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Digging on Antique Bottles: Start a Collection with Glass Ink Pots

by Bram Hepburn (05/08/12).

Three bottles that were found while digging: an unembossed pontiled 12-sided ink bottle in medium green, attributed to the Keene, N.H., Glass Works, circa 1840 (value $150): an aqua pontiled eight-sided Harrison’s Columbian Ink bottle (value $150); and a rare sapphire blue eight-sided pontiled Harrison’s Columbian Ink bottle with lip repair (value $1,000 as is).

Many advanced collectors of early American glass bottles will tell you the category they first started collecting was ink bottles. Their diminutive size and alluring colors and shapes catch the eye of anyone with an appreciation for detail and a fascination with the early glass-blowing trade as it developed on this continent.

For a beginning collector, or an interior decorator in search of vintage accents for old cupboards and desks, a 120-year-old ink bottle will often fit the bill and is very affordable. For a few dollars, you have an authentic glass container that was used every day by someone with a quill pen, sitting at a desk, filling out bills or invoices, or carefully writing a letter by hand in cursive (which is becoming a lost art).

I have been a bottle “digger” in New England for 30-plus years, digging in the forest, in foundations, in old outhouse pits and even under water with the help of SCUBA equipment. If I didn’t have other responsibilities, this is probably all I would do; it is simply that much fun. Compulsive bottle hunting doesn’t lend well to raising a family and paying bills, however, as the following story attests:

One chilly spring day several years ago, that compulsion to find new old bottles was filling my mind as I drove down the main street of our town. In the back seats of my minivan were my two toddler daughters.

Right on the main drag, I noticed some renovations being done on a large colonial house. But what really caught my eye, was a pile of dirty black bricks that had been dug out of the basement and dumped, along with some other construction trash, next to the side walk for disposal. This simply needed to be investigated.

Two New England Geometric ink bottles, circa 1820-40s, like the one I found in the brick pile. The one on the left is a G III-29, which has a value of $150-$250. The one on the right is a G II-18F, which is worth $350-$450.

I parked up the road a bit, put my daughters into the double stroller and rolling and banging the stroller across the potholed sidewalk, over some curbing, and towards my target.When I got to the brick pile, and could see the bricks were ancient and covered with decades of chimney soot. My eye caught a black, disk-shape object in amongst the rubble and I knew instantly what it was.

“Look!” I said to my little toddlers. “There’s a bottom of a pontiled geometric ink bottle in that brick pile there! Man, I wonder how many other bottles they smashed while digging out that basement.”

I left them briefly in the stroller on the sidewalk and mucked through the mud a few steps to gather the shard. But it wasn’t a shard; it had somehow survived while being dumped along with the bricks! The bricks were so sooty, and there was so much ash and dirt that must have cushioned the fall—to this day still I don’t know how it survived—but there it was, flawless, without a chip on it.

I grabbed it and ran back to the stroller, yelling to the girls about what I had found. I showed it to them both while hooting and hollering and shaking the bouncy stroller in celebration.

My older daughter laughed at the strange way I was acting, my younger daughter, who had been sleeping, cried in horror (they are now accustomed to this behavior).

Upon further inspection, I held a geometric ink bottle. It was a round, disk-shaped bottle with embossed patterns in squares, diamonds and triangles over its entire surface, except the base, which has a round, usually sharp pontil scar at its center.

Three ink bottles in common forms of the day were the cone, umbrella and round or barrel form. These examples are hand-finished, blown inmold, circa 1870-90, aqua glass, and generally sell for about $5-$20

These bottles were blown into a three-part mold, and had a uniquely wide, flared lip, which was lifted up as it was blown, and then pressed back down onto the top of the bottle, basically eliminating the neck of the bottle, producing an almost hockey-puck shaped bottle, with a hole in the top for dipping the quill.

Any geometric ink bottle is a great find, with a value spectrum varying, depending mostly on two things—mold rarity and color. The two I have pictured here (middle photo) are from one of the most common mold patterns and in the most common colors, olive amber. There are several dozen different mold variants of New England geometric ink bottles, with the rarest obviously being the most valuable. The effect of the colors of these bottles on their value is less obvious, ascending in value from dense olive amber, to medium olive amber, to pure olive green, to light olive or light amber, to the rare clear flint glass, to the most rare and gorgeous sapphire blue or cobalt blue (made at Sandwich Glass Works), which can be worth more than $10,000, depending on the mold variant.

I was more than happy to find the “common” geometric ink bottle, considering the circumstances.

Part of the appeal of antique ink bottles is that with their small and consistent size, a collector can display 100 beautiful colored bottles in a shelved bay window, creating a colorful spectacle that you can just sit back and watch as the sun sets behind it. The idea that such beautiful pieces of glass were discarded when they were empty is hard to believe when you hold one in your hand.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure is an old cliché, but couldn’t be more precise in this case. Each of the bottles pictured in this article was dug in New England, and while bottle-digging sites are harder to find today, there are still many more to be discovered.

Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He lives in Eliot, Maine.

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12 Responses to “Digging on Antique Bottles: Start a Collection with Glass Ink Pots”

  1. What a great article! I love when collectors have such a passion.

    I have put my son through similar situations as the toddlers with estate sales… “just a few more stops” I would say as the day dragged on.

    I always thought bottle digging (which I had done in my teen years), was one of the true to life treasure hunts you could do in New England. I used to go with a clam rake, and look in the woods for signs of a dump.. probably ruined a few pieces, but found what I thought were treasures.

    I hope to see more articles by you Bram, this was informative and very fun to read.

    Martin Willis

  2. Rob Keys says:

    Very enjoyable article. As the owner of a few inks I appreciated the allure of these passports to the past in the same way as Mr. Hepburn, but I especially loved the image of the digger racing back to two startled toddlers with “the find”. Would love to here more of this style article. I suspect the author is as good a writer as he is a bottle collector.

  3. RICK Weiner says:

    Nice write up Bram.I never heard them called “Ink Pots” that has to be an English term.

    Check out my latest story from “Western & Eastern Treasure”

    “privy Paradise”

    http://19thcenturybottlediggers.com/

  4. Kevin Becker says:

    I enjoyed this article. It was educational, but also fun to read. Great photos, too. Now I’ll look at old bottles differently, and I’ll think about how they were used in their original life. Hey, that’s pretty neat, that you SCUBA dive for bottles!

    I hope you write more articles in the future.

    • Paul McClure says:

      Loved this article. I have also dug some inks and this really describes the feeling of finding a bottle. Also, your valuation of the inkwells is spot on. Thanks for an intelligent write up.

  5. Dale Lewis says:

    Great article, Bram; fun and also informative. Good idea to direct beginner collectors towards inks as they are plentiful, usually fairly reasonably priced and have very obvious historical connections. Hope to see more such articles.

  6. Matt Cox says:

    Nicely done Bram,

    I too started collecting Inks. The first bottle I ever recovered while diving was a clear 8 sided umbrella with the ink and cork still in place, 30′ down on the bottom of a NH lake in 1988. I have been recovering great old glass from underwater locations ever since.
    I like the photo sets use chose as they cover the range and styles of Inks available today to the starting and advanced collector/digger.

    Please continue to write for this company as I have used them in the past for value estimates on my recoveries and I know first hand your extensive knowledge of New England Glass.

  7. Very interesting article! I enjoyed reading it over my lunch break. I loved the storyteller approach to the article while incorporating some interesting facts about bottles I never knew! I will definitely look for more entries from this author.

  8. Great article Bram….Makes me want to get out and dig! Keep up the great writing and digging too.

  9. Rick Price says:

    Great write up Bram ! When you described the geometric ink find ,seemed like i was there .Very informative and great pictures ! Hope to see many more soon !Thanks

  10. Kristen Cart says:

    I was one of those little kids along for the bottle digging ride. Our main sites were Cudahy in Utah, between two rail lines, and Park City Utah at the old dump. But there were others. I remember the excitement of every new find, and that’s where I got my start in marble collecting–something to hold my interest while Mom and Dad pursued theirs. There were a few insulator hunts along railroad tracks with my grandmother, too. This article sure takes me back! Thank you.

  11. Hugo Moraga says:

    About 20 years ago, on a trip to northern Chile, I bought a beautiful antique colored water fountain. Then I found a pair of brown earthenware, and so over the years I have managed to collect about 90 different colors and shapes.
    The article, very good, I understand the thrill of finding treasures, I’ve lived it every time I can add a new item to the collection. In my house I have put my inkwells in a window, protected by a glass and a taillight on a ledge that has seven windows, the light through the inkwells is best.
    Thanks for presenting the story.

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