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Glass bottles are not as new as some people might think. In fact, the glass bottle has been around for about 3,000 years. In the late first century B.C., the Romans began to make glass bottles that the local doctors and pharmacists used to dispense pills, healing powders, and potions. These were small cylindrical bottles, 3 to 4 inches in length and very narrow. As we will read later, the majority of early bottles produced after Roman times were sealed with a cork or glass stopper, whereas the Romans used a small stone rolled in tar to seal vials, Also, the finished bottles contained many impurities such as sand particles and bubbles caused by the crude glass-producing process. Because of the thickness of the glass and the crude finish, Roman glass was very resilient compared to the glass of later times, which accounts for the survival and good preservation of some Roman bottles that have been dated as 2,500 years old. The Romans also get credit for originating what we think of today as the basic store bottle and early merchandising techniques.
The first effort to manufacture glass in America is thought to have taken place at the Jamestown settlement in Virginia around 1608. It is interesting to note that the majority of glass produced at the Jamestown settlement was in fact earmarked for shipment back to England (owing to England's lack of resources) and not for the new settlements. As it turned out, the Jamestown glasshouse enterprise ended up being a failure almost before it got started. The poor quality of glass produced simply couldn't support England's needs.
The first successful American glasshouse was started in 1739 in New Jersey by Caspar Wistar, a buttonmanufacturer who immigrated to the United States from Germany. The next major glasshouse operation was started by Henry Stiegel in the Manheim, Pennsylvania, area between 1763 and 1774. He later established several more. The Pitkin glassworks was started in East Hartford, Connecticut, around 1783 and was the first American glasshouse to provide figural flasks. it also became the most successful glasshouse of its time, until it closed around 1830 because of the high cost of wood for fuel. in order to understand early glasshouse history, both the successes and far more numerous failures, we need to understand the problems of availability of raw materials and the concerns of constructing the glasshouse itself.
The glass factory of the nineteenth century was usually built near abundant sources of sand and wood or coal, and in close proximity to numerous roads and water-ways for transportation of the raw materials to the glasshouse and the finished products to major eastern markets such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Finding a suitable location was usually not a problem, but once production was under way resources would quickly diminish.
The glasshouse building itself was usually a large wooden structure, which housed a primitive furnace that was shaped like a beehive about 9 feet in diameter. A major financial drain on the glass companies, and the major reason so many of the businesses went broke, was the large pot that fit inside the furnace to hold the molten glass. The melting pot, which cost about $100 and took eight months to build, was made by hand from a long coil of clay and was the only substance known that would not melt when the glass was heated to 2,7000. Although the material could withstand the temperatures, the life span of each pot was only about eight weeks; the high temperatures over a long period of time caused the clay itself to turn into glass. The cost of regularly replacing these melting pots proved the downfall of many an early glass factory.
Throughout the nineteenth century, glasshouses continued to come and go because of changes in demand and technological improvements. Between 1840 and 1890, there was an enormous demand for glass containers to satisfy the whiskey and beer businesses and the medicine and food-packing industries. Owing largely to this steady demand, glass manufacturing in the United States finally expanded enough to become a stable industry. This demand was caused in large part by the settling of the western United States and the great gold and silver strikes between 1850 and 1900. Unlike other industries of the time that saw major changes in manufacturing processes, the technique for producing glass bottles remained the same. This process gave each bottle special character, producing unique shapes, imperfections, irregularities, and various colors until 1900.
At the turn of the century, Michael J. Owens invented the first fully automated bottle-making machine. Although many fine bottles were manufactured between 1900 and 1930, Owens's invention ended an era of unique bottle design that no machine process could ever duplicate. In order for a bottle collector, especially a new bottle collector, to better understand the history and origin of antique bottles, it is important to take a look at the chronological history of bottle manufacturing.
Free-Blown Bottles: First Century B.C. to 1860
During the first century B.C., the blowpipe, which was nothing more than a long hollow metal rod, was invented. The tip was dipped into molten glass, and by blowing into the other end, a glassblower formed the desired bottle, bowl, or other container.
Pontil Marks: 1618 to 1866
Once the bottle was blown, it was removed from the rod through the use of a three-foot metal pontil rod, which was dipped into the tank of molten glass and applied to the bottom of the bottle. The neck of the bottle was then touched with a wet rod or stick, which separated it from the blowpipe.
The finishing process could include a variety of applied and tooled rings and collars. In the final step, an iron was inserted into the neck of the bottle, or held by tongs, while the pontil was separated from the bottle. If the bottle was to be molded for body form, the gather was inserted in a mold and further expanded to take on the shape of the interior of the mold, usually cylindrical, square, or polygonal.