With a bit of hunting, you can find valuable old bottles to sell to collectors.
PHOTOS: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
A few years ago my teen-age son, David, became interested
in antique bottles when the highway department dug through
an area used as a dump by the settlers of a nearby city.
Collectors who learned of the discovery turned out in
droves and that field was churned and sifted and dug
through until it looked like a battleground. Glassware came
from the dirt in every variety and color. There were
drugstore jars with names and emblems forming a raised
design . . . graceful wine bottles and tiny opium vials . .
. "punkinseed" whiskey flasks and odd-shaped food and
cosmetic containers. All were old and, when David pointed
out that all were valuable to collectors, our whole family
Soon afterward, my parents bought an old home in the Oregon
Cascades. When we helped them rototill the back yard for a
garden, every churned-up furrow brought to light bits of
glass, old bottles and even little porcelain dolls. We
checked and, sure enough, collectors again were more than
willing to buy our finds.
Collectibles are Big Business
The fascination in collecting anything old seems to grow
stronger and appeal to more people every year, all across
the country. You can profit, even establish a homestead
business, by finding these buried riches and selling them
to the folks who want them.
Finding Old Bottles
You don't have to live on an old homestead to take part in
this treasure hunt either, as long as you can get
permission to explore and dig on private property. When
you're biking or hiking, watch for signs of old homesteads,
lumber camps, mining towns, railroad stations . . . any
place where people gathered and left trash behind. All are
potential treasure troves.
Coins and watches sometimes slipped through wooden
sidewalks and floors. Children played with silver spoons
and left them buried. Banks were few and unreliable, so
many people hid their savings . . . then sometimes forgot
or were unable to return for the cache. And everywhere,
empty bottles were tossed aside . . . where they still wait
for you to find them.
Go over these sites with a sharp eye. Watch for bottles,
glass insulators, iron toys, buttons, stamps, license
plates, old checks, spoons, campaign buttons, even barbed
wire. Anything old will attract a buyer.
Early homesteaders usually had no central dump. They tossed
their bottles and other trash under the house, into
streams, along fences, down ravines or into the outhouse.
A metal detector is helpful, but not essential, for
locating such refuse today. Just imagine yourself in the
shoes of the original settler and look for the most likely
dump site. Some trash may still be above ground so watch
for broken crockery, amethyst—colored glass and
rusting tin cans with soldered—instead of modern
A few bottle hunters use long metal rods to locate buried
items but you should go easy if you try such a probe. Old
glass breaks with little effort and it's a heart-sinking
feeling to find you've knocked a chunk from a valuable
When you discover a dump, it's best to use a hand
trowel—or even a table knife—to safely loosen
the bottles you find from the packed soil. Take along a box
and plenty of newspapers to wrap around the glassware you
Remember, too, to be absolutely sure to get permission
before treasure hunting on any land, occupied or not. Then
check attics and basements, door and window frames, under
the main building, barn and outhouse . . . and find that
The value of old bottles and jars depends on condition and
scarcity. Containers common on one coast will often be rare
on the other. Favorites that bring the highest prices from
collectors are historical flasks, bitters, whiskey and
poison bottles. More common and less valuable are medicine,
condiment and cosmetic containers, Mason jars and ink
wells. A Jim Beam centennial whiskey bottle, for instance,
can sell for $60 or more while drugstore
bottles—which may bring as little as
50¢—seem to average from $3 to $10.
How to Identify a Valuable Bottle
Mold Seam Lines: On newer, machine-made
glassware, the seam line runs all the way to the top. On
older bottles, the lip was applied after the container was
removed from the mold and the seam stops at the lip.
Pontil Marks: Many hand-blown bottles will
have a small, jagged spot on the bottom. These were caused
by a steel rod called a pontil which was used to
remove the container from the blowpipe, then broken away.
Color: Sunlight turns old glass a
beautiful amethyst, adding to its value. Minerals in the
ground may cause rainbow coloring called opalization. This
can be beautiful, but may detract from the value and is
nearly impossible to remove.
Imperfections: Old glass often shows
bubbles, crooked necks, uneven thickness of bottoms or neck
edges and so on. Value increases with the number of
Raised Lettering and Designs: These
increase the value and the appeal of old bottles.
Glass Telephone Insulators
Telephone and telegraph wires have been strung from glass
insulators—to prevent current leakage—almost
from the time the wires were invented (telegraph insulators
date back to 1844 or 1845, and telephone insulators to
Like bottles, glass insulators come in a variety of colors
and shapes. You may find them in blue, deep green, or
aqua-green glass, sun-colored amethyst, white milk glass
and—if you're lucky—even in carnival or
The bell-shaped glasses were molded in a variety of sizes
and shapes. Some have inner "skirts", while others have
just the outer bell. Some feature sharp or rounded
drop-points on the bottom—meant to cause moisture to
drip to the ground instead of seeping inside the
glass—and others have smooth bottoms.
The value of insulators—like bottles—depends on
age, scarcity, color and beauty. Values range from $2 or $3
for the more common insulators to the rare types that bring
$25, $35 or more.
You're not likely to find these insulators in dumps because
they were usually dropped along the lines when they were
replaced. In many cases, the entire wire was abandoned and
the insulators are still on the old unused lines along
poles or buildings.
Joseph Glidden, an Illinois settler, first saw the need for
lightweight fencing and—with his wife's
help—used a farm kitchen coffee mill to fasten bits
of twisted metal to a long strand of wire.
The use of barbed wire then grew rapidly and the fencing
played a bloody role in the cattleman-farmer range wars
which raged throughout the late 1800's. Today, the history
and many variations of the fencing fascinate collectors who
buy 18-inch "sticks" of the old wire.
Over 800 different patents of barbed wire have been
recorded. There are variations in the twist, the barb, the
way of attaching the barb, the number of barbs per foot and
so on. Some wires look like rick-rack. Others have points
soldered on. There are round barbs with jagged edges and
barbs that are twisted around the main strand.
Barbed wire variations seem endless and collectors are
eager to add to the specimens they own. Sticks of the more
common patterns sell for 50¢ each, while rare
varieties bring as much as $100.
Barbed Wire Collector's Associations have been formed in at
least nine states. Membership runs into the hundreds, with
regularly scheduled exhibitions and swapping meets.
Where to Sell Your Finds
Hundreds of junk and antique dealers across the country
handle bottles and other collectables. You'll find them
listed in phone books under ANTIQUES —
DEALERS. Keep in mind, though, that—while
dealers buy more at a time—private collectors will
pay more for individual items.
You can reach those private collectors with newspaper ads
and garage sales of your antiques. Flea markets—where
you can usually rent a table for about $5—are
excellent places to sell your treasures.
A number of antique collectors' magazines carry ads for
people who wish to buy or sell a multitude of items. One of
the most helpful is SPINNING WHEEL, a publication which
carries monthly lists of flea markets and antique shows
scheduled across the country . . . as well as a selection
of antique dealers, their addresses and their areas of
SPINNING WHEEL also contains an extensive "Antiques
Shopping Center" for both buyers and sellers. The May '72
Buying Column Ads placed by individual collectors and
dealers included such wanted items as old political
documents, military medals, mechanical banks, old books,
unusual fruit jars, campaign buttons, glass paperweights,
old coins, railroad items, insulators, Coca-Cola trays and
old beer cans.
Your library may have a copy of A.T. Evans' TREASURE
HUNTER'S YEARBOOK. In addition to treasure hunt
stories and hints, each copy of this annual carries a
bottle club directory and the 1970-71 issue lists names and
addresses of 96 bottle clubs located in nearly every state
including Hawaii. Another section in the Evans annual lists
names and addresses (and, sometimes, meeting places and
times) for 30 treasure clubs.
One Final Tip
Scenic checks, so popular with banks today, have spawned a
new group of collectors. If your hunting turns up any old
checks, you can learn their value by contacting the Check
Collectors Round Table, P.O. Box 27112, Cincinnati, Ohio
When I first read this piece I thought it was a nice little
idea but that no one could really expect to make more than
pin money dealing in old bottles. Then I remembered a
genial young con man who—when I met him a couple
years back—was making almost his entire living with
What this guy had done, see, was move into a tumbledown
garage in a little town in upstate New York. And that
garage—which had closed as a business probably 30 or
40 years before—had a back room stacked full of
canisters and jugs and vials and jars and bottles of
ancient polish, wax, liniment, carb cleaner and Lord knows
what all. About once every two months our hero put three or
four bushel baskets of his booty in the trunk of his car,
drove to Dayton, Ohio to visit his folks . . . and unloaded
the old glassware for enough to cover living expenses until
the next trip.
And where did the "con man" part come in? Well, as I
recall, the young man in question seemed to grease his
sales by visiting a different antique shop on every journey
. . . and then sort of letting on to the owner that he had
spent years collecting the bottles in question and that
there weren't really any more where they had come from. I
can't say that I endorse this mild deception, though . . .
and, the way old bottles are selling nowadays, it isn't