Understanding Antique Beer Bottles

Digger Odell Publications ©2007

Today we think of beer naturally being put up in bottles, but that was not always the case in this country. Prior to 1890, laws dictated that bottle could not be bottled at the brewery. It was kegged and transported to a bottling house. Until the mid 1870s, beer bottles were rare. Beer, because of the nature of its ingredients was prone to spoil if not probably bottled and or sealed carefully and under controlled conditions. Sanitation was a problem, especially since the product was not bottled at the location it was made. Beer was to be drunk at room temperature, but storage was best in a cool place. Loss were great. Bottles not always recycled, but when they were cleaning them out was problematic. These difficulties contributed to limiting the amount of beer produced in bottles until the late 1870s.

Early Period Bottles

In the 1700-1800s, “the terms 'Ale', 'Porter', 'Beer', 'Stout', or 'Lager' meant neither more nor less than 'Beer' fermented at varying temperatures, and clarified naturally by a shorter or longer after-fermentation." Because supply did not meet the American demand, these products were widely imported into the United States from Europe in both pottery and glass bottles. The earliest reference I could find was an 1764 ad which offered among other things, "bibles, Spelling books, primmers gloucester cheese and bottled beer." The forms varied little from the 1850-1880s. Pottery bottles are often two tone glazed but also can be found with a solid cream color glaze. Many are stamped with a pottery name. Black glass ale bottles from the 1840-1880s are largely unembossed. These came in a number of shapes. Both the pottery and glass examples are plentiful.

(1905 Ad for Pottery imported Ale)

American manufactured stoneware beer bottles are commonly found in the Eastern States. These bottles which also contained various soft drinks, were heavy pottery bottles with a characteristic stocky shape unlike any of the foreign import pottery bottles. Many are stamped with a name some have cobalt blue decoration, others have various glazes in shades of cream and brown. These pottery bottles were manufactured in the 1830-1860 period. Examples from the Midwestern states are often paneled or sided and many were molded rather than thrown on a potters wheel as were the Eastern varieties. Embossed examples from Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin are rare. All of these pottery bottles were corked and secured by wire.

Stout is a type of dark beer was bottled in this country in the 1840-1860s. Early examples of pontiled and smooth base Porter or Stout bottles are scarce. The majority are from the Eastern states and have a characteristic shape which tends to differentiate them from soda bottles. However, the distinction is blurred as many of these bottles were used interchangeable to bottle soda or beer.

Many American manufactured ale bottles were recovered from Civil War sites. These are typically three piece mold bottles, mostly in quart size, made in various shades of olive, olive green, olive amber and amber. They differ slightly from their European counterparts in the lip styles and shape. Embossed examples are very rare but known from a number of Mid-western and other states including: Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, Tennessee, Missouri. Some of these early bottles were pontiled but most are smooth based.

The Rise of Bottled Beer

From the 1850s, the number of breweries began its monumental rise until the 1870s, when the number peaked at over 4000 across the country. The growth continued until 1918. Every town and city of any size had its own brewery most were family owned “Mom and Pop” businesses with a distribution that was mostly local.. In Cleveland, Ohio for example, the number of breweries grew from 3 in the 1840s to 26 by 1910. This phenomenon was repeated in cities across the country.

The actual number of breweries dropped due to laws banning then in some states, competition and consolidation but output increased annually. Gaining a national following in this business was difficult but, an 1883 article on beer drinking in Germany noted, "Hundreds of breweries have been established all over the land, and some of them, as in Cincinnati, St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, New York and Philadelphia, are very celebrated.”

The struggle for national dominance had begun and in the lead was St. Louis firm of E. Anheiser & Company,. In 1872, they trademarked their “A” and “eagle” and about 1876 began putting up beer in aqua glass bottles. The New York Times, September 7, 1878 noted, “the St. Louis form was the first in America to come out with lager beer in bottles, and that their bottling business exceeded 200,000 per diem.” It was the first time an American company supplied more bottles to the American market than the European brewers. Their beer took the gold medal at the Philadelphia Exposition in 1876, and at the Paris Exposition in 1878 Anheiser-Busch took the first premium over all other brewers in the World. By 1883, their sales of bottled beer rose to 15,000,000 hand-finished bottles, the largest in either Europe or America. In 1911, they produced 173,184,600 bottles.

This proliferation of liquor production spawned opposition in the form of temperance leagues and many states eventually enacted anti-liquor laws which banned any production in the late 1800s. Liquor, beer included, was a popular source of revenues for local, state and the Federal government. Beer in kegs was taxed and many states enacted laws to raise money as the industry expanded. Others severely limited or disallowed any production.

Bottle Evolution

By 1870, the beer bottle had evolved into a taller more slender shape than the squatty Porter and Stout bottles of the 1850-1860s. Quart bottles became more common. Embossing done by means of a slug plate meant the same mold could be used by numerous brewers. Bottles made in the 1870s appear more “hand-made” than their cousins a few decades later. the blob tops were applied but not tooled.

Ale bottles under went a similar change in style with the sloped shoulder ales of the 1870s replacing their three mold black glass ancestors. Embossed 1870s ale bottles, many of which are from the Midwest, are rare and very collectible. Bottle colors tended to change from Black and olive tones to shades of amber. Aqua examples are rarer than amber ones.

These early 1870s bottles are scarce and will have applied tops not tooled giving them a cruder appearance than bottles from the 1880s on. The mold seam will come right up to the bottom of the applied blob which may be uneven and may drip down a bit in places. By the 1880s, bottle-makers were using a lipping tool to smooth out the blob and make the openings more uniform. The lipping tool erased the mold seam on the upper part of the neck somewhat below the blob itself. The tool left marks, concentric rings, which while faint, can be easily seen on both the blob itself and on the upper part of the neck just below the blob.

In the 1890s, two things happened that impacted the industry. First, the law requiring beer to be bottled at some site other than the brewery was changed. Slowly, brewers began to modify their methods and install equipment for bottling beer on the premises. Bottling beer had its problems, cloudy sediment and acidity and excess gas were three. Consumers were often afflicted with biliousness (gas) and were wary. The public needed assurance that the bottled product was equal to the one from the keg. Brewers began to advertise the lengths they went to ensure purity.

Second, all of this increased demand put pressure on the bottle makers to improve their efficiency. Bottles became more standardized with the introduction of automated equipment like the use of compressed air, but closures were still a problem. Various types of wire bales were used. Dozens of stoppers were patented and tried but until the invention of the crown cap in 1892. Leakage was a problem. The domination of the crown cap took a while to take hold and from 1892 until 1919 their was a mix of competing styles. It was during this same time period that important progress was made in the full automation of the bottle blowing process with the introduction of the Owen's Automatic Bottle Machine.

Small brewers probably stuck with the tried and true hand-finished corked bottle. The largest brewers such as Anheiser and Schlitz advertised their beer as available in either cork or crown tops in 1907. Anheiser continued the practice through 1912. Around the turn of the century, one can find blob beers with wire bales, and tooled top crowns. Embossing was common up through 1918 regardless of the type of finish.

Beer Timeline

Post Prohibition Bottles

Prohibition which lasted from 1919 until 1933, interrupted the evolution of the beer bottle and when production began again, the technology for making bottles had drastically changed. Basically there were no beer bottles made from 1919 until 1933, so the reemergence of the beer bottle was marked by radical change both in the way bottles were made and the way beer was bottled. Still one finds vestiges of the old styles with wire bales on crown top bottles. But gone was the blob beer. In fact, gone was the beer bottle in some breweries. The beer can made its appearance shortly after the end of Prohibition. Cone top beer cans began in the early 1930s leading the way to increased pressure on the bottle manufacturers who had all converted to automatic bottle making equipment and were almost all using crown cap technology. The early automatic bottle machines did not produce embossed bottles. Embossing slowly lost its place and label only bottles increased in popularity until they were the majority by the late 1930s. Now every beer bottle made looked exactly like every other. Aqua glass became less common, amber and clear were more popular.

So How Much is My Beer Bottle Worth?

Unless they are unusually colored, beer bottles can be difficult to sell. Features which might add value to any given bottle include: applied lips, crudeness of lettering or glass, whittle marks, a mug base (paneled base) unusual shape, embossed pictures, a large amount of embossing or unusual coloring, a famous name, the presence of an original label and age.

Items which detract from beer bottle values, no embossing, no city or location embossed, damage of any sort, stain or scratches.

Consider that there are millions of beer bottles around. Many more than will ever be in the hands of serious collectors. Collectors like rare and unusual items but that alone does not guarantee value. A beer might be a one-of-a-kind but if no one cares it has no value.

Beer bottles often appeal only to local collectors. The major exception is top brand name bottles with good age. For example, 1870s Anheiser bottles will usually find a buyer. The same bottle with original label will find many buyers. This can result in high or low demand depending upon the locale, number of interested collectors and the scarcity of the bottle. I have seen ABM beers with good labels get bid up in an auction between two collectors. The only thing worse would be if they were buying a new car, which depreciates several thousand dollars the minute you drive it off the lot. They are not likely to be able to re-sell the bottle for what was paid.

Beer Bottle Bases Looking at the base and the mouth of the beer bottle can help you identify the age. Figures 1, 2 and 3. show an 1880-1900 blob top beers and their bases. The base relatively smooth and free from embossing except for a glass makers mark. Figure 4 shows a much newer beer bottle base probably from the 1950-1960 period. these have an embossed pattern, lots of odd numbers and a glass makers mark.

1870samber or aquaUnembossed$2-$5
1880-1900green or yellowEmbossed$50-$200
1880-1900amber,aqua or clearEmbossed Blob$5-$50
1892-1918amber, aqua, clearEmbossed ABM$2-$25
1933-1940amber, aqua, clearLabel only$10-$40