Jeff and Holly Noordsy

Dealers Specializing in the Sale of Early American Bottles, Glass and Period Decorative Arts

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THE EVOLUTION OF FORM AND DESIGN IN AMERICAN BOTTLES: 1739-1903

CHRONICLING THE TRANSFORMATION FROM ART TO INDUSTRY

As Presented by Jeff and Holly Noordsy at the Eastfield Village Glass Symposium in August 2005

 

CHAPTER NINETEEN

 

By 1880 however, bottles of all types were to evolve once again. With the closing of most New England Glass Factories in the 1870s, the great majority of bottles from this period were being blown in the Mid-Atlantic States and the Midwest. By this time, individual expression within the creation of molded bottles was rapidly disappearing. Whereas bottles of the previous period retained some degree of hand-craftsmanship, bottles blown after 1880 were mass-produced objects of great uniformity that bore little evidence of personal expression or individual craftsmanship. With technological advances enabling production of bottles with lips and collars formed in the mold, glassblowers were no longer responsible for mouth application, instead simply "tooling" the bottle's mouth to finished form. Increasingly simplified in form, lacking individuality and blown from highly refined metal, bottles of the Industrial Period had lost the "soul" found in earlier production objects.

With the exception of a small group of flasks blown for the Cleveland and McKinley campaigns, figured flasks had largely been displaced from the glassblowers' lexicon by simple, personalized whiskey flasks, first with a simple medial rib and later with strapped sides. This trend towards simplification was echoed in the sudden decline of figural bitters bottles, which were largely replaced by square and rectangular bottles by the 1880s. In fact, the move towards increasingly generic, less sophisticated bottle designs can be seen in most every category, with the bottles of H.H. Warner and Co. a notable exception. As with those successful patent medicine salesmen that had come before him, Warner understood the value of distinctive packaging and he bottled his various elixirs in a multitude of intriguingly formed vessels. With that said, although certainly of visual interest as a result of the mold design, Warner's bottles show little evidence of hand-craftsmanship and thus they do not differ markedly from the general trend of the period.

As a rule, the mass-produced bottles of the late 19th century retained few connections to the artistic, individualized objects that gave the industry its start. Although still at times attractive to the eye, as in the case of colored jars and blue poison bottles, these late-production items are generally standardized, uniform and relatively indistinguishable from each other, even though they were still made by the human hand.

It is with Michael Owens' Automatic Bottle Machine patent in 1903 that the golden age of bottle making comes to end. Revolutionizing the industry by removing glassblowers from the bottle making process altogether, Owens' invention could readily do the work of twelve skilled glassblowers through use of a single machine. The process utilized a piston driven pump to push a perfectly sized gather of molten glass into a mold and then transferred the gather into a second mold where it was blown to exact size and shape by reversing the pump. The resulting bottles needed no hand-finishing whatsoever, dramatically decreasing labor costs and by 1904, Owens had refined the process to such a degree that his machine could create four bottles each second. Although not immediately adopted by Glass Houses nationwide, Owens' machine was in widespread use by 1910.

By removing any influence of hand craftsmanship and necessitating use of simplified molds, Owens' machine marked the end of the gradual transition of an artistic, small-scale craft marked by personal expression to a large-scale, industrial process with no evidence of individuality or glassblowing skill. This transformation was lauded by industrialists, who were now able to buy and produce bottles at much lower prices, increasing profits and (theoretically) reducing consumer costs. For those who think of bottle making as an art the Automatic Bottle Machine it is the final nail in the coffin of a once artistically inspired trade that gradually lost touch with its humble beginnings and evolved into one of the country's largest industries.



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