I’ve been collecting antique bottles since I was knee-high to a
shovel, having first caught the bug in the mid 1970s at the tender age
of eleven. The rose-tinted spectacles of memory tell me that this was
a time when Victorian and Edwardian dumps were found at every turn, littered
with pontilled hamiltons, stoneware reform flasks, and two pint Warner’s
just waiting to be lightly rinsed and placed, gleaming, on the shelf.
I know this wasn't true, but it’s fun to think it might have been.
It's been a long and winding road
from wide eyed pre-teen neophyte to wide-eyed middle aged old hand:
School at an early age, the fields and woods became my
refuge from the regime of thin gruel and flagellation.
school, circa 1975. A light burns in the punishment cell, late into the
Montella for permission to use this image)
A consequence of the days spent
in the woods around the school was my discovery, in an overgrown corner,
of The Victorian Rubbish Dump.
This proved to be a treasure trove of pots, bottles and jars from a bygone
age. Digging with sticks, the excitement causing me to ignore the earthworms
which in calmer times might have provided a valuable supplement to school
meals, I unearthed fragment upon fragment of blue and white plate, salt
glaze blacking jar, and GASP! almost half
of a Codd bottle!
My earliest collection consisted
of a white stone jam pot (slightly cracked), the broken codd bottle, several
small glass inks, and a blue poison bottle, 2oz capacity, six-sided, embossed,
Being 11 years old at the time
I was ripe for a DAI (Development Arresting Incident ),
and this was it.
As seems to be the case with most
collectors, my collecting interests have changed over time. At first ,
during Phase I,
I carted home every piece of junk that would fit on my shelves,
but by the second year this was beginning to irritate everyone around
me. This led to ...
II: Collecting Local Items. I decided to
focus on items originating from my home town. Almost ten years of digging
there meant I ended up with huge numbers of local items, from 4-gallon
stoneware flagons of the 1850s to clear glass local chemists bottles from
the 1920s. This, along with family stories of the experiences of one of
my great grandfathers
on the Western Front during the First World War, provided me with what
has (so far) been a life-long interest in history, and in learning how
we got into the large collection of fine messes
we find ourselves in today.
But I digress. Moving away from
home to start University in the south of England in the early 1980s the
local collecting interest waned, and with it the bottle collection. This
Wilderness Years. Over a period
of more than a decade, from the early 1980s to the early 90s, I moved
to towns where I didn’t know other collectors, where I was unfamiliar
with local history, and where I knew nothing of local Victorian dumps.
Work, women, study and beer all got in the way of the more important things
in life, until I moved to Lincoln in the early 1990s.
This was almost home ground, and
for a few brief months the flame burned bright again. I was digging with
a vengeance on sites including the huge Cow Paddle on the edge of town,
the Scrapyard on
Tritton Road, and one or two smaller sites that I found myself.
Moving again a couple of years
later, only 80 miles north to York (a town with many large Victorian tips,
all inaccessible under parks, industrial estates, supermarkets, and housing),
I kept my Lincoln area digging going but it was half-hearted, sporadic
and, frankly, a load of old rubbish.
IV: Born Again (Hallelujah!).
The Wilderness Years finally came to an end in 2004. I returned, disoriented
and despairing, from a couple of years living in the Horn of Africa while
working for a very large (dis)organisation , the will to live sapped by
bureaucracy, politics, and obstructionism.
I sought to return to my roots.
At this point fate intervened
in the form of Darren, a fellow digger and collector I had kind-of known
for many years, but who I had never been digging with. He too found himself
in need of weekends of fresh air, exercise, and small irritating cuts
on his fingers. A digging partnership was born!
After three years of digging together
we work well as a team, having similar attitudes and both being happy
to plough a furrow away from the bottle digging hordes. We seem to manage
to turn up interesting items fairly regularly, and we have no problem
deciding who keeps what when we dig together. We also both like Jaffa
Cakes, which is a great bonus on a dig because if one of us forgets them
(usually me) the odds are that the other (usually Darren) has remembered.
I now collect more or less anything
that I really like related to antique bottles, but with a few major themes.
These can be summarised as:
1. Patent and quack
medicines, circa 1710 – 1920. Far
and away my main bottle interest, to the extent that I will swap
almost any bottles in other parts of my collection for interesting patent
The 200 year period from approximately
the early 18th to the early 20th centuries encompasses the
First Golden Age of quackery (arguably,
we are now in the Second Golden Age), during which the nostrum peddlers
could, and did, get away with fraud and deception on a grand scale. This
area of collecting encompasses the history of science in general and medicine
in particular, and constantly provides wonderful insights into many aspects
of pseudo-science, superstition, quackery and human credulity.
Another reason it appeals to me
is because I'm an environmental biologist with first hand experience of
having to deal with, and trying to limit the damage caused by, pseudo-scientific
environmental quackery, which can bear a remarkable resemblance to old
fashioned snake-oil medical quackery. Some things just don't change.
The First Golden Age of Quackery
was brought kicking and screaming to an end in the first half of the 20th
century, by a combination of legislation and increased public awareness
on both sides of the Atlantic.
A trio of English
patent medicine bottles from the first half of the 19th century. Dr Siblys
Solar Tincture (on the left), Daffy's Elixir, and Solomons Balm of Gilead..
2. Earlier stoneware,
especially ale and spirit bottles c. 1800 – 1900. This
covers a wide range of stoneware bottles and flasks that I just happen
to like. Stoneware drinks bottles, especially those with impressed (rather
than printed) bottlers names, have always been among my favourites. These
include ginger beer, ale, stout, and porter bottles, and spirit flasks.
One group of special interest are 'reform
flasks'. These are decorative or figural stoneware flasks, mostly
made between about 1820 and 1850, and often associated with major political
or social movements of the time.
Four very varied
stoneware spirit flasks dating 1830s - 1900. On the left is a reform flask.
3. Self-dug stuff I
just happen to like. A small but varied
group including glass mineral water bottles (especially from Lincolnshire),
pot lids, and miscellaneous other items!
A varied group including
mineral water, ink, medicine, ale, wine, spirit and veterinary bottles.
In recent years I've broadened
out my activities related to this hobby. Thirty years of digging, searching
and researching means that I now have enough expertise in this subject
area to occasionally work for York
Archaeological Trust as a finds specialist, and I have also worked
as a volunteer at York
Castle Museum, cataloguing and identifying the bottles in their
stores (and some very nice ones they've got, too). I'm also very happy
to give talks to local history and archaeology groups. Please contact
me directly if your group might be interested in a talk or presentation
(but please be patient about receiving a reply: I sometimes travel for
work, and at those times email and internet access can be difficult).