Early American “chestnut flasks” – ca. 1770s to 1830s

Grouping of different size and color American
New England

One of the earliest types of American made bottles used for liquor are known generically as “chestnut flasks”; they are also sometimes called “New England chestnut flasks” by collectors.  These type of bottles or flasks (hard to say which is more accurate, but I will call them flasks) were made in many sizes from a few inches tall to several gallons in capacity.

The chestnut flask shown in image #2 is a typical early American example that was most likely produced by a New England or possibly New Jersey glasshouse between 1790 and 1820s – the heyday for this style.  It is about 8″ tall, free-blown (that is, blown without the aid of a full body mold), has a blowpipe type pontil scar within a pushed up base, a crudely applied one-part lip (or “finish” in glassmaker parlance), and is medium olive green in color.  Click on the following links to view more pictures of this chestnut flask: side view; base view showing the blowpipe pontil scar.

Chestnut style flasks were almost certainly produced by most of the earliest viable American glasshouses and date as far back as the 1770s up through the 1830s.  The smallest (5″ or less) ones may have been primarily used for medicines, but medium and larger sizes were very commonly used for beverages including wine and various spirits.  Although often referred to as New England chestnut flasks, they were undoubtedly made by many different glasshouses up and down the Eastern Seaboard as it was a popular style during the noted era (McKearin & Wilson 1978).

Chestnut flasks are typically oval to a flattened oval in cross-section with an overall squatty “teardrop” shape when viewed straight on.  These flasks are free-blown typically (and thus have no mold seams in evidence) with glass tipped or blow-pipe pontil scars.  Because they are free-blown, the actual shapes are quite variable with some approaching round in cross-section to very compressed and “flask-like” on the other end of the scale. Typically the body of these flasks are about 1.5 to 2 times as wide as they are deep.  Finishes (aka “lip”) are applied and quite crude, varying much in shape and often defying simple categorization.  Occasionally, these flasks have a simple cracked-off/sheared and refired finish, but usually the finish is some type of one-part example made with applied glass that was crudely tooled to form a collar.

Colors vary with a large majority being some shade of olive green or olive amber; aqua to amber to teal blue have also been noted by this author, but are rare.  These flasks are usually very crudely formed with bubbles and ripples in the glass, flattened spots and bulges, and an overall lack of symmetry reflecting the free-blown manufacturing and early American heritage.  They usually have very light and thin glass for their size, though this is variable.  Similar bottles made in Europe go back at least to the late 17th century (McKearin & Wilson 1978; Van den Bossche 2001).

The grouping of five chestnut flasks pictured in image #1 are also likely products of the early New England glass companies although the tallest example in the group (9″ with a two-part finish instead of a one-part) may be the product of an early Pennsylvania or New Jersey glass company, as may some of the others in the grouping which range to as small as 5″ tall (McKearin & Wilson 1978).  All of these free-blown flasks share the same early manufacturing characteristics as the image #1 example and show some of the subtle range of glass colors that these bottles were made in.

American made chestnut flasks – although fairly abundant (relatively speaking considering the age of them) – are highly sought out by collectors in the U. S. as they are among the earliest utilitarian bottles known to have been made in America.

Values for American made chestnut flasks in good condition (i.e., no chips, cracks, or other post-production damage; some wear on the sides and base is typical) range from a $200-$300 to $1000 or more depending on size (very small and very large are highly desireable), color, crudity (the more the better…to a point), and condition.  Some times provenience matters in that examples known to have come from “famous” collections can demand a small premium.

For more information on the subject of bottle dating and typology – and the terminology used in the above descriptions – please consult my Historic Bottle Website at: www.sha.org/bottle/index.htm The references noted in the write-ups above are found on that sites “References” page at this link: www.sha.org/bottle/References.htm

For further information on early American bottles and flasks consult these references:

McKearin, Helen and Kenneth M. Wilson. 1978. American Bottles & Flasks and Their Ancestry. Crown Publishers, Inc., New York.

Wilson, Kenneth. 1972. New England Glass & Glassmaking. Thomas Y. Crowell Co., New York.