A bottle is a rigid container characterised by a neck and opening that is narrower than its body. They are traditionally made from impervious materials such as glass, clay, plastic, porcelain and aluminium, and are used to store a range of liquids from water and milk to ink and chemicals. They can be sealed with external caps or internal stoppers such as corks.
Bottles made from clay or even woven and sealed have been created since prehistoric times.
Ancient Phoenicians began creating the first glass bottles around 700 B.C. by wrapping strands of glass around clay moulds.
Since the finished bottles were full of clay, crafters then had to scrape them clean before use. By 100 B.C. the Phoenicians had developed glass blowing, a technique using air blown through a metal pipe. Thanks to this new, cheaper technique, glass production became common among the Romans, who shipped their products as far away as China.
The technique of glassblowing spread throughout Europe with the Romans, but it was a closely guarded secret until the Empire disintegrated.
During the early years of the Renaissance Period the Venetians were considered the most highly-skilled glass blowers, and many of them left Italy to set up glassworks around Europe.
During the 16th century glass blowing became a major industry around Europe, and it is believed that by 1696 there were around 40 glassworks in England producing approximately 3,000,000 bottles per year.
Wine was sold in glass bottles from around 1650. These bottles were produced with moulded lips, round bottoms and rod mark on the base, making them unstable. From around 1700 many wine bottles changed to a more cylindrical shape with necks as long as the body, and from around 1790 the necks were shortened to similar proportions of modern bottles.
By 1887 glass making developed from traditional mouth blowing to a semi-automatic process when the Ashley glass company introduced a machine capable of producing 200 bottles per hour in Castleford, Yorkshire , which was over three times quicker than the previous production methods.
Twenty years later, in 1907, the first fully automated machine was developed in America by Michael Owens from major glass manufacturers Owens of Illinois and used at its factory to produce 2,500 bottles per hour.
Types of Bottle
Bottles have been used to contain all sorts of liquids throughout history, and sometimes, collectors will find themselves particularly fascinated by one of these types in particular.
For example, there is a great community of collectors who hunt down antique milk bottles. Glass milk bottles produced prior to the 1900s were almost always mouth blown, and thus are rare and prized. Even those mass produced in a factory in the early 1900s are of interest to collectors, as at the time, as while hundreds of thousands of various milk bottles, often advertising different brands, were produced, today they are much rarer. As milk packaging has been largely changed to plastic, there is some nostalgia in old glass bottles.
Antique seltzer bottles were designed around the 1890s to hold carbonated water, and maintain the pressure of fizzy drinks to stop them becoming flat. It is common to find antique seltzer bottles in good condition, as they were made of such thick glass to withstand pressurisation that they didn’t often break. Seltzer bottles advertising certain drinks or brands can be rare however.
Breweriana collectors often seek out antique beer bottles for their collection, for example antique Schlitz beer bottles and vintage Anheuser Busch bottles. Breweries in America began bottling beer individually after the Civil War. Beer bottles began to be stamped with the brands they contained in around 1869. Paper labels were introduced in 1903, so embossed glass beer bottles are particular favourites among collectors.
During the Temperance Act of the 1800s, bitters bottles were a clever ploy to disguise alcoholic drinks as medicine. These bottles often feature embossed decorations such as ears of corn, barrels, log cabins or pigs. They come in many colours, and certain colours of bitters bottles are extremely rare and valuable.
Specific drinks bottles that are popular with collectors include fizzy soft drinks and iconic brands like vintage Coca-Cola bottles, whisky bottles such as antique Jim Beam whisky bottles, and bottles which are interesting for their design and marketing success, such as Bols ballerina bottles.
Some designs of bottles revolutionised the soft drink and brewing industries. Codd bottles were one such design, developed by Hiram Codd in 1872. These featured a marble and washer that the pressure of a carbonated drink forced together, sealing the bottle. Despite widespread use for many decades by soft drinks companies and breweries around the world, these are now relatively rare, as children used to smash them to retrieve the marbles. They are popular collectors' items, especially in the UK, and can fetch hundreds or even thousands of pounds at auction.
Other collectors are more interested in bottles that contained other liquids. Antique medicine bottles can date back as far as the apothecaries of medieval times, come in all shapes and colours, that once promised all sorts of unusual and historically fascinating cures – the ‘quack medicines’. Others with a darker impulse may be interested in bottles that were used to contain poison, such as Admiralty poison bottles, used by the British military to store poisonous substances during the 19th and early 20th century. Poison bottles come in striking colours and shapes, such as coffins and skulls. Ink bottles are also popular, and many come shaped like figures or household objects.
Antique snuff bottles are often made of porcelain as well as glass. They originated in China, and antique Chinese examples have a large following of collectors. Often the skilled designers made the porcelain or glass look like precious materials like turquoise, coral, amethyst, agate and jade. Inside-painted snuff bottles are particularly sought after.
Perfume bottles are also popular, often being beautiful works of art created by accomplished designers. Some bottles have the additional interest of being designed by a famous individual or company, for example the stunning glass perfume bottles of Rene Lalique, or bottles produced by an illustrious manufacturer, such as the porcelain scent bottles of Meissen.
Sometimes it is the bottle’s function that is the most fascinating aspect. Thomas Edison Battery Oil bottles are glass bottles, used to contain battery oil produced by the Thomas Edison Manufacturing Company in New Jersey, featuring the company name and details. Critically, these glass bottles were not just used for storage, but in fact functioned as part of a battery on railroads.
Antique bottle collecting is a popular hobby around the world, for both their aesthetic appeal and the historical insights they can often offer. There is a huge variety of types, shapes, sizes, colours and designs of antique bottles that can be found, and a large number of different areas within bottle collecting which collectors may specialise in, such as the types listed above.
Antique mouth blown bottles are rarer and most valuable than mass produced machine made bottles. However, they are not necessarily more collectible.
Collectors may concentrate on bottles produced for a particular product or company, whose bottles from a significant part of their product and advertising history, for example Coca Cola, or Jim Beam.
Often these bottles are collected as part of a larger collection of memorabilia, for example advertising collectibles, breweriana, or petroliana in the case of the short-lived glass motor oil bottles.
Some collectors choose bottles by the colour of their glass or the period they were made in, and others collect those in unusual shapes.
Value in antique bottles varies dependent on rarity, good condition, and interesting shape and colour.
Antique glass bottles are often discovered buried in what were originally Victorian rubbish dumps, or washed up on beaches. Many collectors choose to form a collection this way, as it is part of a larger hobby and community.
If digging doesn’t appeal, bottles can also be found in antique stores, charity shops and car boot sales.
There are a large numbers of collector’s clubs and organisations surrounding the hobby, and several dedicated publications and websites offering advice along with information on specialist dealers. See our list of bottle collectors' clubs and societies to find one that suits you.
- The British Antique Bottle Forum website
- Digging Bottles
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