15¢ or $15,000? Antique Mineral Spring Water Bottles Can be Winners!

And the “Hub” is in Saratoga Springs, New York…

19th Century Mineral Water bottles were made of beautiful glass in an array of vivid colors!  This collector’s poster shows the forms and colors you can find in the homes of advanced collectors.

Twenty years ago, before the internet was in the palm of your hands at all times for instant value information and reference, you could still make mistakes buying and selling antique bottles.  Back in that day, I read an ad from someone selling “old bottles” as part of a house clean-out.   It was ten minutes away, so it was a no brainer.  I walked into the woman’s garage,  and could see a row of bottles on a shelf, including a couple of Saratoga Spring Water bottles, which I knew I could resell.

I was in a rush, so without taking time to see if any of them were damaged, I offered her $100 for the lot.  She said “If you’ll give me a hundred bucks, consider it a deal!”

I got them home, and only two bottles were of value, really.  One was a very early black one, embossed “JOHN CLARKE – NEW YORK” around the shoulder. I knew that was worth the purchase right there, but I decided I would keep it for my collection and sell the rest of them to make my purchase price back.  And yes, I was able to do that, so I got a nice early John Clarke mineral water for free.

One of the many famous mineral springs in the Saratoga Springs, NY, area that is prized for its healthful mineral water. The water was bottled in the 19th Century, in bottles that are equally prized by collectors in the 21st Century.

But something happened that made the purchase more memorable.  I called a collector friend I had recently made, who lives out in New York state, near where the hub of 1800s mineral spring bottling activity was happening at the many underground Sulphur mineral springs bubbling up around Saratoga Springs, New York.

I told my buddy Mark about my purchase of the collection and how I ended up with the black glass John Clarke.  I explained that there was one other “mineral spring” water bottle in the group, but it was in the more common and less desirable aqua colored glass.  I told him it was embossed “Aetna Springs,” and I heard a long pause on the phone. “Are you sure?  Are the A and E attached together like one letter?” And I answered, “Yes.” “Well I’d like it, how much do you want?”  I told him, “How about $100?”– thinking that would pay for my whole purchase right there, and the rest would be gravy.  He said, “Are you sure?”  I said, “Yup, I’m making out good on the deal, so if it’s one you want, I’d rather you have it.” 

Over the years, I got to know him well, and he’s a terrific guy.  He told me that it turned out to be a really rare one, and I said “Great!” and just left it at that.  We both made out well, from what I could tell.

Now it’s been 20 years, and I’m scanning the web for bottle info.  On a website called Peachridgeglass.com,  they have great information, as well as photos, of the best of the best in terms of rare American antique bottles.  I found a photo of the chart shown below of the “most wanted” mineral water bottles.  And of course, look at number one!

I wrongly thought that a smooth based, aqua glass colored mineral water bottle could only be somewhat valuable, no matter how rare.  I thought it would need to be an early black glass, or the more famous emerald green glass color.  I thought wrong!

There is a hierarchy of values in the category of antique American mineral water bottles. Then within that hierarchy, there is a second subset hierarchy of American made mineral water bottles that were bottled in and around the web of mineral springs bubbling up around Saratoga Springs, NY.  Collectors call them “Saratogas” for short. Many collectors have “almost every Saratoga,” but they don’t have this one!

I have dug and scuba dived for bottles for years, and out of all of the thousands of bottles I have found, only six were Saratoga Mineral Water bottles.  All of mine are considered “common,” and bring usually $50.00 to $125.00.  But I will tell you there is almost no bottle more thrilling to pull out of the ground than a sparkling green Clark and White Saratoga spring water bottle!  They just shimmer, and when you dig one you feel like you’ve dug gold!

After many years of digging, these are some of the few Saratoga mineral water bottles I’ve been lucky enough to find!  They were made in the mid 1800s, and were a specialty item for sure.  But they were made of glass that was a wonderful color, and very thick glass, so many of them did survive.  The glass needed to be thick because it was a highly carbonated beverage (delivered by wagon!).

I could go on and write a full book on the hundreds of different Saratoga-type spring water bottles from New York state, plus a few Vermont and Eastern Massachusetts examples; but, there are now many great antique bottle reference sites online, including ones specializing in Saratogas, with a wealth of information. With a simple search on your computer, you will find what it is that makes some of these gorgeous colorful bottles worth fifty dollars, and others worth thousands.

Many early mineral water bottles were made at the Lockport Glass works in Lockport, NY, which specialized in this vivid emerald green colored glass.

For me, as a bottle digger, what always fascinated me was how and why I occasionally found one single rogue Saratoga mineral water bottle way up here in Maine, at the bottom of a river or in an old trash pile.  I finally realized that these bottles contained what people thought was an almost magical liquid.  If you read the advertising of these spring water companies, they usually claimed that their particular spring contained a special potion that would cure every ailment you could ever have, and in general, turn you into a spry young 25 year old again.

So I would picture someone traveling by train from say, St. Louis, in 1860.  I’d picture them passing through Saratoga Springs, NY, looking for something unique and magical that they could bring home to their family back in Maine. I’d picture them getting off at the train station, where this “magical bottled water”  was being sold right outside the station. I could then see them buying a bottle of it, wrapping it in cloth and packing it into their steamer trunk to keep it safe for the rest of their journey.  That sounds like a reasonable explanation to me.

Unfortunately, as society progressed, it became more obvious that these bottles contained a very natural but very smelly Sulphur water, that didn’t do half of what the label claimed it did (as happened with many of the medicines and sarsaparillas offered by the snake oil salesmen of the day).  Oddly enough, some people swore by the product, and “mineral water” continued to be bottled, but in a much humbler glass bottle (butt ugly, if you must know the truth).  From the turn of the Century, up until the 1930s, there were still companies all over the country selling mineral water, but the product became more of a soda water type beverage, and came in a clear straight sided “crown cap top” style bottle.  They are not sought after by collectors much at all, unless the embossed town on the bottle is a “ghost town” from out west.

Mineral Spring water bottles of the twentieth century are simply not attractive bottles, and rarely are sold to collectors at a high price.

It seems obvious to me that there are many more Saratoga Mineral Spring water bottles to be found out there in early trash dumps, streams, and abandoned barns around the northeast. But if you see one for sale, and you can get it at a fair price (after doing your research online), I say go for it !  It’s some of the most beautiful early American glass that was ever produced!

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 send an email to him at askus@hepburnandcoantiques.com.

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