Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Pontil Scars (But Were Afraid To Ask)?

Blowpipe or
Glass tipped pontil scar example.
Dr. J. Hostetter's Stomach Bitters - ca. 1870-1880.
Iron or
Sand pontil scar example.

One of the easier to identify and most consistently accurate indicators that a bottle was manufactured during or prior to the American Civil War (i.e., the 1860s or before) is the pontil scar present on the base.

A pontil mark is a variably sized and type of scar left on the base of a bottle by a pontil rod. A typical pontil rod or “punte” was a long (4-6 feet) iron rod which was securely attached to the base of the just blown hot bottle. This attachment process was called “empontilling.” The rod had to be long enough so that the heat transference from the extremely hot (2000°+ F.) bottle did not reach the hands of the pontil rod holder. A pontil rod held the bottle during the steps in the bottle blowing process where the blowpipe is removed (“cracked-off”) from the bottle and that break-off point is “finished”, i.e. the lip or “finish” is completed in some fashion, with or without additional glass. (The process of “finishing” a bottle will be the subject of a future article.)

Once the bottle is “finished,” the pontil rod itself is sharply tapped which breaks it free of the bottle. The base of a bottle which was held with a pontil rod will almost always retain some evidence of the pontil rod attachment. (For more information on the production processes of making bottles, please see my “Historic Glass Bottle Identification & Information Website” (HBW for short) at www.sha.org/bottle/index.htm . In particular see the “Glassmaking & Glassmakers” page at www.sha.org/bottle/glassmaking.htm )

Four types of pontil scars

There were four main types of empontilling methods – all of which leave more or less distinctively different base markings. These are briefly discussed below:

1. Glass-tipped pontil scar (image #1) – This type pontil scar was formed by the use of a solid iron bar as the pontil rod. One slightly widened end of the bar was tipped with molten glass then applied and fused to the base of the bottle. A glass tipped pontil rod made contact with most – or all – of the bottle base within the confines of the diameter of the pontil rod tip. When the rod was broken free of the bottle, a generally round but fragmented scar was left behind on the base.

This is usually manifested primarily by an assortment of glass fragments protruding above the base of the bottle. See image #1 which is a mid-19th century sauce bottle. In addition, the rod would usually take with it some small glass fragments from the base of the bottle leaving a scar which is a round scattering of “bumps and gouges” without a distinctly unmarred scar center – like the blowpipe pontil scar described next.

2. Blowpipe or “open” pontil scar (image #2) – This type of pontil mark – which was also called the “ring pontil” or “open pontil” – was formed when a hollow blowpipe was used as the pontil rod. It is at least as common on American made bottles as the glass tipped pontil mark (Boow 1991). Using a blowpipe for empontilling was likely done to both save on the number of tools used by the glass blower and to save time.

When a blowpipe was used as a pontil, it left behind a distinctive ring shaped scar that is usually sharp edged, hollow in the middle, and round to slightly oval with an overall diameter that is roughly the size of the bottles upper neck. This is circumstantial proof that one blowpipe was usually used for both blowing and empontilling. Image #2 shows a very large and distinct blowpipe pontil on the base of a “Jenny Lind calabash” bottle that dates from about 1850.

3. Sand pontil scar (image #3) – The sand pontil scar was also a common method of empontilling a bottle to hold it for finishing, though less common on American made bottles than the other three primary methods described here. This mark was formed when the hot glass on the flared or ball shaped tip of a solid iron pontil rod was dipped in sand (or small glass chips) prior to application to the bottle base. The sand/glass chips were apparently intended to keep the pontil rod from adhering too closely to the bottle, facilitating easier removal.

A larger connecting surface at the end of the pontil rod was necessary with this method in order to ensure an adequate adherence to the bottle base and was of particular use with the ever increasing numbers of molded bottles during the first half of the 19th century. The sand pontil apparently conformed better than other pontil types to molded base shapes without distorting it (Jones 1971; McDougall 1990).

This type of pontil can be very subtle and hard to identify at times (it is also hard to photograph). It often must be confirmed by running ones finger over the base and feeling for the presence of a finger grabbing “sandpaper effect.” It feels and visually appears to be a generally round, sparse scattering of very fine sand, glass, or quartz grains imbedded onto and into the surface glass of the base. Some have described this as an “orange peel” effect (McDougall 1990). See image #3 which shows the base of an 1830s to 1840s patent medicine (“Health Restorative”) bottle from New York.

The sand pontil will usually (though lightly) cover a much larger diameter area on the base than typically affected by the other three empontilling methods covered here (although iron pontil marks can be wide also; see the next section). The base of a sand pontiled bottle will often show some distortion made by the red hot pontil rod ball tip/head application to the bottle base which often more or less outlines the sand pontil area. The noted image shows a sand pontil with the distortion (indented slightly) made by the pontil ball tip in evidence.

4. Iron or” improved” pontil scar (image #4) – This fascinating type of pontil mark is also referred to as simply an “iron pontil” or “improved pontil.” It is also commonly referred to as a “graphite pontil.” This is erroneous as there is no graphite (carbon) associated with any improved or iron pontil mark. Apparently the term originated from the fact that the substance often looks like a graphite smear. In actuality, the residual red, reddish black, gray, or black deposits are iron, typically oxidized iron – ferric (red) and ferrous (gray, black) oxides (Toulouse 1968; McKearin & Wilson 1978).

The iron pontil scar is the result of using a bare iron pontil rod with an appropriate shaped tip or head which was heated red hot and directly applied and fused to the base of the bottle to be held. There was no glass added (like the glass-tipped pontil rod) or remaining (like using the blowpipe for a pontil) on the iron tip of this type pontil rod.

Like the other pontil rod types, this one was probably removed by sharply tapping the rod near the attachment point. The iron deposits which form the iron pontil mark are very small fragments or residue from the tip of the bare iron pontil rod itself. Image #4 is of a “gothic peppersauce” bottle from the 1850s with a classic dark gray iron pontil mark.

For more detailed information on the fascinating world of pontil marks or scars – including many more images and illustrations – check out the “Pontil Scars” page of my Historic Bottle Website at www.sha.org/bottle/pontil_scars.htm

Dating bottles with pontil scars

Pontil rods and the resultant pontil scars go back to antiquity, having been used for bottle making as early as Roman times (McKearin 1941). All of the different pontil scars noted can be found on American made utilitarian bottles that date to or before the American Civil War (mid-1860s). Pontil scars on all types of “utilitarian bottles” (discussed below) became ever increasingly unusual as the 1860s progressed and largely disappeared by the late 1860s or early 1870s as various “snap” or snap case tools dominated the task of grasping the hot bottle for finishing.

However, the transition time for conversion from the pontil rod to the snap case was lengthy. The first use of the grasping snap tool in the United States may have been in the 1840s, but its use was definitely evident by at least the early 1850s. Thus, utilitarian bottles without a pontil scar can date as early as the late 1840s to early 1850s (though rarely earlier) and pontil scars can be found – though very infrequently – on utilitarian bottles made in the late 1860s and even early 1870s

More specifically, glass tipped, blowpipe, and sand pontil marks may all be found on most all bottles dating well before bottles were even made in any quantity in the New World, i.e. before the late 18th century, and continued to be common on a large majority of bottles up until the American Civil War. Some utilitarian bottles (though a relatively small percentage) were still being produced with these pontil marks as late as the early 1870s. After that time, those types of pontil scars are very unusual and related mostly to the production of low volume “specialty” bottles (e.g., fancy liquor decanters, barber bottles).

The bare iron pontil apparently had a fairly narrow lifespan as the majority of these bottles date between about 1845 and the mid-1860s, though they can be as early as 1830s and possibly as late as the early 1870s. They are particularly common on mid-19th century soda/mineral water bottles but can be found on a wide variety of bottle types (Toulouse 1968; Watson & Skrill 1971; McKearin & Wilson 1978; Cannon 1990; Boow 1991; Van den Bossche 2001).

Pontil scars and bottle values

It is very simple to summarize the impact of pontil scars on historic bottles: pontil scars of all types enhance the value of a bottle almost without exception (and I can’t think of any exceptions). The attraction of pontil scars/marks to collectors is largely connected with the fact that the mark proves a Civil War (or earlier) heritage and is a visual, physical connection of that bottle with the primitive, craft based bottle manufacturing methods of old.

As an example of how a pontil mark affects value, consider a “Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters” bottle – one of the most common bitters bottles made during the last half of the 19th century — which may be worth $10 to $500 depending on color (plain ambers at the lower end; various shades of green – like image #5 – or black glass at the upper end of the scale). However, if that same Hostetter’s bottle has a distinct iron pontil scar the value increases at least 10-fold! (Pontiled Hostetter’s bottles are extremely rare, but do exist.) Although the spread in value usually isn’t that great, most bottles are worth significantly more if the base exhibits a pontil scar than if it does not and is “smooth” to use collector jargon.

To view the references noted in this article view the HBW “References” page at www.sha.org/bottle/References.htm
For viewers unfamiliar with some of the terminology used in the descriptions, please see the HBW “Bottle Glossary” page at www.sha.org/bottle/glossary.htm