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 SIXTEEN

 

It is with the onset of the Civil War that the next phase of bottle glass making begins. Although in use as early as 1850, widespread acceptance of the snap case did not occur until 1860 with some Glass Houses retaining use of the pontil rod until the middle of the decade. As the two-piece mold had done roughly half-a-century earlier, the snap case simplified the bottle making process and increased efficiency. The tool enabled the glassblower's apprentice to hold the bottle after removal from the mold and during mouth application without use of a pontil rod, greatly diminishing the numbers of bottles broken during the rather invasive empontiling process. This breakthrough was soon followed by further refinements that made it possible for glassblowers to give the mouth of a bottle general form within the mold itself, enabling glassblowers to simply tool, rather than apply the mouths. As these changes occurred, the roles of both glassblowers and apprentices were altered and the bottles that they produced became increasingly uniform, gradually losing the individual touches that had lent earlier bottles a folky charm. Increasing uniformity was also the end result of increasingly refined glass batches cooked at higher temperatures in larger pots. Rather than the crude, primitive and often naturally colored glass bottles of previous eras, the bottles of the post Civil War era were increasingly "plain" in their texture, often lacking the bubbles, stones and overall crudity of earlier vessels.

In spite of the industry's increasing turn towards standardization and uniformity, the Civil War and Reconstruction era was the source of many inspired bottle designs. Most notable among these bottles are the so-called "figural" bitters, which were first brought out sometime around 1860 and remained wildly popular through the 1870s. Although decidedly different in form from bottles that had preceded them, the iconography offered by the figural bitters bottles reflects the traditional American symbols found on earlier bottles and flasks. With that said, the fancifully designed bottles produced and patented by Drake, Brown, Kelly, Greeley and other bitters merchants of the era marked an exciting change within the bottle making field. This transformation was the natural result of several factors, most notably the rise of the Temperance Movement and the resulting effect upon the popularity of liquor. That the medicinal "bitters" now enjoyed in great quantities were little more than herb flavored alcohol was apparently not widely known or discussed, as many a Temperance Man would happily take his bitters "Morning, Noon and Night" while at the same time bemoaning the evils of hard liquor. In this manner it was deemed perfectly reasonable for a man or woman to drain half-a-bottle of bitters each day, just so long as it was not "liquor" from a figured flask. As a result, bitters merchants embraced usage of two-piece molds and the snap case technology unlike any other category of bottlers, creating distinctive vessels of lasting importance by playing to the popularity of "Bitters-Taking."

Unlike the bitters bottles of the previous era (which were indistinguishable from patent medicine types), figural bitters bottles were recognizable at a glance and they successfully aroused patriotic sentiments through usage of traditional iconography as well as Civil War and Centennial symbolism. In reinterpreting traditional themes while at the same time offering objects of current relevance, bitters makers successfully followed the path of figured flasks in the creation of their distinctively formed bottles. In addition, these figural bottles successfully played upon the public's growing embrace of "fancy" not only in the complexity of the molds in which they were created but also in the rainbow of colors in which they were blown. Though generally uniform in capacity, these figural bottles were at the outset quite crude, as it took a skillful blower to correctly gather a proper amount of metal at the end of the blowpipe before inflation into the mold and thus the number of underblown and overblown bottles certainly outweighs those formed to perfection. Evidence of hand-craftsmanship can also be found in the often crudely rendered applied collars that topped most bitters bottles of the period.

Blown in the shapes of log cabins, barrels, ears of corn and Indian Maidens, it was not long before figural bitters bottles surpassed the figured flasks in the numbers in which they were produced. Other bitters bottles of the era included those blown in the form of pigs, fish and numerous bottle designs inspired by the Civil War and the upcoming Centennial. Also popular were roped corner semi-cabins and simple square, case-style bottles, much like those popularized by Dr. Townsend several decades earlier. Of the square bottles, Dr. J. Hostetter's were the most popular and they were produced at a multitude of Glass Houses (primarily in the Pittsburgh area) for nearly half-a-century. Though the design of the bottle itself was not complex, Hostetter adorned his bottles with fanciful labels depicting St. George on horseback slaying a dragon. Other bitters manufacturers followed suit and it became common for non-figural bottles of the period to sport colorful labels to attract the eye of the public.


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