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Read Those Lips… There’s Treasure in Your Back Yard!

by Bram Hepburn (09/17/12).

The earliest 18th-century American-made bottles were free blown, and had crude and often misshapen lips. They are hard to know if they were made in the Colonies or imported from Europe because the techniques and glass colors were very similar at first.

Almost any time I mention to someone that I dig for antique bottles, the first words out of their mouths is something along the lines of: “… you’re kidding! Well, as a matter of fact, one time we were digging a hole for a new water pipe behind our house and the back hoe started pulling up all these old bottles. We didn’t think much of it; we didn’t know they could actually be valuable! We just let them haul them all away in their dump truck. Wish we had known.”

Then they ask how to tell if a bottle is really old, and I try to give them a crash-course in dating old bottles or even bottle fragments they may come across. If the house was built before 1870 or so, there is almost assuredly at least one, and more likely many, old whole glass bottles either buried deep in the bottoms of what was 150 years ago an outhouse pit, a well or maybe a trash pit at the back corner of their yard. There can also be random dropped or tossed single bottles that were just “early American litter” that got covered by falling leaves one autumn and then the falling leaves and dust of the next 150 years, which left it protected in its natural cocoon, in the exact same condition it was when it was inadvertently left there.

When you dig and handle antique bottles for a few decades, you can’t help but develop an eye for old glass, and the ability to instantly identify even a small shard of glass as something common, and not so old, from something very special, hand-crafted by the earliest glass blowers in America.

These aqua-colored “flared” lips from the early 19th century rarely survive excavation in perfect condition, never mind the entire bottle. They were often chipped by the original user of the product when they pried open the cork. These were early medicinal bottles and vials.

These cork-topped bottles were manufactured prior to 1875 or thereabouts. If you look closely, you can see that the collar-style lip was applied as a separate piece of glass.

Here in New England, some of the pioneers of utilitarian glass blowers were found in the towns of Stoddard and Keene, N.H., Coventry, Conn., and Sandwich, Mass. The rudimentary glass houses in these and other towns consisted of small log-built buildings with a furnace or kiln of some sort, and a source of water. If you find an old photo or sketch of these humble workshops, you’ll see scruffy men with dirty faces in ragged work clothes, with a couple of horses “parked” outside. They could not have thought, their wildest dreams, I’m sure, just how valuable and desired the simple wares they crafted each day would someday be. Like many people, I suppose, they were creating a long-lasting legacy just by what they did in their daily works. And they never even knew it.

A few of the early bottles they crafted are among the Holy Grail of antique bottle collectors. Even a tiny edge piece of one of these bottles has value to an avid collector. Not to say that you can generally go out and sell broken bottle pieces to anyone, but as a hobby, bottle collectors love to sit and sift through a box of old shards. They’ll go through each one, even tiny ones, and be able to name the bottle, its age, where it was made, what it contained, and its value on today’s market.

These colorful bottles would have dated to after 1875 or so, up to about 1900, which is when bottles began to be machine made. These have hand “tooled” lips, where they didn’t use a separate piece of glass to form the lip, but instead tooled the top of the bottle.

These lips were blown at early New England glass houses, based on the color of the glass, the texture of the glass and the style of lip finish. For diggers of New England bottles, they represent the Holy Grail of dug treasures!

From the earliest free-blown American bottles of the late 18th century to the machine-made bottles that began to be produced after the Industrial Revolution, the manner in which the bottles lip was made give us urban archeologists a pretty clear timeline to go by. A bottle collector can identify a bottle using even a small broken piece of the lip, the way a “normal” person can identify their favorite candy bar by even a little piece of the corner of its colored wrapper.

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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10 Responses to “Read Those Lips… There’s Treasure in Your Back Yard!”

  1. John Garrett says:

    I live on a farm north of Belleville, Ontario, Canada and found the top of an old bottle.
    I was surprised that the glass is pink – not too macho for farmers of the past.
    How can I find out what it is worth?

    • Bram Hepburn Bram Hepburn says:

      Well, it’s hard to tell for sure without looking at it, but it could be one of two things. If it is a light purple hue, rather than bright pink, it could be that the Manganese in the glass turned the glass purplish pink due to the exposure to years of laying in the sun. This would date your bottle to the 1890s, no later than WWI, when they had to stop using Manganese in the glass due to the war effort. This is a common way to assist in dating a digging site for a bottle digger. Now if the bottle shard is bright pink, you are right, was not something the macho farmer was using, but more likely the lady of the house. A bright pink bottle, if it is an old bottle, would have been either a perfume, or a hair product. Either way, if it was old, I’ll bet if the bottle came out whole, it would have been a nice one! Why couldn’t our forefathers have been more careful when they tossed out their trash?

  2. Marissa Miller says:

    25 years ago I lived in Colorado & worked with a bottle collector. To locate good digging spots, he’d hang out at the post office in some small town, spot an old geezer on his way out & ask where the old town dump was located. My friend found some of his best specimens & learned a lot of local history along the way too!

    • Bram Hepburn Bram Hepburn says:

      Thats great! Don’t know if it would work today, might look sketchy hanging out in front of the post office. Still, for a good digging site, I’ve been known to try some stranger ideas :]

  3. Connie Williams says:

    When digging in my backyard in southwest michigan I found a large glass stone like piece, the color is similar to aquamarine, you can see through it and its craggy. can you tell me what it is?

    • Bram Hepburn Bram Hepburn says:

      Hmm, hard to tell without a photo. Off the top, it sounds like a piece of glass slag, like a bottle that was incinerated and got melted down. Or maybe a broken piece of an telegraph insulator, they have incredibly thick glass.

      • Connie Williams says:

        It has jagged edges like a rock would have but I will send you a photo. It doesn’t look like it was broken off from anything.

  4. Do you have any advice to lend an amateur about cleaning dug bottles? I have seen them being sold in perfectly clear, clean state but I have a terrible time just getting the dirt out of them.

    • Connie Williams says:

      I let mine soak in a solution of clorox and dawn dish soap.it takes a few days but they come out clean…make sure you fill the bottle to the rim or there’ll be a ring left.

  5. Bram Hepburn Bram Hepburn says:

    There is a greyish haze that bottle pick up from being buried, and that haze doesn’t come off with ANYTHING. They would need to be professionally cleaned, or “tumbled”, the same way a precious stone would be tumbled. As for getting off dirt and rust from the inside of the bottle, I use copper pellets or lead shot, filling the bottle with about an inch of it, then adding a little dish soap and water, then shaking it for 5 or 10 minutes while you watch TV or something. That will get if sparkling clean, if it doesn’t have the above mentioned “haze”. Good luck, and thanks for your comment!

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