A HOLY GRAIL OF NEW ENGLAND BOTTLES, A ‘STODDARD FLAG FLASK,’ FOUND

Yes, that headline is correct, and I’d love to be able to say I was the one who found it. I didn’t, but the next best thing is for a friend of mine to have dug it up. He did, and I was able to see it and hold it myself.

My friend, whose name I won’t mention here, found it in a location I also won’t mention here. But I can say that it was found deep in a muddy waterside trash dump and, for him, it was the thrill of a lifetime.

The business side of the flask, showing the large, embossed 13-star flag. The value of this rarity—known as a Stoddard Flag flasks—ranges from about $12,000 to $20,000, with a similar example selling early late last year for more than $14,000.

He had dug this site in years past, and found the base to one of these extremely rare “Stoddard Flag flasks” about 10 years ago. Then, a few years after that, after many more trips, he found a shard to a second one. He surmised that there had to be a whole one that survived somewhere down there, buried in the layers of muck. And it became an obsession.

And I can tell you from experience that it can be a lonesome quest, digging in deep mud, looking and feeling somewhat insane, not knowing or even expecting that you will find what you really after. So, when I got news that the impossible had happened, and that he had actually found a whole one, completely intact and in perfect condition, I was happy for my friend and I felt buoyed by his success, as I’m sure all bottle diggers and divers feel; knowing that there are still amazing treasures to be found out there, with just a little—OK, a lot—of resolve, persistence and some luck.

Admittedly, the bottle he finally uncovered is not the Holy Grail for all New England collectors. But it is not unreasonable to call it that for him. I know he considers it to be one.

It is pint size, standing a bit more than seven inches tall, with an open pontil scar base, and in a classic New England olive-amber coloration. One side of the flask is embossed “NEW GRANITE GLASS WORKS STODDARD NH” and the reverse is embossed with an amazing 13-star American flag.

It is a rare and valuable piece of Americana, and it had been lying deep in the mud for about 140 years.

It blown at the New Granite Glass Works in Stoddard, N.H., between 1861-71. Certainly, the form and overall presence of this flask makes it as something special, even to a casual collector or lover of history. But the collector value of this rarity ranges puts it a little pout of the range of the casual collector. It values between $12,000 and $20,000, depending on condition. A similar example of the flask sold late last year for more than $14,000.

Memories of a Great Find of My Own
One of my own greatest bottle digs happened 17 years ago, when my daughter Annie was born. I was giddy at the birth of my first child, and the day we brought her home from the hospital, my wife put her up in the bassinette and I decided to go for a bottle dig to burn off some energy.

There was a spot about 200 yards from my front door that I had driven by hundreds of time. It was right next to the road, and I figured that a couple of old buckets on the surface of the ground would have been inspected and dug through by some bottle digger decades ago.

Nonetheless, I informed my wife that I had to “go find Annie a bottle” and headed out the door.

In a few minutes I was digging carefully, slowly through the leaves and in to the humus and decaying tin cans. I heard my rake squeak on to some glass and brushed away the dirt to expose the words “STODDARD, N.H.”

It weird to try to describe how excited you feel when you uncover a rare piece like that, so you’ll just have to imagine. I presumed it would be a wonderful but broken bottle, and when I pulled it out, sparkling and in mint condition, I charged back to my van and sped home. I honked the horn as I came in the driveway, startling my wife inside the house.

She met me at the door as I stood on the steps outside, holding the bottle so that the words “STODDARD, N.H.” were facing her. She didn’t know its exact value, but she knew enough to know it was a great find! I had been gone for less than five minutes.

Its value is between $700 and $1,400. It is referred to as a “lettered Stoddard flask” and reads completely “Granite Glass Co. Stoddard, NH.” During the 1860s and ’70s, the early glass manufacturers in Stoddard, N.H., crafted some of the most highly sought-after American-made glass bottles.

“Who gave you that flask?” she asked skeptically.

“I just dug it for Annie,” I beamed.


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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VICTORIAN TRASH FOR CHRISTMAS: A FINE PIN CUSHION DOLL

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?”

Yes!


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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COLLECTIBLE MATCHBOX CARS: HOPE YOU SAVED THE BOX!

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.

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ANTIQUE MARBLES—THE SIMPLEST OF TOYS IS NOW A COMPLEX HOBBY

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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COLLECTOR’S YEARS OF DIGGING, DIVING FOR BOTTLES ON DISPLAY AT NEW HAMPSHIRE MUSEUM

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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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COBALT BLUE BOTTLES: WHO ARE YOU CALLING ‘OLD?’

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The bottles in this grouping (left to right) held castor oil, citrate of magnesia, Peptenzyme and Bromo-Seltzer, all common medicines during the Depression

The most popular color collected by antique bottle collectors is cobalt blue. Maybe not so much for advanced collectors, but for the average person starting off and for home decorators wanting authentic vintage window accents, cobalt blue is the vivid color that leaps out at you and demands the eye’s attention.

As people chat casually about bottle colors, you’ll overhear some at flea markets and the like describe an old bottle as being not just cobalt blue, but “old cobalt.”

“Oh, that one more pricey because it’s the old cobalt blue,” you’ll hear them say. And this is just about as loose a term as you could ever imagine.

The dealer could be describing a glass Bromo-Seltzer bottle in cobalt from the 1950s or a rare piece from the 1850s, when the recipe for such a color glass was rarely used. The dealer may not be being intentionally deceitful, but if you’re going to spend some money on some gorgeous vivid blue bottles, as with any antique, it is wise to know what you’re buying.

Cobalt oxide, in various quantities, is the main ingredient that creates the vivid blue color seen in American-made bottles, predominantly in the mid 20th century. Three of the most common products sold in cobalt blue glass during that time were Milk of Magnesia, Vicks products and Bromo-Seltzer.

For someone who digs old bottle dumps, these bottles are found quite regularly and are generally kept, even though they are common, because they are good “traders” that can be sold to gift shops or decorators as long as they clean up nicely.

But for the digger, these types of bottles are set aside in the bucket while the digger tunnels deeper into the site for an older layer.

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This is a bottle from a sole-proprietor druggist dating to around 1890. You would usually see a bottle like this in clear glass, but to find one in cobalt blue takes its value from $5 to about $85.

 

 

 

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This is a larger medicine bottle from Boston, and it is quite rare. It would be considered “old cobalt,” dating to the 1870s with early crude-font lettering and thick glass with many beautiful flaws. This one is worth about $250.

 

Such later-era bottles, dating back to the turn of the century, are generally machine-made and are valued today at just a few dollars each. However the hand-blown or hand-finished bottles made in earlier decades range from being scarce to extremely rare and can sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars for very unique pieces.

For example, while scuba diving for old bottles last fall, I found a giant one-gallon Harrison’s Columbian Ink bottle in aqua glass, which brought almost $1,000. If it had been in cobalt blue glass, it would have been one of only a couple known to exist and would have been worth much more, with the last one having sold at auction for $37,000.

To use the term “old cobalt” blue glass with some accuracy, I think you’d have to use the year 1880 as an approximate point where cobalt blue glass went from being “old” to “new.” I know that is a very loose description, but different glass producers during the 1880s began to improve and refine their recipes for producing glass, and what once was a rippled, seedy-textured, dark blue glass filled with tiny impurities started to become a brighter, smoother and much cleaner quality glass, such as the glass in a 1900s Bromo-Seltzer bottles.

 

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These cobalt bottles contained poison, as noted by their quilted pattern and hobnails, making them easy to identify by candlelight to avoid tragic accidents. Depending on their size, poison bottles like this are valued between $50 and $500 or more for rare or larger sizes.

 

 

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I dug this unlisted, rare ink bottle in Portsmouth, N.H., 30 years ago and have never seen another like it. Based on the purple hue of the cobalt glass, I believe it was blown at the Sandwich Glass Co. in Massachusetts. I won’t guess its value because I’d have a hard time letting someone buy it from me. Old cobalt glass, especially to antique bottle collectors, can be something you grip tightly!

 

I dug this unlisted, rare ink bottle in Portsmouth, N.H., 30 years ago and have never seen another like it. Based on the purple hue of the cobalt glass, I believe it was blown at the Sandwich Glass Co. in Massachusetts. I won’t guess its value because I’d have a hard time letting someone buy it from me. Old cobalt glass, especially to antique bottle collectors, can be something you grip tightly!

Little did glassmakers of the day realize that the inferior quality glass they had been producing would someday be so much more sought after!

The older glass, when held to the light, shows marks from the mold maker’s whittle or from temperature changes in the glass, as well as bits of silica, sand, potash, lime and other ingredients reduced and melted in the glassblower’s pot during those early glassblowing days. All of these imperfections are perfectly desirable to modern day collectors and lovers of colored antique bottles today.

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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