What Creates Value in a Milk Bottle? Interest and Rarity

I was out slithering at the bottom of a river in my scuba gear last month, where I hoped to find old bottles and relics, as I often do in my spare time. I had found a small river winding through a little farm town in Massachusetts, and I felt my prospects were good.

After a half an hour,  I floated up and over to the river’s muddy bank, tangled in lily pads and took off my mask so that I could examine an early piece of redware pottery I had picked from the slimy silt below.  I was startled by a mans’ voice coming from the bushes above me,  ” Watch out for the poison ivy all along here…”  I finally made eye contact with an old grizzled farmer with a long grey beard, poking his head through some Narcissus bushes.

I sat up on the bank for a moment, and chatted with him, and eventually found out that his family has owned all the land around here, on both sides of the river, for twelve generations, dating back to a grant from the King of England!  He claimed to be the last surviving member of the original family. He said his uncle owned a dairy up at the top of the field. I asked if his uncle’s farm had its own personalized dairy milk bottles, and he said they may have, back in the day, but he had never seen one.

So we parted ways, and I went back into the flood swollen river, fighting the current, feeling around for bottles and other relics as I went. Sure enough, a small sized milk bottle (contained cream) popped up, and I could feel that it had embossed writing on it.  I tucked it in my dive bag, and continued my dive,  until my air tank was empty.

After my dive, I got all my gear back in the truck, and figured I’d leave the milk bottle on the old farmer’s front steps, as he was no where to be seen. I turned around to get back on the road, and just happened to glance in my rear view mirror, and saw him standing in his driveway waving his arms to get my attention. I went back, and he wanted to thank me for the bottle, and asked what it said on it, because he didn’t have his glasses on.  I read for him ” J. L. HAYDEN, BROOKSIDE FARM, WEST BRIDGEWATER, MASS.”

“Oh my God” he said ” that’s my Uncle!”   Certainly made my day.

hayden_photo

Mr. Hayden, whose family had owned the surrounding land dating back to a grant from the King of England! He is holding the milk bottle found at the bottom of the nearby river, labeled with the name of his uncle’s dairy farm.

I tell this story just to illustrate what it is that creates value in a milk bottle– interest and rarity.  Most American antique glass bottles, and most antiques in general generate their value from their age, color, and condition, and other factors, in addition to rarity and interest.  With milk bottles, those other factors are not very important, it’s all in the rarity and interest.

In early American bottles, the colors are amazing, with different hues and intensities.  But with old milk bottles, it’s just clear glass, plain old boring clear.  Well, 99% are clear.  There were a handful of companies that made milk bottles in one of two colors, either Seven Up green, or dark Budweiser bottle brown (pretty ugly, frankly).  But they are super rare, and any of them are valuable, usually in the $200 to $600 range.

smalley amber milk bottle

This milk bottle, produced in 1898 by A.G. Smalley, is considered a rarity due to its unique amber hue.

Aside from that, milk bottles are in clear glass, and are either embossed with the dairy’s name, or they are painted with colored graphics, and lettering. These latter types are called by collectors “pyro” milks, or ACL milks, standing for Applied Colored Label.   Collecting pyro milks is a crossover collectible, as the demand for them is influenced by the nostalgia market, where people want country collectibles for display, and they like the color, and the quirky, all-American style graphics.

brandenton florida country club milk bottle

1948 Brandenton, Florida Country Club milk bottle with an applied color label.

In the 1940s and 50s, ACL or pyro milk bottles were popular, with classic lettering font style of the day, and quaint graphics of farms, Indians, and even children drinking milk.

The condition of the colored painted graphics and lettering does affect the price considerably, as does the state it is from, and the rarity of the piece in general. ACL (pyro) milk bottles generally range from about $20- $500, in what is a very fluctuating category. Someone could find a full case of these 1950’s milk bottles in a barn attic somewhere, and it would change that value of what used to be a rare specimen.

But embossed milk bottles is a unique category, in an already unique hobby (bottle collecting). By the way, serious milk bottle collectors, are generally looking for full size quart bottles, rather than the pints or half pints. Even if the smaller size is rarer, there is something about having 100 quart size milk bottles lined up on your shelves that is more appealing, like a military parade troop review.

The earliest American embossed milk bottles were made around the turn of the century, just as embossed bottles were beginning to be mass produced by machine.  There are details I could go into about the markings and trade marks on embossed quart milk bottles, but as I said at the beginning, the value lies in the rarity and interest.  Mr. Hayden finding a milk bottle with his family name on it, made its value sky rocket in his eyes. And there are pockets of local collectors all over the country who somehow become obsessed with finding all the dairies in their county, or state, and this more than anything is the big price driver.  Embossed New Hampshire milk bottles for some reason have a huge interest, driving prices for some of the most beat up ugly dug out of the ground milk bottles up into the high hundreds of dollars. I saw a scratched up clear milk bottle from Plymouth, NH, sell for almost $1000 on eBay last year.  If I had seen it at a yard sale, I wouldn’t have paid more than $20.00 for it, because I really wouldn’t have had any way of knowing it was that rare (and I’m the expert)! 

purdue university milk bottle

An embossed milk bottle from Purdue University, which had its own creamery.

So, if you’re not a collector, and you see a nice old milk bottle at a yard sale, it’s hard to say for sure what you should do.  If it’s in good condition, and you want to pay the price, go for it.  If you don’t want to shell out twenty bucks for a milk bottle, that’s understandable as well. Just know that there is an outside chance you’re leaving $1000 on the table!


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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