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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Paneled Amber Stoddard IP Medicine

These are some of the best bottles I dug over the years.

 

Bottle : Stoddard Paneled Medicine, Iron Pontil,

Year dug: 2002

Where dug: Newbury Mass

Type of site:   Salt Marsh, very small trash dump

Notes: I dug one of these in the 1990s, in Rochester NH, and when I dug this one I couldn’t believe it. When I found it, I remember turning it over very slowly, to see if this one was embossed, but it wasn’t. Then I just appreciated the fact that it was whole! Stoddard glass cleans up so nice too, without stain. Beautiful whittled amber, applied collar lip, sharp iron pontil base. The reason I was looking for embossing is that it is very similar to a “Dr. Sweet’s Panecea, Exeter NH”. And both of these unembossed ones were dug not too far from Exeter NH, so I’m guessing they may have been labeled Dr.Sweet’s.

I worked hard for this one, in terms of finding the dump. It was near the ocean, at the edge of a salt marsh. I was following a very short, but old , rock wall, and really struggled fighting through a long stretch of very sharp briars. It was muddy, and I wound up crawling on my hands and knees for a pretty long stretch. I came to an open patch by an tree that was older than all the other ones around it. There was a depression in the ground, and I could see a couple of buckets buried in the leaves.

I dug with my potato rake and found a few shards of glass, and then an unembossed aqua med, and a Johnson’s Anodyne Liniment if I remember right. Then, I heard the squeak of glass at the end of my rake and could feel a large bottle with my gloved hand. I figured it was a Fellows Chemist or something, but up popped this beauty. There was literally just some metal pieces, and about 4 or 5 bottles there, like somone had left a small bucket of trash in the woods.

Was a great day in the woods!

188os Seafood Jar

seafoodThese are some of the best bottles I dug over the years.

Bottle : rare Burnhams Seafood jar NY

Year dug: 2112

Where dug: Upstate NY

Type of site: Privy

Notes: Visiting with my bottle digging buddies in upstate NY, digging a few small privies. This is a pretty rare jar, and was covered with white “privy” stain, so I had it cleaned and it came out nice. It dates to around 1880, I am thinking it contained oysters or maybe scallops.

Sapphire Blue Harrisons Columbian Ink

These are some of the best bottles I dug over the years.

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Bottle :   sapphire blue Harrison’s Columbian Ink pontiled

 

Year dug: 1994

Where dug: South Berwick, Me

Type of site: Small stream bank dump

 

Notes: This is the same jackpot dump that I dug the amber Stoddard cone in.

This one I dug bottom first, tightly backed in muddy roots. I didn’t know for sure what it was, almost thought it was a soda bottle with the sharp pontil and sapphire blue color. I wiggled it loose, and saw what it was, and then saw that the top lip was damaged, which really stunk. But I was able to have it repaired nicely, and it remains one of the rarest bottles I’ve ever dug. Was about 8” under the ground.

 

 

 

 

 

EARLY AMERICAN BOTTLES’ PONTILS TELL WHERE AND WHEN THEY WERE MADE

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This is the classic pontil mark you will find on a typical blown medicine bottle from the 1860s. It is referred to as a a ring pontil and increases the value of this bottle by 10 times.

Collectors of early American bottles will all tell you that there is a clear line of delineation set during the 19th century that separate the men from the boys in terms of value and desirability of the bottles we collect. That line occurred during the early 1860s, when the use of a pontil rod—or punty—was retired and other, more efficient methods began being employed.

The pontil rod was applied to the base of the bottle during the blowing of both free-blown bottles and bottles blown into a snap-case mold. As the bottle cooled, it had to be separated from the pontil rod. It was broken off with a little “tap” onto the glassblower’s work bench, leaving a scar on the base of the bottle. This scar is the mark that means everything to a bottle collector. As strange as it sounds, it is a bit like a navel on a newborn baby, where, depending on a minor procedural anomaly at the moment of birth, it can leave an “innie” or “outie,” which stays with the baby for its whole life.

Similarly, a pontil mark on a bottle happens at its “birth” and, depending on whether a pontil rod was used and what type of tip was used at the end of the pontil rod, the scar left gives information and important clues about the age of the bottle and its place of manufacture. And so it is that in bottle collecting, like many hobbies, we have terms and nomenclature that vary from region to region and decade by decade as the hobby evolves. Therefore, the terms for different types of pontil marks are still somewhat loosely defined.

Some pontil rods had an open tube at the end of the tip, leaving a nice, sharp, round pontil, called an “open pontil” or “tube pontil,” which is very desirable to a collector, as it is generally found on the earliest and crudest American bottles.

These open pontil bases can be so crudely made that the jagged pontil actually keeps the bottle from standing properly! This happens occasionally with historical flasks made here in New England. Flasks at the time were often encased in leather and carried in a man’s vest pocket, so that the uneven base became irrelevant.

But over a period of just a few years—during the 1860s—the pontil bases were improved, leaving a thin, sometimes hard-to-detect ring (a “ring pontil”). Sometimes a thin ring pontil can be hard to detect, even for an advanced collector, and a bottle may be overlooked until someone points out the pontil mark, then everyone jumps to purchase it.

 

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This is a rough, open pontil or “tube” pontil, which was snapped off crookedly, leaving a jagged edge. The sharper and cruder the pontil, the more desirable.

 

 

 

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This is an iron pontil mark. You can easily see where the iron ball was used to attach to the bottom of the bottle while the glass blower worked on the top half of the bottle.

 

 

 

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This is a graphite pontil, similar to the iron pontil, but showing the telltale red color of graphite at the point of contact. These are found on only specific bottles from specific glass houses and add value to the bottle. The redder the better.

 

 

 

5_not_a_pontil-300x225This is an early bottle, but it is not a pontiled bottle. You can see the “hinge mold” line across the base of the bottle, as well as an indented dome, which is part of the bottle mold itself, not a contact point from a pontil rod or iron pontil ball end. If this dome had scratchy rings inside it—which you’d have to use your fingernail to detect—then it would be an iron pontil base and would be much more desirable.

 

An iron pontil base is one where an iron ball was used at the tip of the pontil rod. This leaves a scratchy dome mark on the base, which is hard for a new collector to discern from a smooth (non pontiled) dome on the base, which is part of the bottle mold itself. A faint iron pontil mark can sometimes require a light and jeweler’s loop to examine to tell for sure. Iron pontils were used most frequently on larger bottles, with the iron pontil mark itself usually being between the size of a quarter and silver dollar. The term “graphite pontil” is used to describe an iron pontil with an unusual amount of residue, usually a rust or reddish color left on the pontil mark itself. This was left by the graphite from the iron ball pontil during manufacture.

As a general rule, the rougher the pontil mark, the better. It is amusing to watch a bunch of grown men gathered around a dealer’s table lusting after a newly discovered rare 19th-century medicine bottle and then, as they turn it over and look at the base to find a jagged pontil scar, they all moan out loud: “Oh, look at the pontil on this thing, will you?” They’ll rub their thumb along it to feel it’s sharp edge if an open pontil, or it’s roughness, if it’s an iron pontil. If you’re one of the collectors in the group, you totally get where they’re coming from. If you’re a non-collector, say, one of my family members, it can be a bizarre and funny spectacle.

By the 1870s, most bottles blown in the United States had eliminated the use of the pontil rod, as more efficient ways of handling the bottle-blowing process were employed. These methods left a “smooth base.” There are many very valuable smooth-based bottles, but as you work backwards, the pontil mark line of delineation leads you to a place where almost any bottle you have is a good one.

Reproduction bottles and art glass items may have pontiled bases, and these kind of muddy the waters a bit, in terms of having a pontil mark as the consistent identifying mark of age and value. This is where experience is irreplaceable, and you can only learn so much of it from quickly reading up on the subject.
This is a graphite pontil, similar to the iron pontil, but showing the telltale red color of graphite at the point of contact. These are found on only specific bottles from specific glass houses and add value to the bottle. The redder the better.
This is an early bottle, but it is not a pontiled bottle. You can see the “hinge mold” line across the base of the bottle, as well as an indented dome, which is part of the bottle mold itself, not a contact point from a pontil rod or iron pontil ball end. If this dome had scratchy rings inside it—which you’d have to use your fingernail to detect—then it would be an iron pontil base and would be much more desirable.

Most hand-blown reproduction bottles can be quickly dismissed by an experience collector at quick glance, just by being aware of what bottles might be being reproduced at present. If it is one that the collector hasn’t seen before, he’ll look at the texture of the glass and the “feel” of the pontil, as which point one might hear the phrase “it just doesn’t look right.”

Art glass is a separate field from bottle collecting, and the pontil has a much different standing. Pontiled art glass pieces are made around the world today, using techniques similar to those used around the world for the past millennium. The pontil marks discussed in this article refer to pontils on bottles in the United States in the 19th century, which were utilitarian in nature, and manufactured for proprietors to sell medicines, foods and other everyday products.

If you’re not a serious collector, it may be hard to understand why anyone would get so worked up over such a little detail on the underside of an old bottle. Well, let’s put it this way: if you have a box of bottles in your basement that have that insignificant little mark on their bases, I know someone who’d be happy to take them off your hands!

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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Found Diving – One Gallon Harrisons Ink

Bottle :   ONE GALLON ! Harrisons Columbian Ink

Year dug: 2013

Type of dive site: Fresh Water river

Notes:   I had been on a long stretch of bad luck scuba diving. When you go diving, and come back empty, people don’t realize how much of a drag that is. I’m not talking about diving in the Carribean, I’m talking about slithering around a muddy rivers and ponds, through lilly pads and algae and snapping turtles and mud and sometimes pollution.

So when I pulled this bottle out of a river, it was a God send. I had been in the river for about an hour, and had found a basket full of interesting bottles, no pontils, mostly common bottles. I was at the bottom of the river, and had stirred up the mud, and was basically crawling on my stomach, feeling out with my hands, like trying to find your car keys in a dark room. I bumped into something with my shoulder, and it rolled away. I reached out and found it, and it felt at first like a cut log that had been chiseled on the sides for some reason. Then I felt that it had an opening at the top, and thought it was some kind of metal gas canister. I pressed the inflater in my vest, and floated to the top. As I was floating up, I realized there was lettering on it. I still wasn’t thinking “bottle”. But when I got to the top, I floated the bottle up out of the water a little, I read the word “HARRISONS”, and the rest felt like a crazy dream. It was a pontiled aqua GALLON, Harrisons Columbian Ink!

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