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 ONE

 

Although there were six or seven attempts to create a Glass House in the colonies during the 17th and early 18th century, the American Bottle Glass Industry was not born until 1739, when Casper Wistar established a small Glass House in Salem County New Jersey. Originally employing six German Glassblowers working from a single furnace, Wistarburgh (as the Glass House and Community was known) produced bottles, window glass and table wares for the local market. It is from these humble beginnings that the Bottle Glass Industry found its footing and with steady growth over the next century and a half, glassblowing and bottle making would become America's Largest Industry.

Along with the industry's unbridled growth came noticeable change in the types of vessels produced in Domestic Glass Houses and it is my intention to highlight the evolution of form and design in American bottles from the mid-18th century to the creation of the Automatic Bottle machine in 1903. This transformation is the natural result of multiple forces, including technological advancements, evolution of aesthetic tastes and public morality, changing political climates, expanding markets (a result of advances in transportation as well as population growth), increased demand for potable storage and the desire for specifically designed bottles as a means of marketing new commercial products. In turn, bottles were transformed from hand-crafted, individualized objects of personalized expression into increasingly uniform and standardized vessels of mass-production.

In discussing the evolution of form and design and the transformation from art to industry, I have attempted to break the century and a half span of growth into five distinct periods. In doing so, I am reminded that Helen McKearin at one time wisely noted that any discussion of distinct periods within the glass industry should be punctuated by commas rather than periods. As an apprentice driven craft, glassblowing forms and techniques often lingered from one generation to the next, especially in the earliest stages of growth, making any line drawn in the sand a perilous proposition indeed. With that said, each of the five ascribed periods is marked by distinctly different manufacturing techniques, forms and designs, even if the beginning and end dates are at times a bit hazy. Lasting from 1739 to roughly 1815, the "Colonial Period" is characterized by individualized objects of personal expression blown in the English and German traditions. The second period of bottle making, an era I have termed "Becoming American," is marked by the birth of distinctly American forms and designs, most notably the emergence of the figured flask. Beginning in 1830, the third period, a time I have termed "Expansion," runs until the Civil War. It is within this era and in the context of the expanding American System that bottle making begins the transition from art to industry. The fourth period, including the Civil War and Reconstruction era, ends in the 1880s and it is characterized by the emergence of the figural bitters bottle and the general influence of Victorian tastes. The final period, aptly entitled "Industrialization," comes to a close in 1903 with Michael Owens' patent of the Automatic Bottle Machine and the near total mechanization of the bottle making industry.

Discussion of the Colonial Period will include an overview of the individualized, hand-crafted vessels of the era, including pattern molded pocket flasks, black glass "junk" bottles, black glass spirits bottles, chestnut flasks and globular bottles, dip molded jars, medicine vials and utility bottles and finally, blown and pattern molded inkwells. Our study of the second period will focus upon the emergence of the figured flask, touch upon the impact of blown-three-mold and briefly reflect upon the continued influence of Colonial Period forms and techniques. In discussing the three decades of growth I have termed "Expansion," we will explore the evolution of the figured flask and consider the impact of personalized two and three-piece molds in the production of patent and proprietary medicine bottles, mineral waters, sodas, "common" utility bottles, inkwells and food jars. Consideration of the Civil War era will include a discussion on the emergence of figural bitters, whiskeys and inkwells, the decline of the figured flasks and the persistence of form within patent medicines, "common" utility bottles and sodas and mineral waters. Our study of the "Industrial Period" will be brief and focused primarily upon the role of the Automatic Bottle Machine and the triumph of industry over art.

In discussing each of the aforementioned periods an attempt will be made to place the bottle making industry within the social, political and economic contexts that define the era.

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