From liquor, beer, and wine, to soda and medicinal bottles, there are many different sizes and shapes for collectors to collect. Physical characteristics such as embossed lettering, shape, and color accounts for much of a bottle’s popularity and value. A bottle’s age, provenance, and overall condition also impacts a bottle’s collectible appeal. For the novice collector to the pro, we’ve put together a few tips to help guide your adventures in bottle collecting.
Determining a Bottle’s Age
Although not a precise science, there’s a combination of ways a collector can determine (or get close to determining) a bottle’s age. Age can be approximated by examining such characteristics as mold seams, base types, finish types, and closures (the way the bottle was sealed).
Mold Seams: If seams are not present and the bottle has an uneven shape, it may have been mouth-blown, indicative of a bottle produced prior to 1860. If the bottle’s shape is symmetrical, the bottle may have been created in a mold that was spun or turned to smooth out the seams, commonplace between 1900 and 1920.
Base Types: The base of the bottle can also shed light on its age. For example, most bottles produced prior to the 1850’s will have a “pontil” mark on the base. During the manufacturing process, a pontil rod was used to hold the hot glass while the bottle was being created. When the rod was broken from the bottle, it left a pontil mark (or scar), in the base of the bottle. After 1855, a “snap case tool” was invented that allowed bottle makers to gently hold the bottle during the manufacturing process – eliminating pontil marks altogether.
Finish Types & Closures: Used to describe the last step in creating a mouth-blown bottle, the phrase “finish the lip” was when the bottle maker applied the top; or the “lip”, to the bottle. Even though the creation of modern bottles starts with the lip, the term “finish” still applies.
A “closure” is the object that works in combination with the finish (or the lip) to seal the contents of the bottle. For example, the most common closures used during the mouth-blown era were corks. Both finishing methods and closure types can be helpful in determining the age of the bottle and what it was used for.
To explore the dating process further (which can be rather intense), check out thisguide. We’ve also provided additional sources of information at the conclusion of this article.
Simply put, bottle collectors are fascinated with color. Hence, color plays a key role in a bottle’s overall appeal and value. In its simplest form, glass is just lime, silica, and soda ash. Color is created when additional materials are added to the mix. For example, when iron is added to the mix (iron oxide found in sand), a green bottle is often the byproduct.
Naturally, rare and unusual colors are the most sought after, and garner the highest prices. Generally speaking, colors such as Yellow, Yellow Green, Cobalt, and Purple are in high demand. Commonly available, Aqua and Clear shaded bottles typically fetch much lower prices.
The rules of bottle collecting aren’t much different than other genres of collecting – condition matters! Collectors want their bottles to be as close to the original condition as possible. Chips, cracks, stains and clarity oftentimes negatively impact the value of a bottle.
Many times, bottles are found buried in dumps or privies (more on this in a minute) and will be stained. The bottle’s value and collectible appeal can be salvaged by having the bottle cleaned. If you come across a bottle for sale that is described as being “tumbled” or “polished”, the bottle has been professionally cleaned or restored.
Surprisingly, finding a bottle with its original contents doesn’t necessarily add to its value. Most collectors want to see the color and embossing of the bottle, whereas a “full” bottle will often hide such characteristics.
“Typing” a bottle is simply determining what the bottle was used for; what it contained. Much like bottle dating, “typing” is not foolproof. Many bottles may have been made for one thing; but then recycled, and used for something else completely different.
Categories of bottle types vary from liquor/spirits, wine and champagne, beer and ale, soda and mineral, to medicinal/chemical/druggist, food and canning, and household bottles.
Typically, a simple bottle with little to no design is of much less value than an oddly shaped bottle or one that has embossing. Embossed bottles are usually highly sought after for the aesthetic appeal and ability to “type” the bottle. Old mouth-blown bottles are usually imperfect, having little uniformity, air bubbles, and other crude imperfections. Such “flawed” bottles are generally in demand because of their uniqueness.
Where to Find Bottles
Instead of focusing on the places to purchase bottles, I thought it would be neat to discuss where to find old bottles – after all, have you ever wondered where those bottles came from that you see on eBay?
Bottles are most commonly unearthed in one of two places; outhouse holes and trash pits. Before water systems were installed in the late 1800’s, people would simply use their outhouse for all means of “disposal.” Besides the obvious, they would also use the outhouse to dispose of their everyday trash. When the hole was full, they would simply dig another pit next to it and move the outhouse over!
Coca-Cola (Circa 1942) bottle dug by the author in a trash pit.
Much like outhouses, trash pits were located far away from the primary living quarters. People would typically position them in the back corner of their lots. Armed with Sanborn insurance maps, bottle hunters or “diggers” will use the maps to locate places to dig within a city. Using the to-scale maps, diggers will identify property lines and then probe the back perimeter of the lines looking for soft spots where an outhouse or trash pit may be located.
Most outhouse holes were lined with brick or stone, so bottle hunters will simply dig down inside the walls, carefully sifting through the dirt to find glass and metal objects that remain. All of the other “stuff” has vanished after 100-to-200 years in the ground!
By no means do we consider this information as a definitive guide to bottle collecting. In fact, it’s not even close to being that! For in-depth, expert guides and information, we suggest the following resources.