Early American Bottles’ Pontils Tell Where and When they were Made
This is the classic pontil mark you will find on a typical blown medicine bottle from the 1860s. It is referred to as a a ring pontil and increases the value of this bottle by 10 times.
Collectors of early American bottles will all tell you that there is a clear line of delineation set during the 19th century that separate the men from the boys in terms of value and desirability of the bottles we collect. That line occurred during the early 1860s, when the use of a pontil rod—or punty—was retired and other, more efficient methods began being employed.
The pontil rod was applied to the base of the bottle during the blowing of both free-blown bottles and bottles blown into a snap-case mold. As the bottle cooled, it had to be separated from the pontil rod. It was broken off with a little “tap” onto the glassblower’s work bench, leaving a scar on the base of the bottle. This scar is the mark that means everything to a bottle collector. As strange as it sounds, it is a bit like a navel on a newborn baby, where, depending on a minor procedural anomaly at the moment of birth, it can leave an “innie” or “outie,” which stays with the baby for its whole life.
Similarly, a pontil mark on a bottle happens at its “birth” and, depending on whether a pontil rod was used and what type of tip was used at the end of the pontil rod, the scar left gives information and important clues about the age of the bottle and its place of manufacture. And so it is that in bottle collecting, like many hobbies, we have terms and nomenclature that vary from region to region and decade by decade as the hobby evolves. Therefore, the terms for different types of pontil marks are still somewhat loosely defined.
Some pontil rods had an open tube at the end of the tip, leaving a nice, sharp, round pontil, called an “open pontil” or “tube pontil,” which is very desirable to a collector, as it is generally found on the earliest and crudest American bottles.
These open pontil bases can be so crudely made that the jagged pontil actually keeps the bottle from standing properly! This happens occasionally with historical flasks made here in New England. Flasks at the time were often encased in leather and carried in a man’s vest pocket, so that the uneven base became irrelevant.
But over a period of just a few years—during the 1860s—the pontil bases were improved, leaving a thin, sometimes hard-to-detect ring (a “ring pontil”). Sometimes a thin ring pontil can be hard to detect, even for an advanced collector, and a bottle may be overlooked until someone points out the pontil mark, then everyone jumps to purchase it.
This is rough, open pontil or “tube” pontil, which was snapped off crookedly, leaving a jagged edge. The sharper and cruder the pontil, the more desirable.
This is an iron pontil mark. You can easily see where the iron ball was used to attach to the bottom of the bottle while the glass blower worked on the top half of the bottle.
An iron pontil base is one where an iron ball was used at the tip of the pontil rod. This leaves a scratchy dome mark on the base, which is hard for a new collector to discern from a smooth (non pontiled) dome on the base, which is part of the bottle mold itself. A faint iron pontil mark can sometimes require a light and jeweler’s loop to examine to tell for sure. Iron pontils were used most frequently on larger bottles, with the iron pontil mark itself usually being between the size of a quarter and silver dollar. The term “graphite pontil” is used to describe an iron pontil with an unusual amount of residue, usually a rust or reddish color left on the pontil mark itself. This was left by the graphite from the iron ball pontil during manufacture.
As a general rule, the rougher the pontil mark, the better. It is amusing to watch a bunch of grown men gathered around a dealer’s table lusting after a newly discovered rare 19th-century medicine bottle and then, as they turn it over and look at the base to find a jagged pontil scar, they all moan out loud: “Oh, look at the pontil on this thing, will you?” They’ll rub their thumb along it to feel it’s sharp edge if an open pontil, or it’s roughness, if it’s an iron pontil. If you’re one of the collectors in the group, you totally get where they’re coming from. If you’re a non-collector, say, one of my family members, it can be a bizarre and funny spectacle.
By the 1870s, most bottles blown in the United States had eliminated the use of the pontil rod, as more efficient ways of handling the bottle-blowing process were employed. These methods left a “smooth base.” There are many very valuable smooth-based bottles, but as you work backwards, the pontil mark line of delineation leads you to a place where almost any bottle you have is a good one.
Reproduction bottles and art glass items may have pontiled bases, and these kind of muddy the waters a bit, in terms of having a pontil mark as the consistent identifying mark of age and value. This is where experience is irreplaceable, and you can only learn so much of it from quickly reading up on the subject.
This is a graphite pontil, similar to the iron pontil, but showing the telltale red color of graphite at the point of contact. These are found on only specific bottles from specific glass houses and add value to the bottle. The redder the better.
This is an early bottle, but it is not a pontiled bottle. You can see the “hinge mold” line across the base of the bottle, as well as an indented dome, which is part of the bottle mold itself, not a contact point from a pontil rod or iron pontil ball end. If this dome had scratchy rings inside it—which you’d have to use your fingernail to detect—then it would be an iron pontil base and would be much more desirable.
Most hand-blown reproduction bottles can be quickly dismissed by an experience collector at quick glance, just by being aware of what bottles might be being reproduced at present. If it is one that the collector hasn’t seen before, he’ll look at the texture of the glass and the “feel” of the pontil, as which point one might hear the phrase “it just doesn’t look right.”
Art glass is a separate field from bottle collecting, and the pontil has a much different standing. Pontiled art glass pieces are made around the world today, using techniques similar to those used around the world for the past millennium. The pontil marks discussed in this article refer to pontils on bottles in the United States in the 19th century, which were utilitarian in nature, and manufactured for proprietors to sell medicines, foods and other everyday products.
If you’re not a serious collector, it may be hard to understand why anyone would get so worked up over such a little detail on the underside of an old bottle. Well, let’s put it this way: if you have a box of bottles in your basement that have that insignificant little mark on their bases, I know someone who’d be happy to take them off your hands!
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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