Antique Glass Bottle Collectibles
A History of Glass Bottles
Back in the 1850's, the West was a bustling, populated area full of rugged and determined people from all over the world looking to start a new life. San Francisco was the center of this new world and one of the new industries that would begin there was the manufacturing of glass bottles. In 1858, Baker & Cutting became the first company to try their hand at producing glass. The most important types of containers in those days were for storing food, and Baker & Cutting decided to make that their priority. They began producing pickle jars and other types of food jars from their meager San Francisco glass house. In just a short time period, Baker left the company, apparently distraught over the inferior quality of glass and little profit that the company was making. Cutting continued by himself, although he discontinued producing his own glass and instead ordered his products outside of the state of California. Very few of the Baker & Cutting bottles have survived the ravages of time because of the poor quality of glass. Today, there is only one known intact example of their work with their name on it. With certainty we can say that there are other products that they made which are in circulation, but they are unmarked and, unless proven otherwise, trade hands as being the product of another glass house.
The fact that the Baker & Cutting Company made a valiant effort in supplying the West with glass probably did not go unnoticed by an Eastern glassblower by the name of Carlton Newman. Bottles were a scarce commodity, in high demand and pieces were often shipped from as far away as Honolulu, Tahiti and the Mexican Coast. It was quite common for a bottle or jar to have a value which was ten times the value of it's contents. There were companies that specialized in recycling bottles which led to products being put up with new paper labels placed over embossing for entirely different products and companies. Before 1862, for a Western company to have a bottle specifically made for them with their name on it, they would have to order them from glass companies located in the East. There are some Western bottles which were made for Western companies which were blown in the East. Many of these were made by the Union Glass Works in Philadelphia for soda water companies and, although they aren't of the same pedigree of San Francisco Glass Works glass, can be quite rare and collectible because of their association with the Gold Rush and the early development of California. Of course, a company did not need to have embossing on the bottle to stake their claim on the market. Most of them simply used a fancy label with their name on it to distinguish them from the competition. They would still order bottles from the East or buy them from a local recycler and then purchase the labels locally.
In 1862, Carlton Newman founded the American Bottle Works company with Patrick Brennan and began producing glass the very next year at the corner of Iowa and Mariposa Streets in San Francisco. By 1865 the two glassblowers left American Bottle Works to start their own company, called the San Francisco Glass Works. In 1868, it burned to the ground and within two years Newman built a new factory located on King Street near Fourth for production of amber, green and blue glassware. In 1876, the San Francisco Glass Works company bought out the stock of the fledgling American Bottle Works company and renamed the company San Francisco and American Bottle Works (SFPGW) with Carlton Newman serving as president. It was during this time that some of the most beautiful Western bottles were made. To this day, it is hard to determine which examples of particular bottles belong to which glass house. There are some revealing clues with the most prevalent being the distinctiveness to the characters on the glass. SFPGW is attributed with having a particular and consistent curved "R" on bottles that were made by their mold makers. This trademark identifies the fact that it was not only blown in the West, but by the SFPGW, makers of the most popular Western bottles collected today.
Some of the many bottles blown by both houses and eventually the SFPGW, were soda bottles, whiskey bottles and flasks, medicine bottles, inkwells, utility bottles and fruit jars, demijohns covered in wicker,and almost every other type of bottle one could imagine. Window pane glass was an exception because of the difficulty of producing glass panes. A glass house would specifically have to dedicate its entire operation to that area of production. Newman knew the real value of his company was in producing bottles for new companies eager to have a bottle embossed with their own company name on it. In addition to the name of your company, for a price, you could also choose a special design to be embossed on your bottle, or even a picture. Animals were popular embossing patterns on bottles made in the 1870's, including birds, horses, deer and of course, the bear as the mighty symbol of California . Mold makers spent a great deal of time and effort perfecting their craft and the varied and detailed designs that remain today are truly a thing of beauty.
Some of the bottles desired by collectors of Western glass are generally broken up into six categories. They are medicines, inkwells, sodas, whiskeys, bitters and fruit jars. The value is then further defined by rarity: how many of this particular bottle were produced and are in the market today. Crudity is another very important factor: if there are bubbles in the glass or if the top is uneven, then the value goes up. Color is also important and a defining characteristic. One example might be worth $100, while the same bottle in a different color might be worth $1000. Other factors include an unusual shape, a misspelling on the bottle or a known factory defect. There were quite a few backward "S's" that were mistakenly put on early Western-made bottles. Age, as one could imagine, is an important guiding factor in the desirability of bottles. Bottle making in the West having began around 1860 and most very important and desirable pieces were only produced for a period of about thirty five years. Most of the truly good bottles from San Francisco, the era in which collectors might call the Golden Era of Western Glass, were blown from 1862 to 1889. After 1890, many of the bottles were made using new glass blowing techniques and modern, high production equipment. These bottles have tooled tops instead of hand applied tops and are generally less crude and more neatly made. These bottles are less desired by collectors today.
Most of the bottles produced in San Francisco were made for companies in the San Francisco area, but some bottles were made for smaller businesses throughout the West. Before 1862, small soda manufacturers in Gold Rush towns like Columbia and Shasta had bottles produced in the East and had them shipped to them for distribution of their soda waters. The miners liked to use the soda as a chaser with their favorite brand of whiskey, and it was welcomed after a long day at the mines. Quite often, the bubbling water was flavored and became a favorite for miners and young children. In an early form of recycling, the bottles were used over and over again. Most of those bottles didn't survive because of the rugged way of life in desolate towns like Columbia and Shasta. Those that did are buried in trash dumps and outhouses. The few examples that survive today are rarely ever seen, but are very collectible and sell for thousands of dollars.
Links of Interest
Antique Bottle and Glass Collector Magazine
A bottle magazine of the hobby.
Antique Bottle Collector Resource Guide
Pitkin Glassworks by Rick Ciralli
Mountain Bottle Exchange
A forum that serves antique bottle collectors and includes sections on the identification, cleaning, digging, finding and photographing of antique bottles.
Antique Bottle Collectors Haven
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