While not exactly Indiana Jones pursuing the ark of the covenant, Bill Lindsey—Worthpoint’s expert on antique and collectibles bottles—managed to unearth a rare Old Sachems Bitters and Wigwam Tonic bottle.
There were no more than eight of the moss-green colored glass bottles, which stand just a tad over nine inches high and are valued as high as $10,000, known to exist when a business dealing with a New Englander on another bottle led to the rare tonic bottle emerging from an attic.
“That’s the thing about the bottle market, there are still new discoveries and surprises,” Lindsey said. “Not quite as many as there used to be, but just enough to keep things interesting.”
The tradition of bottle collecting started out West, digging at old mining and logging camps, ghost town and whistle stops. That’s how Lindsey, who lives in Klamath Falls, Ore., started digging for bottles at Pacific Northwest mining and logging sites as a boy. “These were family outings,” Lindsey said.
Starting in the 1950s, the growing popularity of bottle collecting was driven by such “diggers,” and while digging started in the mining camps out west, it soon spread east. “Urban renewal opened a lot of land in big cities like New York and Philadelphia, and people started to hunt,” Lindsey said. “Wherever people lived, you find bottles, and for a long time, bottles were valuable, they were reused, so recycling goes back a long way. It was only after the Civil War that bottles became a common throwaway item.”
The collectible bottle market has focused on the period of blown-glass bottles—stretching in the U.S. from the late 1700s to the early 20th century, Lindsey said. In the 1920s, machine-produced glass containers supplanted hand-blown glass. Although now even some machine-made items like vintage milk and applied color label (aka ACL) soda bottles are seeing a market, Lindsey said.
And what makes a bottle a valuable collectible?
First, it generally can’t be machine made. It has to be hand-blown glass. “If one compares similar bottles made by both methods, one will easily be able to see the difference—the hand-blown example will have more ‘character’ to the glass,” Lindsey advised.
Second, the brighter or odder the color, the greater the chances it is more valuable. “Color is king,” Lindsey said. There are, for instance, the soda bottles of Cottle, Post & Co., a Portland, Ore., beverage maker during the late 1870s. Most of the Cottle soda bottles were made in a blue-green glass that now fetches around $350 a bottle. There were, however, a few bottles blown in amber glass, and those go for about $2,000, Lindsey said.
Third, the odder the shape, the more valuable the bottle will be, both for its oddity and the fact that fewer of these will manage to survive making them rarer. Consider the elegant cathedral or “Gothic” pickle bottles of the mid-19th century. These long and graceful bottles broke easily, and so they are rare and can fetch upward of $40,000 for the extremely rare, deep amber glass examples produced in New England.
Fourth, the bottle’s embossing can add to its value. Embossing took the place of labels early on, Lindsey explained. While many of the bottles sported just the name of the product and the manufacturer, others have embossing and motifs that were artistic, historical or commercial. There are, for example, the “Corn for the World” flasks with a large, heavily embossed ear of corn and the motto “Corn for the World.” These flasks run a few hundred dollars in aqua color, with the much rarer and aesthetic shades of deep green, various blues and blue-greens, and amber examples (someone once said, “Color is king”) being worth up to $4,000 or more.
Corn Front Bottle
A lot of historical details and information can be found on Lindsey’s website and at the Historic Glass and Bottle Identification & Information website, sponsored by the Society for Historic Archaeology and the federal Bureau of Land Management of which Lindsey is creator and author.
Bottle collecting got a big boost in the 1980s when several big auction houses held regular auctions featuring bottles, Lindsey said, and then got another market jolt with the advent of the Internet.
“Everything started to escalate, and in that flush of excitement, everything went,” Lindsey said. The glass bubble has, however, burst, and a little wiser and savvier approach is called for. “Most of the good stuff has been found,” Lindsey said, and then added, “But you know out in Virginia City, Nev., which has been the mecca for Western bottle diggers since the 1950s, they still turn up a good piece now and then.”
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