Digger Odell Publications © 2008


A Demijohn Is A Large Wicker Covered Bottle

As was mentioned earlier, the New England Glass Bottle Company was one of the earliest companies to produce demijohns in any great quantity. The Christian Advocate April 1, 1830 said:

They employ about 80 men and boys, and about a dozen girls, who turn out daily, about 25 groce (over 3000) bottles. The yearly sales amount to $75000 dollars. The girls are employed in covering with willow the carboys, demijohns & c.

The key characteristic of a demijohn is that of a bottle encased in wicker and wicker work was no work for a man. In fact, it was children, often very young children, who were the chief workers. In a long discussion of the goings-on at the Dyottville Glassworks, the Episcopal Reader Jan. 25, 1834 states:

Nearly four hundred persons are employed in the various branches of the business, 130 of whom are apprentice-boys. For all work over the required amount the apprentices are allowed at a certain rate, some of which is paid to them for pocket-money, and the rest is kept until they become of age....Boys from six to sixteen are engaged as apprentices; most of them are children of very poor parents, and many are orphans. The youngest are employed in making wicker-work to cover bottles. For their use there is a school, kept in the evening by one teacher and two assistants. They are allowed to take recreation every day in a large field for a play-ground, within sight of one of the instructors; or in bad weather, in the large wash-room. The order of the day is as follows. The bell rings at day-light for rising. After washing, they attend on worship in the school-room, and thence to breakfast. The work hours are from seven to twelve, with an interval for rest and a luncheon of cracker. They dine at twelve, and work again, with a short rest and refreshment as in the morning from one to six. They then wash, take supper, and play until the school hour. At half past eight the smaller boys go to bed; the others remain for an hour longer, engaged in reading, drawing, music, &c.

The Register of Pennsylvania April 11, 1829 printed an article on the "House of Refuge", where orphan and wayward boys and girls were committed by the state.

We were much gratified with a visit this week to the House of Refuge. Although the institution is still in its infancy, and of course many improvements in the management and discipline may be advantageously adopted - yet we were pleased with the advances already made. The boys were variously employed: some at bookbinding; some at carpenter's work; some a shoemaking and tailoring; and others at covering demijohns with wicker work.

Children provided the greatest portion of labor for the glasshouses but they were not the only source. In the Friends' Review July 14 1877, an article examined the condition of jails and prisons in Pennsylvania. While prisoners were put to work in some, the trades offered were highly restricted. In Berk Co. only shoemaking and weaving were allowed. Employment was endorsed both as an economic measure but also for its reformatory effects. Lancaster jail, not far from the Lancaster Glassworks, offered a wider variety of trades than was commonly found including: shoes, chair seats, netting buckets, brooms, bags, wicker work to cover demijohns.

In the last half of the 19th century, new ways to craft the wicker covering were patented. Several used solid wood bases and one nailed the base to the rattan or willow wicker. Another patent called for strengthening the handle by a wire, around which wicker was wrapped, attached to the neck and to the shoulder of the bottle. In 1874, a machine was invented by Becker and Volkman of San Francisco which rotated a fixed bottle while feeding interlaces of rattan or wire thread. An oscillating movement forced the rattan over and under the verticals to form a “basket-work covering for bottles, demijohns, crockery-ware, &c. similar to that manufactured at present by hand.”


Patented Demijohn Innovations

 To see if the demijohn was clean on the inside, one 1880s patent proposed separations to be left between the vertical ribs of the covering allowing the user to see inside the bottle. Another clever inventor attached a metal snug fitting structure around the bottle on which was engraving a measuring scale. The wicker was applied in such a way as to leave the scale marking visible so that the user, when pouring a drink, could pour a measured amount. This was aptly named a liquor-gauge.

Swinging demijohns, were designed to let the owner tilt the demijohn without having to life the entire bottle. These interesting contraptions consisted of a means by which the bottle was to be held and an axle or pivot of some sort.

In an account of early American life from the Museum of Foreign Literature, Science and Art, December, 1832 the author describes a sit down dinner with his guests, newly arrive from England: Whiskey was in great abundance, being poured from a huge bottle cased in wicker work, which was brought from the comprehensive cupboard, when the master of the mansion called for the 'Demi John.'

 Numerous references to demijohns being kept in the cupboard were found in the literature. Demijohn were kept around, frequently refilled and even reused for other purposes. An 1856 article on "sugaring off" refers to storing maple molasses in a demijohn. Demijohns were also used for home wine making as suggested in a recipe for Isabell wine in The Farmer & Gardener and Love-Stock Breeder and Manager Dec. 1, 1835. Put the liquor and sugar into your barrels, cask, or demi-john (according to the quantity you make).

Spirit of the Times, June 12, 1852 relates the following tale,

during one of these spells of cold, in December, 1850, I went out for a few days' sport, in the company with six others. We carried along a wagon well loaded with munitions generally, not forgetting a huge demi-john of brandy, and a jug of portentous size filled with a pleasant but rather exciting beverage, which my friends called "the stranger," though I rather think it was whiskey.

Though covered in wicker for protection, transport carried with it the danger of breakage and so numerous bottle holders were invented and used both commercially and in the household. Most often these consisted of a wooden box-like covering to protect the vessel with various lids or methods of obtaining entry. In case pilfering was a problem at along the way or at home, number patents for bottle locking mechanisms were invented.







This tongue in cheek tale appeared in The New York Farmer May 1833.

The Connoisseur, No. 1 by Gusto. Mr. Fleet, I can vouch for the truth of the following anecdotes, which, as they tend to show the infallibility of us denizens, may not be wholly uninteresting to your readers: Many years ago, a merchant of Savannah, in Georgia, had a call for some wine from May-River, South Carolina. The planter had lost most of his crop of cotton by the caterpillar, and told the merchant that he wanted five gallons of Teneriffe wine. He left his demijohn, and departed. Directly came in another planter from the same quarter, with his demijohn: he wanted five gallons of Sherry wine, and departed also. Shortly after these, came in another planter with his demijohn: he wanted five gallons of Madeira wine; left his demijohn and went away. the merchant went to drawing the wine, and filled three demijohn out of the same cask. Be asked if he drew three kinds of wine from one cask, he answered, "huss! huss! mynheer W. I tell you how it is. the first planter was poor, he lose his crop, and wants cheap wine, so I draw Teneriffe, and charge him two dollars. The second planter lose only part of his crop, so I draw and charge him three dollars. The other planter feel rich, he want Madeira wine, so I draw and charge him five dollars. Yours &c. Gusto.

The demijohn was an colorful part of American commercial and social life for well over 150 years. Like many traditions it disappeared in the industrialized way of life and the rise of name brands.


The Story Of The New England Glass Company, Lura Woodside Watkins, Bramhall House, New York, 1930.

Antique Glass Bottles, Willy Van den Bossche Antique Collectors Club Ltd, 2001.

American Bottles and Flasks, McKearin & Wilson’s, Crown Publishers, New York. 1978.