Up to the middle of the 19th century, liquids had been sold in stoneware bottles. Generally, these bottles were plain in colour with the manufacturer’s name and contents incised into them. By the end of the 19th century, most were decorated with underglaze or transfer printing.
In the middle of the 19th century public concern about health standards led manufacturers to begin using glass containers through which the contents could be inspected before purchase.
Glass bottles have three basic ingredients: silica (sand), soda and lime. Traces of other elements give glass its colour. Most sand has traces of iron, which gives an aqua colour to glass. Glass is made clear by adding manganese or selenium. This was not usually done with disposable glass bottles before about 1910. If too much manganese is added, the glass will turn purple on exposure to strong light. This often happens with bottles from the early 1900s.
In 1823, Henry Ricketts, a Bristol bottle manufacturer invented a bottle moulding machine which allowed uniform bottles to be made. The tops of the moulds were open so that the glass blower could access it to blow the glass. The necks and tops of the bottles were added later. The Automatic Bottle Machine, which was invented in 1903 and almost universally used by the 1920s, moulded the entire bottle, including the neck. Mould lines running down the sides of the bottle but stopping short of the neck, therefore, indicate that a bottle was made in the 19th or early 20th century.
Bottles made before the introduction of the Automatic Bottle Machine are usually less uniform in thickness and often have air bubbles.
Until the 1860s, glass blowers used a glass rod applied to the bottom of the bottle to hold it while they applied the neck. This left a jagged piece of glass on the bottom of the bottle known as a “pontil mark”. During the 1860s, some glass blowers used an iron rod instead of a glass on. This left an iron residue, which rusts over time, known as an “iron pontil”. If the iron pontil mark is cleaned off, there will still be a round indentation. Pontil rods were not used on glass bottles after the 1860s.
If the bottle has a registration number (e.g. “R27500”), then it’s English in origin and the manufacturing date can be determined.
Most bottle collectors specialise in particular types of bottles. Some of these are:
Apothecary Bottles and Jars: Apothecary bottles were used by druggists to hold the bulk drugs and lotions that they dispensed. They are distinct from patent medicine bottles, in which pre-prepared medicines were sold to the public, and pharmacist or drug store bottles, in which the pharmacist would supply the drugs that he prepared.
Barber bottles: In the second half of the 19th century, barbers filled their own bottles with shampoos, hair tonics, lotions and so on. These bottles were distinctive so that the barber could easily identify them. They were usually colourful with long necks and often had gold trim around the top. They were not made after 1906 when the American Pure Food and Drug Act made it illegal to refill unlabelled bottles.
Beer bottles: Before 1850, beer bottles were made of black glass. Later beer bottles are mostly amber. From the late 19th century, many beer bottles were embossed with the manufacturer’s name and city.
Bitters bottles: Bitters are gin to which some herbs have been added. The practice appears to have begun in England and was introduced to America in 1730 as a cure for stomach ailments. Bitters were sold as medicine and, so, avoided taxes on alcoholic beverages and circumvented the various temperance laws. Bitters were particularly popular between about 1850 and 1870, the period of the American Civil War. The sale of bitters was a very profitable and competitive business and bitters bottles were made in a huge variety of shapes – over 1,000 are known – including many figural shapes, such as cabins, pigs, pineapples, corns and Civil War items such as cannon and drums.
Codd Bottles: Carbonated drinks were first produced in the mid 19th century. Hiram Codd invented a system for containing them in bottles with a glass marble stopper. When the bottle is filled, pressure in the bottle keeps the marble against a rubber washer at the top making a seal. To open the bottle, the marble is pressed down into a neck chamber. Most of these bottles were destroyed by children to retrieve the marble.
Drug Store Bottles: Around 1900, many druggists dispensed medicines in bottles embossed with their name and city.
Food Bottles: Early food bottles (pre-1910) are considered collectible. Coloured fruit canning jars are among the most valuable.
Fire Grenades: Between about 1870 and 1910, glass fire extinguisher bottles were made. These were designed to be thrown at the base of a fire and the chemicals that they contained would extinguish it. In order to be easily seen, they were made in striking colours and were often ornate but they are now rare because they made to be destroyed.
Historical Flasks had figures of famous men or events embossed on the sides of the bottles. They were produced in the mid-1800s to hold alcohol. Aqua is the most common colour and cobalt blue is the rarest.
Hutchinson Soda Bottles: These soft drink bottles with and external spring-loaded stopper were in use between about 1880 and 1810.
Ink Bottles: Ink bottles were made in a huge variety of sizes, shapes and colours, Since they were intended to sit on the desk, they were often attractively designed. Coloured, pontilled (pre-1860) ink bottles tend to be the most valuable and Automatic Bottle Machine (from about 1910) ink bottles are generally not considered collectible (although there are rare and valuable exceptions).
Patent Medicine Bottles contained the original manufacturer’s product for sale to the public and usually have the manufacturer and product name embossed on the bottle. In America, prior to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, manufacturers could claim anything they wanted and, so, bottles with the original label are interesting and collectible.
Poison Bottles: From about 1870 to 1930, many unique shapes and colours were used to distinguish bottles containing poisons from other bother bottles. They were usually green or blue and often had raised, quilted patterns and the word “Poison” or “Not to be taken” embossed on the glass.
Soft Drink (Soda) Bottles: Before the 1880s, soft drink bottles were generally green or blue.Hutchinson soda bottles were made from about 1880 to 1910 and were usually aqua.
The Codd soda bottle was patented in 1872. It uses a glass marble as an internal stopper. The bottle was
filled upside down and gas pressure held the stopper against an internal rubber ring. The marble stopper was pressed to release the soda.
The crown top bottles used today were introduced in 1903. The most common types of soft drink bottles are Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola.
The very first Coke bottles were Hutchinson style bottles. Straight-sided Coke bottles with crown tops date from about 1900 to 1919. They were clear, aqua, green, blue and amber in colour with amber bottle being the most valuable. Bottles embossed with the script “Coca-Cola” logo contained Coke; while those with “Coca-Cola” embossed in block letters contained a flavoured drink other than Coke and, so, are less valuable.
By 1917 Cokes started being produced in the familiar “hobble-skirt” shape which is still used today. The first hobble-skirts came in a variety of colours: clear, aqua, ice blue, and green. From about 1924, all have a green tint colour except some produced between 1942 and 1945 which were blue due to a wartime copper shortage.
(For more information on Coca-Cola memorabilia, see the article on Coca-Cola Collectables.)
Pepsi started in 1898 as “Brad’s Drink” and changed its name to Pepsi-Cola in 1903. Before 1907, some Pepsi bottles were made of amber glass (as was a 75th Anniversary reproduction, which can be identified by the “A204” stamped on the base). Before 1951, the words Pepsi and Cola were separated by two dashes; subsequently, there is only one dash.
Whisky Bottles are usually amber in colour and often have the maker’s logo embossed on the side. Those made before about 1890 are may be valuable.