Old bottles just may be Maine's most ubiquitous - and underappreciated - antiques.
Maine hosts a small subculture of bottle diggers who spend their weekends and vacations scouring riverbanks, ravines, cellar holes, even retired privies. Most hope to unearth real treasure [For the rest of this story, see the March 2008 issue of Down East.]- a rarity like a nineteenth-century yellow-olive Farley's ink bottle, for example, could fetch several thousand dollars - but they also take great delight in comparatively common finds. An aqua sample bottle of Dr. Kilmer's Swamp Root Kidney Remedy is worth only a few dollars to a serious collector, but it's the sort of oddity that sets one musing about the beliefs and common afflictions of individuals who have long since shuffled off this mortal coil.
Too, even the commonest old flask sits pretty on a windowsill with sunlight filtering through gracefully curved glass tinted cobalt, sapphire, amethyst, or apple green. "They're like sculptures in glass," says Pelletier, of Gorham, the dean of Maine bottle collectors. "The colors are beautiful."
A retired high school biology teacher, Pelletier "really got going on bottles" in Connecticut in the 1960s when a friend took him along on a digging expedition at an old dump. "I dug up my first bottle and said, `Gee, Joe, this really looks old.' He offered me seventy-five dollars for it. I didn't sell it to him."
A few years later, when Pelletier was back in his native Maine, another collector pressed him for that same vessel, a bright emerald Lynch & Clark Saratoga Spring mineral water bottle dating to the 1820s. "I didn't really want to let it go, so I put a price on it that was way more than I thought it was worth," Pelletier says. "The guy bought it anyway."
Pelletier's Connecticut friend had not tried to cheat him. Rather, the market for old bottles had heated up, and fast. "When I came home in 1970, everybody was all excited about digging," Pelletier recalls. "There were four or five bottle clubs here in the state. The New England Antique Bottle Club used to meet up in Parsonsfield with about 150 members. That was the best way to learn in those days. You'd do a lot of reading, and you'd learn from other collectors."
But, as bottle dumps themselves testify, times change. Diggers are now more likely to celebrate their finds (dump locations, however, are closely guarded secrets) with peers from all over the world at online forums like antique-bottles.net. The New England club still meets, but active members have dwindled to a handful.
In addition, a lot of bottle dumps have already given up their treasures, though Pelletier guesses there are still heaps waiting to be discovered if increasingly posting-prone landowners would allow it. Naturally, with fewer dumps being dug, bottle prices are higher than ever. That Lynch & Clark bottle that Pelletier found more than forty years ago would sell today for four hundred to five hundred dollars, owing to its scarcity and unusual color.
Maine dumps yield some of the oldest bottles to be found in the country, but they also are challenging because any vessel close to the surface is liable to have broken in freezing temperatures. Pelletier himself no longer digs. Owner of the country's largest collection of Bininger bottles - the Bininger family of New York sold spirits for more than a century beginning in 1778 - he only trades in the rarest of bottles, pieces that are more likely to have spent decades gathering dust safely in a cellar rather than filling with water in the far corner of a hay field.
Thus, the old but relatively ordinary bottles that once filled the mysterious and always-closed E. Klaman Bottle shop in Portland's Old Port had no appeal for Pelletier when they were finally auctioned in 1997.
But Laura Fuller snapped up a number of them, including eight sweet little medicine bottles that are the focal points of a stunning stained glass piece hanging in the window of her Munjoy Hill art gallery. "I love all of them, any kind of glass that is old," says Fuller, whose passion for vintage bottles inspired her to become a glass artist. "I love the bubbles and the colors and the shapes. I love the rare ones, the collectibles, but my favorites are the ones that have iridescent stains, which render them worthless to collectors. I love that they went through peoples' hands, that they were used and then dug up and brought back to life. Who knows who wrote a letter with that ink bottle? It gives me chills to think about it."
Located across from the Portland Observatory, Fuller's gallery was a pharmacy in the early 1900s. If she ever had any doubts about moving there a year and half ago, it was put to rest when she removed wallboard and found the original drugstore shelves holding a few medicine bottles with labels like Dr. Gross' Neuralgic and Wampolo's Pulverous Pills. To those queer vials, Fuller has added the hundreds of bottles she has collected from antique stores, flea markets, and yard sales. Eventually she'll incorporate them into her artwork along with teardrop chandelier crystals, perhaps, or prisms, sea glass, flowery canning jar lids, and old light bulbs, all entwined in thorny vines of copper, tin, and silver. She has no time to dig anymore. "It's fun," she says, "but you have to have a day to put into it and really search."
Perhaps it's not quite accurate to suggest that most Maine bottle dumps have been picked over. For the past twenty-five years Richard Carney has enjoyed almost exclusive access to several bottle dumps in southern Maine. Moreover, his troves are like a restaurant's bottomless pasta bowl - they seem to refill with new goodies every year - and he freely names their locations to boot. That's because his favorite dumps are under water. Competition is not a big concern.
"I dive rivers, lakes, and oceans every week year-round," Carney says. "Broken and whole, I bring everything home, more than two thousand bottles a year. I've found medicine bottles from pretty much every town in Maine, embossed with place names that aren't even used anymore, like Saccarappa and Stickney Corners. A few years ago I introduced a friend to bottle diving in Harrison. There was an old house, and the family who lived there in the late 1800s would row out onto the lake and dump burlap bags of trash. My friend found thirty-three cobalt bottles and several silver-top salt and pepper shakers. He was hooked."
Filling dozens of buckets in his Brunswick basement, Carney's past year's take of bottles and shards await cleaning and sorting. The best bottles will be sold on eBay - an ornate deep teal pepper sauce bottle fished out of the Androscoggin River in Turner auctioned recently for $485 - while the rest eventually make their way into the small "glass room" adjacent to his office equipment repair shop. There he'll fashion them into crafts - the shards might become beach glass pendants, for example, while the broken bottles might be cut into sections for glass lampshades. A self-taught craftsman, Carney is particularly proud that one of his lampshades, made from pieces of bottles that would have been worth hundreds of dollars if whole and undamaged, decorates the bathroom of the country's preeminent bottle dealer.
Carney's favored sites include nine bridges from Westbrook to Damariscotta. "Every spring, because of the snow melt, new stuff is exposed," he says. "It's like a brand new dump every year." This winter he focused on old steamboat landing sites in Wiscasset's Sheepscot River. "In any direction you swim it's solid broken glass and pottery, and every year it's a whole new bottom because the tides just crank up there."
While bottles are his passion, Carney pulls all kinds of oddities out of the murky depths - marbles, clay pipes, china doll heads, sleigh bells, railroad lamp lenses. He sees still more that he has to leave behind, like safes and motorcycles. He sells the bottles and crafts only because his home would be overrun with vintage glass if he didn't. "It's not about the money for me," he says. "It's about the hunt."
Decorating with Bottles
Carol Bass has a soft spot for vintage Moxie bottles. Hers are untinted frosted glass embossed with the words, "Moxie Nerve Food."
"I like to place them on a table with a single lily flower in them," she says, "and I've given one to each of my children."
An artist and interior decorator, Bass is an occasional collector of old bottles, which she finds at her favorite antiques store in Topsham and, rarely, in the tidal mud around Yarmouth's Littlejohn Island, where she lives. With their graceful shapes, beautiful hues, and bubbly or wavy glass, the vessels suit the easy and comfortable Maine style that Bass has successfully marketed as the founder of Maine Cottage Furniture line and more recently as the author of three books on design.
Bass offers these tips for decorating with old bottles:
*Make a center grouping of bottles to run almost the length of your dining room, coffee, or bedside table. Place pieces from nature in each bottle - small, single sprigs of spruce, pine, or balsam, for example, or berries, black-eyed Susans, fall leaves, a single lily, or other large showy flower. "It depends on what's right outside and growing," Bass says. "A favorite of mine is one or two rhubarb leaves. They are stunning for the top of the bureau in a bedroom."
*Place one bottle at each guest's place at the dining room table. Insert a small flower, a squash blossom, a nasturtium or, for a lovely aroma, a sprig of dill or mint.
*Use an old Moxie bottle to show one or two flowers. Choose blooms with strong stems so they stand up straight.
*Old bottles are most at home on windowsills, where natural light illuminates their complex hues. "The subtle translucent colors sparkle in sunshine, and their shapes connect you with a lovely sense of history," Bass says.
*Collect bottles to give as gifts when you need something quick and unusual. Wrap it or simply present it with a flower from the garden. "It's a lovely gesture that shows personal thought," Bass says.
- By: Virginia M. Wright