Most of the time we’re just trying to get rid of them.
We look the recycling drop-off locations closest to us and keep a box under our kitchen sink that we fill until it becomes too full to ignore. But many glass bottles are quite valuable, sometimes going for hundreds or thousands of dollars.
Tim Adams from Wilkesboro sits at a table near the entrance of the Farmers Curb Market in Greensboro on Sunday, waiting for interested buyers to stop and pick up one of the many glass bottles he’s brought from his collection. The bottle show, which is sponsored by the Southeast Bottle Club, is in its 18th year and draws hundreds of enthusiasts from across the state and beyond each year.
“I started collecting when I was 13,” Adams says. “Mostly bitters, mostly alcohol, mineral waters. I would go through old houses in Wilkesboro and dig through old dumps.”
One of the most intriguing pieces at his booth is a dark amber colored bottle shaped like a fish. Designed and patented by William Harrison Ware in 1866, the bottle is a popular one among collectors because of its unique design and range of colors including clear, aqua, amber, yellow, cobalt blue and more. While some of the more common colors like amber could sell for about $75 a bottle, other more rare pieces could sell for hundreds or more. In 2012, a glass fish bottle sold for $175,000.
“These had craftsman pride,” Adams says about the bitters bottle.
“Everything was done with pride. Artisans would compete. The bottles were made with blown glass with a mold but after a certain point, everything began to be made by machines.”
Adams, who has close to 500 bottles in his collection, says that the three main things collectors look for when purchasing pieces are color, condition and location.
Jason Burnett, a collector making the rounds at the show, describes a milk bottle that he’s just bought. He’s been collecting for about a decade after bonding with his grandfather over the hobby.
“It’s something we did together,” Burnett says. And now, even after his grandfather has passed away, Burnett continues to hunt for pieces to add to his collection of about 50 bottles. He sticks to mostly bottles that have a tie to Salisbury where he’s from. The milk bottle that he’s just purchased is from the early ’40s or ’50s and is embossed with the town name.
“People like something close to them because they can associate with them,” says Bill Owen, a collector and vendor at the show. “You have a feeling of that area’s presence.”’
Owen has been collecting for more than 30 years and mostly dabbles in soda bottles because of their diversity. He goes to antique shops, shows and flea markets to hunt for his pieces but talks about a time when enthusiasts could dig bottles up out of the ground where old landfills used to be. These days, it’s rare that collectors find pieces that way.
“It’s an enjoyable hobby because it’s endless in interest,” says Owen. “Some people like milk bottles, others like soda bottles, bitters, poison.”
That last one is the category that Joan Cabaniss focuses on. Settled at a table near the entrance of the show, Cabaniss wears a light green knit sweater and a skull bracelet on her arm. She’s been called the Queen of Poison at events like this. She recalls going to an antique market in the late ’70s in Hillsville, Va., where she spent all the cash she had brought on a set of glass bottles.
“I saw a set of them with the sun shining through,” she says. “And I thought they were the prettiest thing I had ever seen.”
Since then, Cabaniss has amassed almost 700 bottles in her collection, most of them American poison bottles.
On the table in front of her, tiny glass bottles of cobalt blue and amber sit with faded labels that read “carbolic acid” and “bichloride of mercury.”
Most of them measure just a few inches tall and have distinct ridges and decorative lines that distinguish them from one another. Cabaniss says the markings made it easier to tell them apart in the dark. Others were shaped like coffins and even had tablets that matched the bottle shapes. She says the most desirable ones are usually ones shaped like skulls. These can cost thousands of dollars. One of the most famous varieties, an English blue glass coffin bottle, could go for about $100,000, according to Cabaniss because of its rarity; fewer than four were made.
On the other side of the show, Bob Jochums collects the opposite of poison bottles — medicine and cure bottles. A retired pharmacist, Jochums says he began collecting about 25 years ago. While he initially collected medicine bottles, after a few years, he decided to hone in specifically on cure bottles to focus his collection. In order for a bottle to count as such, it has to be marked with the word “cure” or a variation of the word somewhere on the piece.
The pieces on his display boast cures for a number of antiquated illnesses like polar cough and dysentery. Most of his pieces date before 1910, when the bodies of the bottles were blown into molds and the neck and the mouths were finished by hand. He points out a visible seam where the mold would come together on the body of the bottle and the point at which the seam would stop, near the bottom of the neck of the piece. After the 1910s, however, Jochums points out that machines finished the whole bottle so the seam would extend all the way to the top. That’s how he knows the relative age of the pieces.
He says that the in addition to the color, the age of the bottles can peak people’s interests.
“If you show most people a bottle, they’ll say it’s just an old bottle,” Jochums says. “But every once in a while, you’ll find someone that says, ‘Wow, that’s 130 years old and it hasn’t been broken.’ And that’s pretty cool.”