Antique Bottles - a History of Glass
Within the relatively short span of fifteen years, collecting early American bottles and flasks has grown from a hobby enjoyed by the dedicated few to one followed by people of all ages and pursuits. If any inanimate object can be said to have charisma, it must indeed be the old bottle. Collectors of these desirable pieces of glass currently number well in the hundreds of thousands, with converts to the hobby appearing daily.
The urge or instinct to gather items together runs through all the animal kingdom. Ravens do it; chimpanzees do it; and humans certainly do it. Ask the average collector why he collects what he does, and he will probably say it's because he finds it amusing or interesting -- relaxing or exciting. "But," asks the uninitiated, "why collect such lowly things as bottles made from so common a material as glass?" The answer to this was nicely summed up by the renowned collector of early American glass and historical flasks, Crawford WettJaufer, when he said about his collecting that he sought "the extraordinary in the ordinary." In old glass antique bottles can be found those characteristics which makes them still desirable today.
First, an old bottle has age. Most of the bottles sought today were made before the introduction of the automatic bottle-making machine. Rarity and excellence of condition, attributes important in all realms of collecting, are no less so here. The law of supply and demand decrees that rarity creates desirability and value, as long as the rare bottle is desired by a sufficient number of collectors. And, that number is growing.
Bottles can be found in a myriad of shapes and colors. An old square perfume bottle has nowhere near the appeal of such a bottle in the shape of a child or other figure. Collector interest increases a hundredfold at the chance to possess a historical flask in vibrant blue or claret if that particular flask is usually found in aquamarine.
The more crudely a bottle was made, the greater is its general appeal. A collector of fine porcelains may not understand this. Beauty lies not in any objective quality but in the personal response the quality may evoke. Utilitarian objects made by human hands possess an individuality, an aura, a folk-art quality that machine-made articles cannot match. No two man-made items are exactly alike. A glassblower making the same bottle or object gives it variations each time he makes it -- a little more glass here, a little less there, a sheared lip on one bottle and an applied flange on the next. A crudely made medicine bottle can speak volumes to us collectors, while its perfectly formed machine-made cousin produces only silence.
From words embossed in the glass, we can track down information about a person, a place, or a time. This discovery of historical detail gives collectors a delicious feeling of association with where the bottle might have been and what people were like who used its contents. While it isn't very likely that a calabash bottle with an embossed bust of the famous Swedish singer Jenny Lind was actually used by her, collectors can certainly imagine! We recreate the history of our bottles and vicariously live their life stories.
With information currently available, we know fairly well when any bottle was in production. To examine a fine Lafayette his historical flask and know it was made in 1824-1825, during the general's final visit to America, is to inspire the present and keep young the face of the past. An old medicine bottle tantalizingly embossed "Swift's Syphilitic Specific," or one marked "Dr. Kilmer's Wild Indian Female Cancer Secret," evokes vivid associations of what the time was like when such bottled therapy could be purchased. For some, these are not merely bottles, but symbols of a historic period. There is a degree of romance about a past time of which we were not any part; there is romance in old and antique bottles.
If the characteristics of age, rarity, condition, crudeness, shape, color, and association are important to bottle collectors, what kinds of col1ections are being built today ? Simply accumulating any old bottle that comes along is not truly collecting. According to the dictionary, a collection implies some order, arrangement, or unity of effort. Nothing is really a collection that does not partake of these elements. Many collectors are specializing In one field of the hobby. Some collect only medicine bottles, while others may specialize further and collect a specific kind of medicine bottle, such as those embossed "Balsam", "Cure" or "Bitters." Others seek only beer bottles, or fruit jars, or drugstore bottles. Some limit their collecting to bottles of one color, while still others strive for the best specimens of items in every category. The true collector uses order and reason in assembling his collection to build of its various characteristics or its various valuations -- it is not casual but is made with thought and effort, often in competition with others. Building a distinctive collection is largely a matter of ingenuity, ability, and occasionally luck. It also is a game filled with suspense and adventure, both of which bottle collectors vastly enjoy. Their lives are in many ways actually richer for their collecting.
The American glass industry in the course of its growth was subject to all the ailments that normally afflict infant industries. In addition, it had a number of its own special problems. In the first 130 years of the colonies, only a half dozen attempts to establish glass factories were made, and they all seem to have ended disastrously. Given the temper of the times, this is not at all surprising.
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