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Bottle Museum Showcases Centuries-Old Handmade Glass Bottles

  • June Soh

Until the beginning of the 20th century, glass bottles - for pharmacies, breweries, and dairy farms - were all produced by hand. Demand in the 1800s was so tremendous that bottle making was the first mass production industry in the United States. The National Bottle Museum in Saratoga County, New York preserves that history, displaying Interesting and centuries-old handmade bottles

The liquor bottles, called Dutch Onions because of their origin and shape, are the oldest in the National Bottle Museum's collection. They were made by hand in the early 1700s. The milk bottles are the most recent additions, produced by modern techniques a few years ago.

Most of the more than 2,000 bottles, in various colors, shapes and sizes, were crafted with hand tools in the 1800s. Bottle No. 32 was made in the early 1890s.

“That is your first Coca Cola soft drink bottle," said Gary Moeller, the museum’s director. "The first company that bottled the soft drink was Biedenharn Candy Company of Vicksburg, Mississippi."

Some bottles bear the owners' names, giving a hint about the early value of recycling.
“Because having the bottles made cost a lot of money. So they wanted them back so that they could use them over and over again," said Moeller.

Some bottles here have never held anything. They are collectibles and often feature famous politicians or entertainers.

“These bottles are commemoration of the 1972 presidential campaign. The elephant one has Richard Nixon on one side, Spiro T. Agnew, who was the vice president, on the other side. The two donkey-shape ones are for the Democratic Party," explained Moeller.

The three-story historic building that houses the museum is situated in what was a flourishing resort community in the 1800s, with many popular mineral water springs. Now, there are only two left.

“Actually in the 1800s, across the street from the museum stood what in its day was one of the largest resort hotels in the United States: Sans Souci Hotel. My understanding is Sans Souci had four running springs in the hotel," said Moeller.

Moeller says during the peak of its popularity, millions of bottles for the spring water were produced each year in Saratoga County alone and sent throughout the world. The bottles were made exclusively with hand tools and human lung power until the automatic bottle machine was invented in 1903.

Peter Nash, who came to visit with his son, has been collecting bottles for years.

“I have a recreated old time bar in Boston. Most of the bottles I have are whiskies and rums from back in 1910 and 1920 era. I try to collect ones that were used in the bar back then," he said.

This was his son William's first visit.

“I was surprised to see all these bottles and some of the big ones and the little ones. I like a lot of the little ones, and it is kind of a big, giant, fat one over there," William said.

Visitors also can view the hand tools and blow pipes, the molds used to shape bottles, and some whimsical glass sculptures the workers created at the end of their shifts.

“On a regular basis people will wander into the museum knowing absolutely nothing about what the museum is here for, what we are showing," Moeller said. "Some of those people end up staying for a long time and when they leave, they will tell us what a cool museum this is."

And, Moeller says, they leave with a new appreciation for these important, but often overlooked, historical artifacts.