Ralph Gardner Jr: My Antique Bottle Problem
During Phase 1 of the pandemic my wife turned her organizational skills to cleaning up our cavernous basement, a Herculean endeavor that took several weeks. For Phase 2 she’s tackling the garage.
It’s probably time. Stuff has been accumulating there since the 1960’s. Excess wood and aluminum siding from old home improvement projects. Downhill skis whose antique bindings ski repair shops refuse to adjust, citing legal liability. A wooden Pancho Gonzales tennis racquet, circa 1970. And lots of refillable bottles.
Brown-tinted beer growlers from the estimable Chatham Brewery in Chatham, NY. New York State maple syrup jugs. Milk bottles returnable to Jersey Meadow, our local creamy raw milk purveyor.
The way it’s supposed to work is that you buy the bottle once and deduct its price when you return it for a refill. That’s not the way it works in our house. I’m not pointing fingers but I’m not the person who routinely forgets to return the old bottle and has to purchase a new one, hence our flourishing collection of empties.
But it wasn’t those dusty bottles, annoying and expensive as I find them, that presented the dilemma as my spouse began to curate the garage. It was my collection of antique bottles discovered and excavated when I was a teenager from an ancient dump in the woods behind our house.
Actually, there are two dumps. One dates to the 19th Century. The other is from the Great Depression. As I dug through generations of leaves and soil in search of bottles, the glass cloudy from oxidation and acidifying leaves, some of them with snake oil claims printed on their sides, I came to understand the thrill archeologists must have felt uncovering the tomb of Tutankhamen or those who continue to discover the buried remains of victims from the volcanic eruption that buried Pompeii.
“Rupturine,” reads a clear octagonal bottle. “Cures Rupture.” It was manufactured by the Hernia Cure Company of Westbrook, Maine.
“Hires Household Extract,” says another.
A third is a squat turquoise bottle, the air bubbles proof of its antiquity. “A. Trask’s Magnetic Ointment”. It made no miracle claims, probably because there wasn’t any room.
The majority of the bottles were broken or chipped. But every once in a while I’d unearth a gem. One of my best finds wasn’t a bottle at all but a huge ceramic jug. On the side it’s stenciled “R. Lawrence & Brother. 244 & 246 South Pearl Street, Albany, NY.”
I understand that old bottles aren’t as thrilling for everybody as they are for me. It probably falls into the same category as coins and stamps, two collecting categories that have lost their luster to distractions such as video streaming and PlayStation 5 in the Internet Age.
But it’s actually technology that’s rejuvenated my interest in bottles. You can go online now and find the history of these relics and the long defunct companies that once made them. Turns out that R. Lawrence and Brother were wholesale Albany wine and spirits dealers. No frilly bottles with fancy French labels for them. They sold wine by the jug. That information also makes me feel a certain kinship for the folks who owned our house a hundred and fifty years ago and offers a window onto their times and apparently serious consuming habits.
Another bottle – heavy dark green lead glass – has the words Coca Mariani and Paris embossed on the bottom. A few keystrokes revealed that the beverage was a concoction made from cocaine and wine, the effect of the two essential ingredients apparently greater than either alone. The drink, the inspiration for Coca Cola, was a best seller invented in the 1860’s by a French pharmacist named Angelo Mariani. It was enjoyed by two popes as well as by Thomas Edison. It helped him stay awake while working on his experiments late at night. And Ulysses S. Grant drank it while completing his bestselling memoirs.
And all this history was buried in my backyard. From the Depression era dump I retrieved a five-sided Log Cabin maple syrup bottle with picture of a log cabin as well as dozens of decorative Mason canning jars, a couple with the pewter milk glass lined caps still intact.
So it’s not hard to see why my feathers were somewhat ruffled when my wife offered a storage solution for the bottles in the garage: throw them into the recycling bin.
Admittedly, these weren’t my best, museum quality bottles. Most had no writing on them. They were just pretty. Still, they deserved better than a trip to the transfer station. Also, I’d spent long hours liberating them from the woods and then washing them. After all these years I recently bought a bottle brush kit so they’re sparklier than ever.
But my wife had a point. Something had to be done. They were wrapped in newspaper and stored in cardboard boxes. Were we serious about cleaning out the garage or weren’t we?
Fortunately, I came up with a solution. At the risk of sounding immodest, it was pretty inspired. I decided to return them to the dump in the woods and gently lay them atop this season’s fallen leaves.
Perhaps a hundred years from now some teenager, maybe even a descendent of mine, will discover them and be as amazed as I was when I first spotted them littering the forest.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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