Beauty in a bottle

What’s so fascinating about old bottles? Roxan Kinas explains the charms of these fragile artifacts

  • From the early 1600s to the 19th century, wine, spirits and utility bottles evolved continually and subtly. Front row from left: English “pancake”-style “onion”, 1680–1700; Dutch “onion”, 1700–1740. Second row: transitional “mallet”, 1740–1760; early squat cylinder, 1750–1760. Third row: a more developed squat cylinder, 1780–1800; cylinder bottle, post-1800. Photograph by Eric Young
  • This mid-1800s “cathedral” sauce bottle has a sloppily applied lip, neck striations and bubbles — all flaws that appeal to collectors — and clearly shows off the “panes” that give this type its name. Photograph by Eric Young
  • Close-up view of the “Burgerspital Würzburg“ wine bottle seal. The flying pigeon crest symbolises the Holy Ghost. The hospital sold wine from its own vineyards to finance the care of its elderly patients. Photograph by Eric Young
  • Aerated mineral water and other drinks were all the rage in the early 1800s, due to the purported healing properties of spa waters from Germany, England and other countries. Soon a process was invented  for artificial aeration and businessmen like Joseph Schweppe seized the opportunity to mass-produce seltzer and soda water. Front row from left: round-bottomed “hamilton” aerated water bottle; pontilled flare-lip utility bottle; early torpedo-style “hamilton”. Second row: pickle or caper bottle, interesting for its decorative ribbing and embossing; three-piece-mold bent-neck pygmy beer bottle, mid-1800s; cathedral-style sauce bottle, named for its “cathedral window” panes; embossed “Da Costa & Co., Barbados” codd bottle. Back row: French black glass truffle bottle, 1860s; unusual small teal-coloured root beer codd with a matching teal marble in the pinch. Photograph by Eric Young
  • Three-inch-tall triangle cobalt medicine bottle, embossed "McCormick and Co.", with a bee in the centre of the insignia. Photograph by Eric Young
  • An interesting mid-1800s green pickle or caper bottle, embossed "Gillard & Co. Ltd/ London". Photograph by Eric Young
  • By the late Victorian era many bottles were machine-produced, with the neck and lip still applied by hand. Bottle-makers sought to produce eye-grabbing colours, shapes and heavy embossing. Top left: three cobalt blue poison bottles and a tiny green pharmacy bottle. Top right: amethyst liniment bottle; green poison bottle; glass-stoppered cut crystal bottle, probably for cologne or toilet water. Bottom left: brown pharmacy bottle with glass stopper; “blob” mineral water bottle, embossed “Norrish & Co., London”. Bottom right: Cobalt blue medicine bottle with its own dose cap; small green concave-sided condiment bottle. Centre: a rare turn-of-the-century 12-inch embossed Schweppes soda bottle. This short-lived shape did not find favour with patrons, due to its tendency to slip from sweaty hands! Photograph by Eric Young
  • Case gin bottles originated in the Netherlands around the 1720s. The sides were tapered to keep them from sticking when removed from their cases. From left: an unusually narrow case gin bottle, post-1860; mini case gin, c1880; free-blown “pig snout” bottle with seal, late 1700s; mini case gin with seal, c 1800; high-neck pontilled case gin, 1800. Photograph by Eric Young
  • Red-amber flat-sided German wine bottle, c1860s, with a seal reading “Burgerspital Würzburg” (“Civil Hospital of Würzburg”).  Photograph by Eric Young
  • Mid-1800s French bottle from the Champagne house Möet of Rheims. Unusual for its ruby tinge, which some experts speculate was achieved by tossing gold coins into the molten glass. Photograph by Eric Young
  • Marie Brizzard & Roger liquor merchants’ seal on an 1870s wine bottle, with an elegant “MB & R” logo. Photograph by Eric Young
  • Bottle collectors often date their finds by comparing the applied seals on bottles of similar shape. Lying down at front: early 1800s pontilled “zara” wine bottle, from a region now part of Italy. Front row from left: one of the earliest known seal bottles found in Barbados waters, 1700s; two small aqua olive oil bottles; German liquor bottle with an elephant seal, late 1800s. Back row: wine bottle with “Marie Brizzard & Roger” seal, 1870s; bell-bottomed olive oil bottle, c1850; flat-sided German wine bottle; “captain’s” wine bottle with “Bourneramp AE” seal; French Pernod Fils wine bottle, mid-1800s. Photograph by Eric Young
  • Black glass wine and utility bottles dominated the 1700s, though some houses devised recipes for new colours. These specimens come from Guyana. Front row from left: Dutch mini “lady’s leg”, also called a “long neck”; small Belgian thin-walled flask, c1700; Dutch utility bottle, also called a “snuff”, late 1700s. Back row: two standard Dutch “lady‘s legs”. Photograph by Eric Young
  • Bottles aren't often found just lying on the ocean floor — divers need sharp eyes and a instinct for discovery. This early 1800s wine bottle was found by veteran diver “Ram” Edghill when he noticed an odd coral formation. Thinking it might be a conch, because of its humped shape, he dove down to investigate and turned the “conch” over to reveal the bottle embedded in the coral. Photograph by Eric Young

From the bottom of the ocean all the way to the moon, the human race has left a trail of rubbish behind it. But man’s dribble of debris is not all bad, because it tells us a story, and centuries of dumped objects, such as old glass bottles, tell us something about where we’ve been.

Here in the Caribbean, historians and aficionados can retrace our history through the evolution of the bottles they find lying alongside other artifacts, near sunken wrecks, in harbours, old dumps, river bottoms and long-abandoned settlements. After four centuries of explorers, military armadas and pirates prowling these waters, it’s no surprise the region is awash in old bottle specimens.

But what’s the big deal with bottles anyway? Collectors will quickly tell you that their inherent crude beauty, their decorative shapes and colours, their historic value, and, of course, the thrill of the find, make bottle collecting a surprisingly appealing hobby.

The Caribbean attracted numerous French, Dutch, Spanish and English ships, says master diver R.A.M. Edghill (everybody calls him “Ram”), “so there’s a wide variety of old bottles around most islands.” Barbados has long been a major attraction for bottle divers, because it was a bustling trade centre. What with sunken ships and tossed garbage, Carlisle Bay, the island’s harbour of old, was once littered with bottles just waiting to be found. These days, the 45-year veteran diver says, “Most shallow bottles are gone — you have to dive deeper.” Ram says the Bahamas and St Vincent are good sites as well, but “anywhere an island had a harbour, you will find bottles.” Also, pirates were a constant threat; many ships, using heavier bottles for ballast as well as cargo, sank when attacked and overpowered.

In the shallows of Barbados, the more commonly found bottles are oddly shaped aerated-drinks bottles from the 1800s, “hamiltons”, “codds” and “torpedoes”. “There’s a lot of ‘ports’ (squat cylinders) here, too,” Ram says, “but not many in other islands.”

Guyana is another bottle-hunter’s dream, with its rich variety of Dutch and English bottles from the 17th and 18th centuries. Though it’s difficult to reach the river-dredging sites in the interior where bottles are recovered, it’s easy to find “bottle men” in Georgetown hawking these treasures of old.

Harder-to-find bottles include free-blown 1700s black glass “ladies legs” (long necks) and “utilities”, ceramics, squat cylinders, and, of course, “onions”. Bottles with applied seals are very rare and highly prized.

Collectors can branch off into dozens of specialty areas, ranging from early black glass and seal bottles to the varied aerated-drinks bottles and decorative “poisons” with their bright colours and dense ribbing, intended to caution people that the bottle contained something toxic. And you don’t have to be a diver to find interesting specimens. Wherever there’s an old settlement or dump, bottles are certain to be nearby.

If you’re not inclined to digging either, bottles are readily found in antique and second-hand shops, and even on the Internet, from online dealers. In these situations, know your particular specialty well, because an entire industry of fakes, reproductions and commemoratives abounds.

Thanks to Willie Van Den Bossche, author of Antique Glass Bottles, Their History and Evolution, 1500–1850, who was of invaluable assistance in the dating of some of these featured bottles. Thanks also to R.A.M. Edghill and Annette Edghill, for contributions from their private collection.

The history of glass bottles

First hand-blown by the ancient Egyptians and Romans, glass vessels became scarce after the fall of Rome. The art of glass-blowing reappeared in the mid-1500s, producing tiny apothecary and utility bottles. Glass was the material of the elite until the mid-17th century, when it quickly overtook pottery and stoneware. The French and Dutch succeeded at hand-blowing larger and more durable onion-shaped bottles for wines and spirits, and some time around 1600 that skill crossed to England. A rugged green utility vessel required far more skill to blow than a little medicinal, with its rough, sheared-off lip. Now glassblowers had to hand-apply a lip and attach it to the bottle to render a better finish. That meant new tools and methods — and secret formulas. Into the 19th century, glasshouses operated in isolation, each closely guarding its secret recipes and techniques. This is part of what makes bottle dating a challenge. One glasshouse could easily have been years ahead of its neighbours, technique-wise. Quality, craftsmanship and style varied from country to country, with the Dutch and the English eventually dominating. But Germany, France, Hungary, the Far East and other regions were also busy at their bottle-making.