot wall of shiny Matchboxes, stacked on skinny shelves, all packed in their original card board boxes.

On this day, as I euphorically selected my prize picks, Mom had been talking to the cashier, whom she knew on a friendly basis. I’ll assume she was telling her that I’d been sick and out of school, because after a few minutes, I heard them calling my name from the front of the store.

Mom spoke to me in a magical whispering tone sounding like she had been speaking to God personally, and He was going to let me through the gates of Heaven itself for a few minutes, just to poke around. And, sure enough, that was more or less the case, as she said that her friend the cashier was going to let me look at some special, limited-edition matchboxes that the company had sent her special, and she was keeping separate.

She knelt down behind the counter by the register and motioned for me to come back there with her, with Mom smiling and watching.

I remember my heart was absolutely pounding as she pulled some open boxes out from the underneath cabinet and I was allowed to pick out some brand new Matchboxes that I had never seen in any of the yearly catalogs that the Matchbox Company had sent me! One was a crane, one was a farm tractor with two attaching trailers for doubling up, and also a train engine that was from a series called “Models of Yesteryear.” I was never so happy!

I remember in my frantic glee, opening each of the small cardboard boxes that incased the cars as Mom drove me home. She kept saying “Save those boxes; don’t rip them!” So, I listened for a moment, but kept ripping and opening more as I went along through the bag.

I know when I got home, she repeatedly tried to get me to save the little boxes they came in, with the picture of the car on each. I tried to listen. I tried to obey … I really did.

And I took good care of those old, well-made Matchbox cars, and still have them safe in a Matchbox carrying case to this day. My young son plays with them now, and likes the “good old ones” the best.

Because I took such good care of them, they have held and increased their value. The cars that I bought for 59¢ each back years ago are now worth $10, $30, $50 apiece, and even more for some of them.

Oh, yes, and if they are in their original matching paper cardboard box, they are then worth sometimes tem (!?!) times as much.

So, what did I do with my original boxes? I am somewhat sure that when I was 9, on some summer evening when I was bored, I set them on fire somewhere out behind the chicken coop.

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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Dover N.H. Salt Glaze Stoneware Beer

These are some of the best bottles and other treasures I’ve recovered.

Bottle :   Stoneware     “Smith’s White Root”

Year dug: 2015

Type of dive site:     Deep fresh water river

Notes:   I got this deep in the grainy sand at the bottom of a river. I had dived this site several times, but it is a good site, so I’ve pounded it pretty hard. I spent most of my time basically doing a headstand on the bottom of the river, upside down, digging straight down into the river bed, looking for earlier bottles that were buried. This is the best one I got that day, a nice local stoneware from Dover and Great Falls NH.



I had a 15-minute break from work one Saturday a couple of years ago and decided to spend it cruising through the flea market up the road, near where I live here in Maine. I’m an antique bottle digger and collector, and that’s what I generally hunt for at a flea market, but I’ll also look for anything I can buy and turn around and sell on eBay, or something I can use to trade for bottles.

I was walking at a brisk pace, almost jogging, and passed a table with a peanut butter jar full of marbles. It was obvious that they were modern marbles, but my eye caught a glimpse of something in the jar that actually made me skid to a stop on the dusty path.

One of the hundred or so marbles in the jar, right in the front, in plain view, was a deep amber color that looked very familiar. When it comes to antique marbles, I know “just enough to get me in trouble,” as the saying goes. But just days before, I had been at a different flea market in Rowley, Mass., and was talking to a very knowledgeable dealer who sets up there every week. He’s nice enough to answer all the marble questions that I ask of him and, as a courtesy, I always buy something from him just to give him the business. One of the marbles that dealer had on his table really caught my eye. It was a Gooseberry Swirl marble.

I didn’t buy one from him, because the ones he had were priced at between $75 and $125 each. I picked up the peanut butter jar at the flea market table, and sure enough, the marble I had seen had that same glowing, dark-honey amber color with yellow swirling strands twisting around its center. It was a Gooseberry!

I asked the dealer “how much for the jar of marbles?” He said five bucks, which made for a very quick sale.

I took the jar out to my truck and opened the lid, and poured out the marbles on the console between the seats, so I could find the Gooseberry. To my amazement, I found another one in the mix, and then another and another. As I fished through the pile, I wound up finding a total of eight Gooseberries, including two oversized marbles of almost a half inch in diameter each. They were all in perfect condition and I wound up selling them over the following months for more than $800.

I had always loved glass marbles, as well as simple primitive clay marbles that I would come across in my years of digging and scuba diving for antique bottles. But this experience added some juice to my interest; the bonus possibility of finding marbles that were really valuable, not just interesting and beautiful.

Marbles at Auction
One of the top companies you’ll ever find for purchasing or selling antique American bottles is Sacramento-based American Bottle Auction. As an avid bottle collector, I have found the people there great to deal with and very approachable. They tend to offer top-quality American bottles in a wide range of values in the most interesting of bottle categories.

I was recently informed of the exciting news that on Sept. 20, 2013, American Bottle Auction will be offering what sounds like it will be a terrific selection of antique marbles.

If you go to its website, you’ll find information about the company, with bottle auction completed auction catalogs to peruse, and plenty of other information and photographs. I look forward to seeing many marbles like the ones pictured in this article being offered at its September auction.

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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Also featured in the “All Bottled Up” exhibit at the Woodman Institute Museum in Dover, N.H., are bottles from another local collector, Dave Landry. They feature amazing colors and designs of his bottles, including figural bitters bottles, mineral water bottles from Saratoga Springs, and a large cobalt blue master ink bottle, among many others.

It is not every day that a person can dig old trash out of the ground and have it wind up in a historical museum. So I was thrilled when Tom Hindle, the director of the Woodman Institute Museum in Dover, N.H., contacted me and asked if I would loan the museum some of the antique bottles and glass shards I have dug up from the ground or salvaged while scuba diving over the years.

The museum is featuring an exhibit titled “All Bottled Up,” a history of bottles from Dover N.H., as well as period bottles that were found or recovered from the local rivers and lakes. The bottles and shards that I lent to the museum for the year were blown mostly in New England and used and sold by local merchants in Dover.

They include several specimens blown at the old Stoddard Glass Works in Stoddard, N.H. The bottles I selected to display in the central case in the museum show a timeline of blown glass bottles, with the earliest dating to the late 18th century, continuing up to the early 20th century, when the advent of bottle-making machines refined the quality and consistency of the bottles as they were manufactured in greater numbers.

As the museum guests travel from one end of the glass case to the other, it offers a clear, visual example of shards and bottles that were made by hand, one at a time, by glassblowers in small log structures along a mill river in N.H. It ends with machine-made bottles, featuring crisp, clean colors and very few imperfections.

When viewed through the eyes of a collector, the appeal of the early, crudely made bottles is well apparent. The glass is filled with impurities, whittle marks and even little grains of sand, with uneven and warped lips.

The exhibit also shows the products and potions used by the people who lived in the historical buildings around the town, of which there are many: old ink bottles; bitters and elixirs; cures for diseases of all kinds; as well as whiskey and soda bottles.

The entire museum is a hidden local treasure. The main building is a three-story brick residence built in 1818. It houses an amazing mineral collection, Indian artifacts, military and animal exhibits, as well as the previously mentioned Lincoln Saddle. It is open 12:30-4:30 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, and is located at 182 Central Avenue in Dover, N.H. It is well worth the price of admission, as it offers something of interest to everyone.

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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