The New Era - All about Sweet Home since 1929

Old bottles tell all manner of tales from days of yore


December 2, 2020

THE MUSEUM'S parlor room display includes a variety of bottles from days gone by.

This is a tale of old bottles.

Once, a pair of 5-year-old twins lived in a little house with their mother and father and younger sister and brother. About two blocks south flowed a small river.

On an overcast, cold, late fall day the two young girls were sent out to play in their yard but their interests lay elsewhere. Before long, pulling their small red wagon, they were river-bound.

They remembered a path leading from the river bank down to a broad gravael bar. In the summer, they'd gone with others to swim when the water was low.

This day, the river ran fast and high. However, on the bank side where the girls headed lay a shallow slough separated from the river itself by the gravel bar.

And in the slough, the duo found treasures. The girls were not planning to go swimming. They were dressed warmly for the day, in matching navy blue coats with a military cut honoring the war just ending, and long, perpetually sagging brown cotton stockings.

They mined the slough's edge, loading their wagon with a wealth of discarded bottles and jars.

As they left the slough and its enticing sand and cattails, one twin pulled the wagon and the other carefully cradled something in her hands. What she held made the sister with the wagon so envious the feeling never quite went away.

"Mamma, Mamma, look what we've found," they chorused as they returned to the family yard. The mother stepped out on the porch.

"Hold out your hand," the lucky twin said. Into the mother's out-stretched hand she dropped a small, clammy, orange and brown water dog, the amphibian torpid from the cold.

Their mother's reaction turned the twins apprehensive.

"Yetch," she exclaimed, dropping the poor creature, which its finder quickly retrieved. If she had really known where the girls had been, she would not have said what she did.

Her eyes on the wagon, "Take that back where you found it," she ordered and she returned inside to her two younger children.

A pair of very disappointed sisters trudged back to the river and the salamander returned to its home and the slough near bottles and jars carefully arranged in the sand.

But for one twin, the enticement of encountering those relics of the near and distant past never left. And it still exists in the realm of the East Linn Museum where a variety of well-aged bottles are on display.

Who knows, perhaps some were plucked from a slough during the days when rivers were seen as conduits available for ridding the landscape of sewage and household debris.

Considering the tale of the twins, we can be thankful ecology makes us more careful and aware of nature, even if for old bottle admirers finding the once discarded seems rewarding.

It's true. One person's trash can look treasurable to another, especially if it's a truly well-aged bottle revealed in a river bank by a passing flood.

When we think of how rare it is becoming to encounter vintage bottles of the past two centuries, it can be jarring to realize how many thousands, even millions, were made and how diverse they were.

It's not that the bottles held so many different contents. Just so many more small businesses seem to have been in production only to have disappeared.

We can see a little of this in the museum's collection, old bottles tucked here and there to be displayed.

For example, in the parlor a bitters bottle, a gin bottle and a Haynor whiskey bottle join several flasks. Does Bouvier Bachu gin still come in tall, transparent bottles anywhere?

And, whereas bitters as medicinals potently full of alcohol once held popularity in areas which had outlawed whiskey, wine and beer but not medicinals, are many bitters distillers left?

Two ceramic jin bottles displayed on an organ once contained tiger whiskey popular among the Chinese workers building the ill-fated railroad over the Santiam Pass, intended to connect Yaquina City on the coast with Boise, Idaho.

Can we imagine a similar history for the Bouvier Bachu gin bottle? No, because like other bottles in the museum, we don't know where it was found and we do know the jin bottles came from the Pass.

We have to take old bottles at face value and not think, "gin, gin, gin, sin again." But right there an aged gin bottle makes a sort of social statement.

Alcohol certainly can be associated with old bottles. Partly this is because it commonly featured as a solvent and preservative in such goods as flavoring extracts and proprietary and patent medicines.

A number of extract bottles show up on the museum shelves. In the kitchen we can find examples of J. Folger's Golden Gate flavoring extracts. What we wish we have is a Palace Car Vanilla bottle.

In her remembrances of Sweet Home, Frances Horner wrote in "The Golden Arrow and Other Stories" of the popularity among imbibers of Palace Car Vanilla. She recalled one celebrant inviting all to "Come aboard the Palace Car" on a holiday occasion in the allegedly "dry" past.

Besides, according to legend, many loggers in remote camps also had a fondness for shots of vanilla extract like Palace Car and of lemon extract when strong liquor was forbidden.

In contrast, most flavoring bottles at the museum are smaller, holding but a few ounces not the quarts a cookhouse might have. For the sake of local history, a Palace Car Vanilla larger brown and square bottle is needed.

Naturally, the museum collection is happenstance; it is dependent on what shows up. One beer bottle and no wines appear, perhaps as a reflection of those dry years before and during Prohibition. Bootleggers allegedly filled a void and, likely also, Mason jars.

In their visit to the slough, the twins may have encountered beer bottles and many of us can recall how ubiquitous they were even if we grew up in a family where alcohol seldom featured.

According to a time line of history, Alexander Nowell, the dean of St. Paul's in London, first bottled beer in 1568. Jugs and kegs we assume were used before then because beer had been around for several thousand years.

Thus, this omission at the museum is a little surprising. Many of us can recall when we drank homemade root beer from brown beer bottles and pretended to be adult, or even when we went along with a more sophisticated friend to knock timidly at a tavern door in order to sell beer bottles for a penny apiece, children not being allowed inside.

Better to sell pop bottles at three cents apiece. In the days of penny candy, even a penny bought something.

There are some pop bottles in the museum. Coca-Cola bottles include an unusual one, a clear hobble-skirt with Arabic lettering from Egypt. Coca-Cola was one product which helped eliminate a number of smaller competitors worldwide with its trademark hobble skirt bottles. Why hobble skirt? Such garments, long narrow skirts which left a woman mincing, were in vogue when the Coke bottle in its traditional form was designed.

There are at least two different accounts of how the Coke bottle got its shape. One says it copied the outline of a bud from a coca plant from which cocaine is derived. Another is that it reflects the shape of a cola seed in a pod.

Either way, the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act likely helped remove any narcotic effects of Coca-Cola from the current product, although the drink came out as a medicinal tonic, initially.

One good older soda bottle made by the Seattle bottling works has a blob top and the heavy glass meant to keep effervescence in control. It opened with a wire closure.

Such bottles are claimed to have opened with a pop, which resulted in "pop" becoming a name for soda. Many older bottles are embossed with the names of their proprietors, their cities of origin and/or the product even when they originally featured paper labels.

In the bedroom layout at the museum, a number of pharmaceutical bottles have been collected naming nearby towns here as point of origin, Albany, Eugene, Portland and adding the druggists' identifications.

In the past, teams of six men and boys worked together as a production crew. Their leader blew the molten glass into molds and each individual played a definite role finishing off a bottle.

Engraved metal plates fitted into the various types of molds were etched to specification and provided those embossments which added to the identity and history of the bottle.

In 1903 the bottle making machine came into use, greatly increasing the number of bottles produced, but, we can suspect, decreasing their individuality.

Some nice fancy bottles, for example, are pretty enough to hold a floral arrangement, but minus a label, we don't know if they held perfume or pepper sauce.

On the other hand, embossed or not, repurposed bottles show up with surprising contents like the tooth powder bottle in George Ernest Whitcomb's field test kit. He used the kit while prospecting along the South Santiam River and up in the Quartzville area and with it he included a perfume bottle with poison clearly marked across its label.

Other repurposed bottles are found in the logging area. They have steel hooks thrust into their necks, making them handy to hang from a nearby stump or tree. Apparently, they could be used to carry oil for cleaning saw blades to keep them sliding easily through a tree.

The smaller of the two has the distinctive shape of a Heinz catsup bottle.

Two sorts of really intriguing bottles stand located in the back annex.

One unprepossessing smaller container says it was used for Thomas Edison battery oil and it stands near automotive parts, Battery oil? Is there an explanation for this?

The other sort includes several individual bottles arranged upside down in a case, four in the visible row: Red Comet fire grenades. What we see are red balls of glass. The red coloring comes from the fire retardant inside and the grenades turn out to be balloon shaped bottles without flat bottoms.

Designed to be broken, they were to be flung on a fire: "Take that, you wicked flames!" We can wonder how effective they were. Not as controllable as a fire extinguisher, we suspect.

Those of us who enjoy looking at old bottles and like finding them even better, realize millions and millions have been made, since silica is the primary component of bottle glass and the sand from which bottles are made can be recycled again and again and returned by age and nature in the long run to nearly their original state.

In the meantime, old bottles with embossment or particular shapes or made by hand or machine add to social history.

Most don't have a great deal of value. Those more prized have particular distinctions like figurals – bottles shaped like something you would recognize by color or ssociated with particular men and events.

Think of knowing we had a bottle used by George Washington in his whiskey-making business. We're more likely to find him profiled in a figural!

The East Linn's bottles are but an intriguing smattering. But a stroll through the Museum cataloging the inks, medicinals, extracts, patent medicines and soda pops and the alcohols can be amusing for those interested in old bottles since discovering someone's trash can be treasure, as a child knows.

We can imagine bottles clinking and being shipped in a united country by freight wagon, steam boat, train and ocean going steamer. There's a whole lot of history to explore, some of it at the East Linn Museum.

We are sorry to say the Museum will be closed from now to March. We usually close for January and February, but the virus is hastening us out.

So let all stay healthy and happy. And may we celebrate when this is over by looking at some old bottles...

If you have some that you'd like to contribute for our collection and possible display, contact us at (541) 367-4580.


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