The Art of Antique Bottle Collecting

The Art of Antique Bottle Collecting

Back in the day when recycling was second nature, nothing made of glass was ever thrown away. Glass bottles found secondary uses in the home and remained in circulation over the generations. Which means the chance of finding such a glass item hiding at the back of your mother’s cupboard is pretty high!

So what's so intriguing about a glass bottle?

For one thing, designs and styles vary by place of origin, date, and purpose. So there’s a certain aesthetic to each. On top of that, as fashion, brands, and technology evolved over the ages, styles, colours and features also changed.

To line up an historical collection of bottles is like looking at a timeline from the 1800s to the 1950s. This is the period for collecting antique bottles, though it’s not unusual to find specimens from the 1600s. For the collector, glass bottles offer a vast and exciting range of variety. Despite their simple structure, this glassware object holds a significant place in our history. Many archaeologists have been able to date a site after finding an antique bottle.

Antique glass bottles – what to collect?

Your choice is broad, but collectors are naturally drawn to pieces they like. Some collectors focus on apothecary bottles, while others look for perfume bottles or Mason jars and household items. Others collect by period, colour, and design. Even Avon bottles are collectible. Here are some of the categories worth collecting:

  • Apothecary bottles
  • Barber and hair product bottles
  • Seltzer bottles
  • Pop and milk bottles
  • Gin, whisky, and beer bottles
  • Wine bottles
  • Perfume and cologne bottles
  • Snuff bottles
  • Pickle jars
  • Spice jars
  • Mini jugs
  • Fruit jars
  • Flasks
  • Medicine bottles
  • Ink bottles
  • Tonic bottles - the kind you would buy from a travelling salesman
  • Poison bottles

Apothecary glass is probably one of the most popular categories because it’s the one with the longest history. From early shaman to medieval times, glass bottles have been in use. From lotions, potions and powders to herbs, medicines and poison, apothecary glass is widely available.

Snuff bottles are harder to find, making them a highly sought-after item, especially original specimens from the 1600s and the Qing Dynasty. Taken for its so-called medicinal benefits, snuff was believed to drive out ills and evils via the nose in the form of a sneeze! It was very popular with gentlemen and nobility throughout history.

Another popular glass object to collect is the soda bottle. You might think the soda bottle was a modern invention, but some of the oldest ones date back to the 1600s. Soda was still sold back then but without the fizz. Over the centuries, the design changed and the long-neck soda pop bottle of the 1950s became popular the same time carbonated drinks did. More bubbles meant more pressure which required a longer neck and a different bottle structure altogether.

Bottles made for alcoholic beverages offer a wide array of designs, colours, and styles throughout the ages. A popular category in glass bottle collecting, you can find items dating as far back as the 16th century. One lucky man in England recently found a 17th century wine bottle at an antiques fair in Doncaster, England for £30. The seller was convinced it was a fake as many exist in the current market. But after the buyer posted a picture of the black glass bottle on social media, glass expert Alan Blakeman of BBR auctions in South Yorkshire wanted a closer look.

Upon closer examination, Blakeman found the bottle to be in mint condition with just a few rust marks around the rim – proof of authenticity. It carried the date stamp of 1692 and the initials GR. Clearly not a fake and likely from a wealthy household where the master (GR) was rich enough to stamp his own wine bottles. The bottle sold at auction for £21,000. You just never know what you’ll find, but a little research will certainly go a long way to avoid fakes.

What to look for in an antique glass bottle

Whether you’re buying or selling, familiarize yourself with certain distinguishing factors. Look for dates, different styles of typography, design elements such as the colour of the glass, the shape of the base of the bottle, and how the item is finished.

Pieces made by glass-blowing artisans are highly sought after and hail from an earlier period, generally. Being crafted singularly by hand gives the piece an added element of historical provenance and a certain unique quality to its creation.

Colours are an important aspect to bottle collecting. In apothecary, colour denotes certain applications like poisons versus medicines; whereas more common items like milk and fruit jars were often made of clear or aqua-coloured glass. The more rare the colour, the more valuable. Intensity of colour is also a factor is appraising worth. The darker the hue, the bigger the price tag.

Here is a list of antique glass bottle colours in order of rarity:

  • Cobalt and sapphire blue
  • Black to forest green
  • Purple to red
  • Olive green to amber
  • Golden, red, and yellow amber
  • Blue-green
  • White
  • Aqua
  • Clear

Antique glass bottles contain history

Glass bottles are so significant to history that even ones with defects or damage will find a buyer. Of course, buying or selling an item in mint condition is the ideal option and will always increase its value. So when you’re out appraising antique glass bottles check for chips, cracks, bubbles and other defects. Hold it up to the light for a better look before you decide its value.

The more intact a piece, the greater its worth. Some bottles come complete with labels intact. Stickers on spice jars, warnings on poison bottles, directions on medicines, these are all distinguishing features that raise an item’s rarity and value.

To get familiar with the different styles of antique glass bottles, the virtual museum curated by The Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors is well worth a virtual visit. Not only will you find bottles of every colour and shape but plenty of resources to help you in your search for antique bottles to collect.

No one has ever managed to collect every type of bottle ever made, there’s just too many. But collecting antique glass bottles from any given period will give you a glimpse into yesteryear and the lives of the people who crafted and owned these practical objects. Each tells a story and has passed through many hands, which makes glass bottle collecting a very popular hobby indeed.

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