What is it that keeps some people interested in the bottle collecting for decades while others burnout after a short time? After watching collectors come and go over the years patterns seem to emerge. Some collectors come into the hobby like a shooting star with a brilliant beginning but then burn out quickly. I recall one hair bottle collector who will remain nameless, who began in just such a way. He started by buying hair bottles – any hair bottles; because he was paying good prices many people obliged him. It wasn’t long before he realized that what he wanted was "good" hair bottles and he quickly got more selective at least about what he was buying if not what he was paying. Obtaining new bottles of the caliber he was seeking quickly got very difficult. Almost as precipitously as he began in the hobby he left - sold the whole lot and disappeared from the bottle world. Whatever his motivation burnout set in pretty quickly. Whatever his reasons for being in bottles they were not rewarding enough to be sustaining.
Other collectors I have seen for decades at shows and in the magazines. Many of the long time collectors I know began as diggers, not all – but a significant number. There was something about the thrill of the hunt or the idea of getting something for nothing (never mind the hours spent or the dollars put into the travel, gas and shovels). It was a TREASURE HUNT! Some of you remember those days. It was a terrific feeling coming home with a large sack of freshly dug bottles – never mind that most were unembossed, clear clunkers like the 25 boxes of bottles I stuffed into my parents attic when I first began collecting.
At one point in the 1970s the hobby was very nearly a victim of its own success. As the dumps disappeared, dug out by throngs of people, out burnout was pandemic in the hobby. The fallout could be felt everywhere. The Antique Trader dropped its bottle column to only a few inches from a few pages. Bottle magazine subscriptions dropped to the point where it was difficult to make a magazine devoted just to bottles work. Show attendance dropped sharply. Clubs folded. Still some of us kept at it. What is it that keeps one going for all those years.
When I look at my shelves of bottles I don’t see just bottles. Each bottle has a story to tell. Some of the bottles in the bottle case represent people while others are memories of bottles shows, auctions, vacations, antique stores, yard sales, privies, dumps and all of the haunts I have visited in my search for glass. That sapphire blue Heimstreet bottle on the second shelf was the first bottle for which I paid "real money". I drove 75 miles across the state of Ohio and into Pennsylvania to Bill Fry’s house (Bill, a regular at the York bottle show, recently passed away.) Bill was into colored pontiled medicines at the time and was culling out the lesser ones. It was just a cloudy December day when I left. But after a delightful evening looking at his bottles the weather had turned to a full blown blizzard. It took four harrowing hours to travel the 75 miles home- but it was worth it.
I remember another day I was working on the Indian Bottles and Brands book that I went out to the mailbox to find a surprise package. I opened it. Inside was the most beautiful Indian bottle I had ever seen, a deep open pontil olive green Indians Panacea. It did not matter that the entire top was missing. I read the note from Gene Blasi who had dug it in Louisville who thought I might like it for the book. It still sits on my shelf now sporting an epoxy top.
There is the Harper’s CuForHedake Brain Food bottle that came from the first dump I ever found. It is not worth much to anyone else but it is priceless to me. I have parted with thousands of dug bottles but managed to keep a few. My Dr. Bartge’s Ague Mixture came from the first privy I ever dug. A privy that produced nearly 100 bottles and that unlisted pontil medicine. I am reminded of the dig every time I look at it.
I think that it is all about stories. Bottles for me are about stories. I think it is these stories that have sustained my interest. Not only stories about digs and fellow collectors but also stories told by the bottles themselves. I think what I really collect is the stories. Who in the hobby has not wondered about the history of the bottles they own. What was life like back then? Who made this bottle? Who sold it and where? Who bought it? I am sure I am not the only bottle collector to have fantasized about going back into the past. Now that would be a good way to get bottles. I figure I’d just go back in time and bury some good ones. Then when I got back to the present, I could go dig them up. Some of the stories I collect are fantasy others are real and connected to events past and present.
Being a man of relatively modest means I realized early on I was never going to own a cobalt blue Columbia flask. As the dump digging dried up and between privies digs, I began to do a bit of "dirtless digging" -research. I developed a passion for finding out about bottles even if I was never to own them. What stories could they tell?
I learned a great deal about human nature. There was the owner of the Chemung Spring. He loved horses. He got rich from selling the Chemung Spring Water to people, but he let the horse drink for free. What stories inspired the mold makers who decorated their flasks with patriot symbols? Many of the images frozen in glass reflect the emotions and stories of the time. They are our link to our heritage.
I learned the world was filled with scoundrels who preyed on the afflicted. For centuries charlatans foisted their bottled herbal remedies on the public with much puffery and no small bit of deceit. Their stories tell of a war between those in medical profession trying to advance knowledge and those in the patent medicine profession out to line their pockets on the misfortune of others.
I learned life was more uncertain back then. Children died routinely. Infectious diseases claimed young and old alike. Sometimes the privies tell these stories. One in particular sticks out in my mind. The privy contained hundreds and hundreds of medicines whole and broken many of which contained strong drugs – drugs for pain. It was clear that the owner had suffered and his story was told in glass.
Such were my thoughts as I drove to the dig site on this rainy August morning. When we arrived at the rain was just letting up the pavement still steamed in front of the 1890s Victorian brick, painted blue in the front and brick red in the back. It was a shadow of its former self. Its interior was totally gutted. Its windows, gaping black holes stared out from the three story face. Piles of blackened wood lined the sidewalk to the backyard. It was a burn out.
Mike, Mike and Ted had already probed the hole by the time I got there. They had decided there was only one hole in the yard. It probed hard which we all thought was a good sign but the house itself was not real old -1890s probably. Faced with no other prospect all of us itching to dig, we began shoveling dirt.
As is the usual custom with us when we first get into a hole there is lots of "digging talk". This initially takes the form of the lot of questions. Is it old? Does really look old? What if this is the mother lode? Normally this is followed by lots of wishful thinking like suggesting we will find that cobalt pontiled embossed bitters with an applied handle. Of course we never do. Mike is often says that if we really knew what was in these holes, we wouldn’t dig them. Words that seem all to true when we reach the bottom of a 12-15 foot deep hole with nothing in it.
With four of us digging the work went easily. Fairly quickly we uncovered the stone wall of a privy. The probe told us nothing except to dig deeper. About 9:30 in the morning the workmen showed up. They were working on the house. The plan was to restore the house then resell it. They have their work cut out for them much the same as we did. Curious, they came to watch for a few minutes.
"You really dig that all by hand?"
They think we must be nuts. We are all about getting the job done since Mike has leave by dinner time. The upper levels of the hole are mixed mostly new. At about nine feet we found the first bottle; unembossed of course but a good sign. It is from the 1870s or so – we hope.
We take turns in the hole. It fairly big so three can work easily one man in the hole two men pulling buckets and one on break. On one of my breaks I stared at the back of the house. What stories did it hold? Would this hole tell us any? If the bottle which we had found was any indication then the hole we were digging was not for this house but for a house which must have been here earlier. The air was filled with the hammering and sawing of the workmen and the shoveling and dumping of buckets of dirt. These same sounds would have filled the air a hundred years ago as this beautiful but now dilapidated home was being erected.
Around twelve feet down we had to make a decision. We had not opened the entire hole up. We had hoped to sample it first before committing to digging it out entirely. We had were beginning to get more signs, pottery, china shards and a few bottles. it was pretty convincing evidence that the trash layer we were approaching pre-dated the existing house. It promised to be a good hole. We broke for a late afternoon lunch. Mike’s friend Michelle had brought an elegant meal – pasta salad and sausages. We dined on an improved table – the bottom of one of the barrels we used for dumping dirt. We joked that the only thing missing was the wine. Our mood was good and our expectations peaked. It would not be long before we knew what this hole contained.
It took about an hour and a half of hard labor to fully open the hole to make it safe. We had two men in the hole and two men pulling buckets. He had barrels of dirt everywhere. The first older bottles began showing up along one wall several pontiled bases and a few pontiled puffs came out. Next there was a pontiled embossed mustard barrel, lots of broken redware, yellowware and black glass bottles were massed together in one small part of the hole. Whatever we were going to find we were about upon it. The majority of the layer was 1870s. As usual the hole had been cleaned out but there were a few early bottles on the very bottom and up against the walls. The pattern was as familiar as it was discouraging but we were having a great time. After all we were finding bottles. That they weren’t great bottles was much less important than the fun we were having. The age of the bottles and artifacts confirmed the existence of the a house on this lot prior to the one standing vacant. The doll parts, doll dishes, a broken Bear’s Oil, and several perfumes spoke of the little girls and ladies who had lived there. The man of the house smoked. We found several pottery pipes and remains of two yellow ware ones. He enjoyed a drink once in while but was not a lush. The quantity and quality of the artifacts suggested the family was comfortable but probably not wealthy.
The array of shards, bottles and artifacts displayed on the mounds of dirt were a reflection of the lives of the people who had lived here. I can’t imagine what they’d think of the idea of us actually digging in their outhouse and being thrilled with what we found. These precious few remnants mostly broken were tantalizing clues to their everyday existence- where they shopped, what they ate, what they drank and how much. From these shards, some connection was established between them and us. With this connection, one’s mortality comes into sharp focus. They are no longer here. Not one of the people who lived in the existing burned out house or the house that must have been here prior to this one still walks this earth. For a brief time however, they live again in my thoughts and here on paper.
As I look at what we found and think about what is on my bottle shelf at home, I realize it certainly cannot be the money that keeps me in this hobby. Profit motive rarely is sustaining in the bottle world. I do think the bottles themselves are beautiful and interesting but I think it must be the people and their stories connected to the bottles that are sustaining - at least that what keeps my interest. What keeps yours?