DIY

Turn Trash Into Treasure With Old Glass Bottles

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Glass bottles were often discarded in old outhouses, so start your search there.
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Glass bottles come in a variety of shapes and colors — each with their own values.
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Searching for old glass bottles can be enjoyable and profitable.

As almost anyone who tries to take advantage of farm
auctions, garage sales, and the like will already know, a
lot of yesterday’s throwaways are considered
valuable collectibles today. And old
bottles, in particular, are experiencing a heyday of
popularity and are even arousing (partly as a result of the
economic uncertainties of our day and age) the interest of
investors.

Now there’s a pretty fair chance that some such heirlooms
might be found right in your own back yard. After all, a
good many of MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ readers are fortunate enough to live
on the sites of old-time homesteads, some of which have a
few of the original structures, which often mark prime
collecting areas, still intact. Furthermore, even if your
home isn’t an ancient cabin or aging farmhouse,
chances are that people have been living on — or moving
across — your property for as long as 200 years. During that time they probably deposited their
discarded bottles, tins, broken dolls, and whatnot in a
number of hidden locations.

Where to Look for Old Glass Bottles

Your great-grandma likely threw her empty bottles
down the most popular disposal system of her day: the
outhouse. Flasks emptied of whiskey and other strong drink
(taken, no doubt, for medicinal purposes) were often
concealed inside the walls of barns, sheds, houses and
privies.

But before you attack the planks of your home, barn, or
shed with a crowbar, bear in mind that it won’t likely be
worthwhile to damage a usable structure . . . even if doing
so does turn up a rare bitters bottle. And, of course, that
rule is firmer still if you’re on someone else’s property.
Bottle-hunting protocol demands — first and
foremost — that you always obtain permission before you
prospect on another’s domain.

In order to find potential “bottle mines,” check some
topographical maps of your region to locate likely sites of
original homesteads: Look for level land, available water,
etc. Or explore country roads and watch for lonely standing
chimneys, or the spreading trees flanking an open spot,
that often mark deserted “house places.” Talk to
old-timers, too. Their knowledge of long abandoned dumps,
businesses and farms can be invaluable.

Prospecting Techniques

Once you’ve identified a general locale that looks
promising, you’ll have to try to figure out where people
might have unloaded their trash. Sometimes everyone in a
community had one chosen spot at which to leave refuse.
These dumps were frequently located in gulches or ravines,
and often downhill from a settlement . . . perhaps to
prevent seepage into wells, or maybe because it’s easier to
haul trash down than up.

Of course, simply finding an abandoned garbage
heap isn’t the whole story. You must then
determine — before devoting too much time to
digging — whether it’s old enough to hold potential
value. The clues that most often signal a possible bonanza
include sun-purpled bits of glass, blue pieces of early
Mason jars, and the white porcelain liners from
old-fashioned zinc canning lids. Screw-top bottles will
indicate that the dump is anywhere from 30 years to mere
days old. Cork-stoppered purple flasks, on the
other hand, are an excellent sign that the trash pile is at
least 70 years old.

However, since recent rubbish may be covering up old
goodies, you will need to scratch around a bit and
make a test hole or two. But once you’re convinced that
you’ve hit pay dirt, it’s generally best to start
excavating at one end and methodically turn over the entire
area, shovelful by shovelful. (By simply potholing hither
and yon, you’ll likely miss more bottles than you uncover.)
Dig gently, though, or your tool can smash what might have
been a valuable find!

Digging for Bottles in Your Yard

Not everyone will be fortunate enough to discover a major
untouched dumping ground, naturally, but virtually any old
homesite will likely have a long-covered toilet pit or two.
Outhouse locations can make easy and rewarding digs
and they aren’t even unpleasant to investigate after enough
years of bacterial action have worked their cleansing
wonders.

Privies were — as you’d imagine — usually located
handy to the house, and the sites were moved over at
frequent intervals, so you might well find half a dozen
searchable places side by side . . . earmarked by nothing
more than a slight depression or perhaps a few rotten
boards.

Now the same evidence may also mark a long-gone
shed or spring house. You can, however, usually determine
whether the signs do indeed point to an outhouse location
by using a probe: a 10-foot-long metal rod with a
T-shaped pounder that’s much like a metal fencepost setter.
Ordinary un-excavated ground will probably be hard all the
way down, and may contain rocks, but the probe
will penetrate soft outhouse dirt like an icepick going
through warm butter.

Dry or contaminated wells are also likely sources of
valuable antique discards. You can make some great finds in
the old water holes, but please remember that they
were abandoned for a reason. It could be that the water
carried typhoid or that the walls were unsafe (and if they
were unsafe then, imagine how dangerous they must
be now). Take all necessary precautions: You
don’t want to get buried, drowned, or infected before you
can haul out the prize of the century!

Gold or Garbage?

After you’ve located a good spot and dug up a few old
relics, you’ve got the additional problem of deciding
whether your discoveries are worth cleaning up. Most items
will be what we call “leavers,” some will be “dammits” and a scant few will be the kinds of bottles
collectors covet. Leavers are best left right there where
you found them, unless they’re not in an established dump, in which case you can do the environment a favor by
hauling them away. The typical dammit is a lovely, rare
container — perhaps even the find of a
lifetime — with a missing neck or a hole that renders
it worthless. (In the case of an extremely
valuable-if-it-weren’t-damaged item, it might accurately be
referred to as an “O. Dammit” bottle.)

The first obvious clue to the age and value of a vessel
will be its color. Generally speaking, colorless glassware
is not really old, since bottle glass that holds its
clarity is a comparatively recent innovation, introduced
around the turn of the century. Old glass is typically
purple, aqua, amber or olive. In addition, metallic oxides
were sometimes used to intentionally produce red, cobalt
blue, true blue, green and yellow bottles, which are
often particularly rare and valuable.

Purple is the most common hue to be found in old glass,
since that color was typically used in widely circulated
patent medicine and whiskey bottles. Furthermore, from 1880
to 1914, manganese was used extensively to produce a
temporarily clear glass that had the unfortunate habit of
turning purple if exposed to the sun. The deeper the violet
hue in such glassware, the more manganese it contains (some
bottles are so purple that they appear almost black). And
although folks used to wrap their good crystal to
prevent such a change, it’s a fact that the more
intense the shade, the more valuable the bottle today. (You
may find that you can deepen the color a bit by letting any
purple container or dish soak up the sun’s rays for a few
weeks.)

Determining the Value of Glass Bottles

Bottles were originally hand-blown, either free-hand or
into a mold, until the invention of the Owens bottle
machine — about 1900 — ended the careers of most
glass blowers. The Owens bottles, which are marked on the
bottom with a diamond inside a circle, lack character and
are mostly worthless in the marketplace.

Hand-blown bottles usually have uneven bottoms, because the
molten glass tended to run to one side. Another means of
identification is the jagged scar where the blowpipe was
removed from the still-hot glass shape. The bottoms of such
flasks may also be either torpedo-shaped or deeply
indented, and their necks are sometimes slightly askew.

Some of the best indications of a bottle’s age can be seen
in its neck seams. A free-blown container will have no
seams at all. One blown into a mold will likely have a
seam partway up the neck (the lower the seam stops, the
older the bottle) and, if the container was made in a
three-piece mold, there will be a seam around the shoulder
and up each side, showing that the necks were
blown in their own molds and then applied. If the seam runs
all the way up through the lip, the bottle is at best from
the Owens machine.

The manner in which the lip was made and applied is an
additional clue to a bottle’s age. On old free-blown
containers, the lip is sometimes just a crude blob or ring
of glass. In fact, the very oldest often have no lip at all: Before 1840, blowers simply snipped the neck straight
across while the glass was still hot. The result was a
stovepipe effect, or perhaps a slight flare.

Around 1869 embossed lettering came into vogue and
continued to be popular until the invention of the Owens
machine and paper labels. Medical vials were usually
embossed with whimsical catalogs of complaints, cures, and
promises . . . and bottles with mistakes in spelling or
lettering are particularly cherished by collectors.

Cleaning Old Glass Bottles

Once you’ve uncovered your trophies and carted them home,
you’ll be faced with the task of cleaning them. Be cautious. Just because a bottle has survived intact under tin
cans, rock, and horseshoes for nearly a century doesn’t
mean it isn’t fragile. In fact, after years of
deterioration, some containers become very porous and
brittle, and these delicate prizes may snap even if
subjected only to sudden temperature changes.

Use vinegar and water, steam-iron cleaner, and steel wool
pads to handle the scrubbing chores. Sometimes effective
but often unsafe are lye and acids. The caustic
cleaners can ruin valuable discoveries … to say
nothing of clothes, shoes, and skin.

There’s one type of “dirt” that will defy all efforts at
removal: Afflicted receptacles — usually those found in
a damp place — are called “sick glass.” They’ll be
covered with a flaky, opalescent film that will stay in
place no matter what attempts are made to clean it off.
When you encounter this milky coating, you’re probably best
advised to clean what you can and leave the rest alone,
because the opalization can occur in a variety of
interesting forms . . . appearing as iridescent colors or
beautiful etching. The value of the bottle may even be
enhanced if the “sick” colors are particularly vivid or the
etching has taken unusual forms.

How Much Are Old Glass Bottles Worth?

Of course, the one influence that will finally determine
the value of any of your unearthed treasures is the
timeless law of supply and demand. There are — for
instance — far too many unmarked beer, whiskey, and
patent-medicine bottles for many of them to be worth more
than a few dollars . . . if anything. (After all, during
the nineteenth century there were some 85,000 “patent”
cures on the market!)

Furthermore, when you begin trying to sell your colorful
artifacts, you’ll soon discover that tastes vary widely.
Many people will gladly pay 50¢ to $2.00 for a little
colored jug that’s all but valueless to collectors. As a
matter of fact, bushels of semi-worthless glass are sold
at garage sales to people who just want something unusual
to put a bunch of dried flowers in.

Generally speaking, old bottles rank in popularity and
value as follows: [1] historical and commemorative flasks,
circa 1810 to 1870 … [2] bitters bottles from 1850 to
1906 . . . and then [3] whiskey, soda, poison, medicine,
and condiment containers.

The highest-priced historical items (often whiskey bottles)
are those embossed with designs that celebrate important
events, famous people, patriotic fervor, and so forth. Such
bottles are among the most expensive pieces of American
glass, usually selling for $10 to $800, but in rare
instances bringing even more. It’s not unknown for an
individual to pull a $22,000 bottle out from under an
abandoned privy!

Bitters bottles now run a very close second, and may soon
surpass the historical flasks in popularity. The most
common and inexpensive of these are the containers that
were used by the Atwood, Hostetter, and Lash firms: They
sell for about $5.00. However, just the word “bitters”
embossed on a vessel is enough to bring some
money. (It’s also a general rule that any container
exhibiting marks from the glass blower’s pipe is worth at
least $5.00, regardless of other details.)

Since prices tend to fluctuate, it’s impossible to lay down
any absolute values here. It’s a good idea to check several guides and to
shop around from collector to collector before you sell because the potential price of a “good” bottle will often
vary a great deal. Antique shops will typically offer less
money than will collectors, because the shops have to make
a profit, too. On the other hand, though, a dealer will
usually buy more of your goods than would an
individual enthusiast.

In short, although it’s true that this sort of search for
hidden treasure isn’t likely to make you rich, it’s an
interesting — and often quite profitable — way to
spend some spare time. And for those of us who enjoy the
hunt, the sudden glitter of a bunch of bitters bottles in
an outhouse ruin can be almost as exciting as opening up
King Tut’s tomb!