Good Honest Wear Can’t Be Faked

Machine made bottles (left) don’t have the desirability of hand tooled glassware. Man-made items have both character and desirability.

I was walking though our local mall the other day, which is something I do about once or twice a year these days.  Something drew me in to one of those trendy younger generation clothing stores.  One rack had  jeans on display, the kind with artificial holes cut into them to make them look threadbare and worn over time.  And on another rack were stylish but rugged looking long sleeve, sort of sweatshirts, with the word “STAFF” on the backs of some, and “CREW” on some others.

A crankier old man might start in with a lecture about the younger generation having to sort of “fake” being part of a work crew, or having worn roughly enough that they developed holes in their knees.  They’d drag out the ole cliched  “kids these days can’t get off of their cell phones long enough to wear holes in anything but the seats of their pants.”  
I don’t think that way, in fact, I think this generation is exactly as “great” as any generation prior.  I’m not sure I’d want to deal with the choices and distractions they have to deal with. But it got me to thinking about how this generation, like any generation, wants to be part of a “crew”, and is perfectly happy to work hard, if they are inspired, and feel that they are needed, and are integral to some cause.  In fact, they crave it, to the point where it is considered good fashion, to wear worn down clothing, “Staff”  uniforms, and hiking jackets that say “North Face,” even though they’ve never had the thrill of climbing a mountain in their lives.

The reason these meandering thoughts wound up in an antique column, is that all of the characteristics that I listed above, are things  that can only come through time and work, and can not be reproduced.  They can’t be faked. And in the world of antiques – particularly “primitives,”  this concept very often shines through very clearly.

A beautiful handmade quilt may be crafted “perfectly,” with not a single flaw;  but, the same patterned quilt, in well preserved condition, that was sewn in 1820, may be worth thousands.  And this is in part, because it’s texture and the slow fading in the colors made with primitive dyes, can not be exactly reproduced. 

This very desirable old wooden flower box is about 100 years old. The patina of the wood, and the smoothed edges happened over decades of use, and could not be exactly reproduced (though some might try).

In my hobby of antique bottle collecting, this concept may be more true than in just about any field of collecting.  Hand blown medicine bottles have flaws and imperfections that add greatly to their value!  As hard as a 19th Century bottle maker might try, he could not create perfect bottles, much to the benefit of antique bottle collectors today.

These two bottles were made of similarly colored aquamarine glass. But the one on the right was made in about 1850, and has uneven, dripping edges, as the hand tooling method for making bottle lips was quite primitive. The bottle on the left was made in 1890, and the lip making techniques had been more “perfected” so that almost every bottle of this type has a nearly identical lip.  The flaws on the lip of the older bottle add desirability, and yes, value!

Also in the glass making process in general, when glasshouses in America were in their infancy, the molten glass itself was very difficult to handle and mix into a perfectly translucent mixture. Thus, pre-Civil War bottles tended to be made of glass that was filled with small bubbles and impurities.  Sometimes you can even find tiny pebbles, or pieces of random slag within the glass.  To most collectors of early glass, this adds character and desirability.

1920’s machine made soda bottle.

This very old bitters bottle has a sort of “off” color amber, yellow, olive tone. It is also filled with beautiful bubbles, which the bottle maker probably cursed, but is craved by collectors of today. Compared to the 1920’s machine made soda above it, it is easy to see that as manufacturing began, the process was perfected. The greater beauty of the more flawed glass is obvious.

I scuba dive for bottles, and on very rare occasions, I will find a bottle buried in the muck at the bottom, and it will have a bright rainbow patina covering part, or all of it.  This is not to be confused with “mineral stain,” which is a pretty ugly grey haze that permanently damages the appearance of bottles that have been buried for years in certain types of soil.  This rainbow patina I speak of is found on bottles that have been buried for a long time, in wet soil, sometimes polluted with motor oil, or some type of chemical in the mud.  This isn’t exact scientific data, it is based only on my experience, and from conversations I’ve had with other diggers and divers.  The patina on the bottle in the photo below is absolutely stunning to look at, and no matter what, it can not be reproduced.

This shard of an 1850’s medicine bottle (ironically embossed “OLD”), has an amazing and rare rainbow patina. This bottle without the patina would be worth $20 if it were whole. If I was lucky enough to find one whole, with the patina covering the whole bottle, it might bring $200!

Sometimes at an auction of bottles, or wooden primitives, and pottery, you’ll hear the auctioneer say “it looks all good, some nice honest wear on the bottom,” as he flips the item over to examine its subtle features.  I’ve seen people actually with a bright light and loupe, examining the bottom of a piece of pottery, claiming they can tell that a piece is a fake because they can see that the wear on the base has been artificially created.  If an item is genuine, the “wear” under magnification will be formed by scratches that are so random in direction there is no way to reproduce it artificially.  If it is a fake, it will be obvious that the scratching was done all by the same thing (maybe a Brillo pad) and generally at the same time.

I’ve had more than one antiques dealer in the past tell me they needed stepladders – “not new ones, worn down ones, with random paint spatters on them.”


I enjoy talking with young people as they grow and learn the value of hard work and time. There is something innate about antique collecting that can sometime teach this lesson, without slamming you over the head.  So rather than criticize a young person for buying “worn” looking jeans, I just hope that as years go by, they are able to discover the real joy and value that can actually come from decades of hard work–as “imperfect” as it may seem along the way.

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 has just founded an estate liquidation company and auction house, Hepburn and Co. Antiques in Eliot, Maine. You can check out Bram’s website and blog at www.thedowneastdigger.com or you can send an email to him at askus@hepburnandcoantiques.com.
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