BOTTLE BUFFS READ
HISTORY IN OLD GLASS
The Panama Canal Review . . . May 1968
The clink of a spade striking
glass is music to the ear of the bottle buff digging in hard ground.
Carefully, diligently, and expectantly, he digs away not to break r mar the object which
may be a rare specimen - or just another piece of broken glass. Searching for
bottles which are no longer in use can be great fun and working toward a collection, an
absorbing and satisfying hobby.
More than a dozen bottle enthusiasts in the Canal Zone pursue this fascinating activity. They are unsung historians who, by piecing together bits of information on bottles, are digging out facts about different areas and eras of culture. They have the fun of buying and selling or swapping their loot which may have come from the dump!
Bottle collecting is becoming more and more popular in the historically colorful Isthmus where Spanish, English and French pirates trod the trail from the Chagres River to Panama City. Years later, the 49'ers used the same route to go from New York to the gold fields of California.
Many tossed their empties of whisky in the brush after quenching a tropical thirst. Later still, thousands of construction workers on the Canal added their depleted bottles of bitters, whiskey and patent medicines to the debris on the Isthmus. Much of this accumulation, bottles which were not broken or pulverized, plus bottles which once contained food, cosmetics, and household liquids, now lie half buried in the jungle, in the sea, in old dumps, and anywhere that man paused to feed himself and administer to his ailments.
Collectors rummaging for these early day bottles on the Las Cruces trail
have found hand blown bottles dating back to the 1860's, and flaws and
color of several finds indicate much older bottles. Very often they pick
up pieces, necks and bottoms with blob seals. Finding one of these often
gets a person hooked on bottles. More fortunate collectors have found
valuable coins without too much effort.
Bottle collecting on the Isthmus does not involve a great deal of back-breaking digging. On weekends, collectors may be found scavenging old dumps, uncovering jungle growths, and even donning scuba diving gear to search in the ocean. Remains of the original 25 Canal construction townsites are the most fertile grounds and have exposed many rare old bottles. Areas such as Gorgona, Culebra, Matachin, San Pablo, Las Cascadas, Lion Hill, Nombre de Dios, and many other Canal construction sites once inhabited by workers have left a legacy of beautiful black glass, clay, stoneware, aquamarine, and other crudely made bottles. They have been found under sidewalks, beneath fallen tree trunks, in the water and in old bottle dumps. A collector knows that pieces of broken glass glistening in the distance my be the key to an old dump and a depression near an old building may have been a garbage dump and yield rare old bottles.
Taboga Island with its historic past, has rewarded collectors with perhaps the most valuable specimens in terms of years. As far back as the 16th Century Taboga and its surrounding islands supplied provisions for Panama City. Galleons for the conquest of Peru were built here and these same ships, laden with gold treasures, stopped here where the riches were unloaded for an overland trip to the Atlantic coast of the Isthmus, and from there on to Spain aboard ship.
Later Taboga harbor was a hive of activities offering snug mooring, fresh water and supplies for vessels plying the Pacific. Ships from many nations stopped at the Pacific Mail Steamship Company coal houses and machine shop and took on or deposited Welsh coal and bottles of medicine potions (some made by a Scotchwoman there). Canal Zone bottle collectors diving in Taboga Bay bring up these bottle of medicine potions, compounds of castor oil, soda water and whisky.
The soda water bottles, called tear drops by collectors, were often used as ballast in ships from England and Scotland. Several of these, filled with dirt, marine life and bearing barnacles are now in the possession of Canal Zone collectors. Some of the oldest Taboga bottles have been found by scuba diver collector Sgt. Dion Daugherty. One of the finest specimens has been found by shell-collector Elizabeth Ballerini (wife of a Gorgas Hospital doctor) on Kobbe Beach across from Taboga.
On the Atlantic side, bottle collectors Luke Palumbo and Jim Collins search for old bottles out toward Fort Sherman and San Lorenzo. Palumbo's collection contains several handblown bottles, black glass square bottles, inkwells and a variety of medicine containers. Bottle collecting is a family project with the Collins family which includes 5 children - all avid collectors. Their collection of approximately 300 specimens includes bottles and inkwells from many parts of the world. Of particular interest are several one gallon moonshine jugs from Jamaica, France, and the United States and medicine bottles which are embossed with porcelain. Several bottles date prior to 1849, probably 1830's and early 40's and some bottles Collins dug in a village, which according to maps, dated back to 1763.
One of the first Canal Zone collectors was Adrien Bouche, member of a well-known Canal Zone family, who began digging about 20 years ago when bottle collecting was little known on the Isthmus. His collection, relatively small in number, is compensated by the high quality of his selections. Bouche believes that the most valuable bottles come from deep in the ground and that is where most of his come from - the old townsite dumps at Gorgona, La Pita, the Las Cruces trail and the sites of towns in existence before Canal construction days.
A Chinese rice vinegar jug and two lovely Chinese bottle which look like vases, and probably contained wine, are outstanding in the collection. These bottles may be an indication that Chinese had once established themselves as merchants in food in these areas. Several old beer bottles he found in La Pita (a signal station on the Cut), and labeled Drew's Doppell Kronenbier, are the only ones of this type to be found in the Isthmus. Perhaps a La Pita resident had a particular fondness for that German brew and imported it for his exclusive drinking pleasure.
A handblown bottle he picked up in Boquete showing the whittle marks of a wooden mold is truly a collector's treasure. Two dog-bottles (having pictures of dogs) Bouche picked up in a drainage ditch excavation in Bocas del Toro, marked JJW Peters, one with a dog's head and the other plain, are more than 100 years old.
In digging up these relics Bouche has exposed such articles as old wood and coal burning stoves, grates, coins, iron beds, springs, high-button shoes, spittoons, clay pipes and any other objects of a bygone era. Some of the bottles found in the entanglement of these articles have a film over the glass caused by the action of water seepage on the old imperfect glass. The glazed clay bottles he has found buried deep in the earth have an etching caused by alkaline substances which has worked on the glass over many years.
It is apparent that a large number of clay bottles (some made by Doulton) reached the Isthmus from England and Scotland. They are the most common bottles found in the Canal Zone collections. These hardy empties were used (upside down) to outline graves and gardens. Their ruggedness is responsible for their surviving the ravages of time.
Frank Robinson, who is with the Hydrology Section of the Interoceanic Canal Studies, and his brother John, who began collecting in 1950, are among the early Canal Zone bottle buffs. Their parents also were Canal Zone bottle collectors before them. Frank Robinsons's collection includes a variety of magnificent case bottles, the very dark bottles whose square shape allowed 12 bottles to be packed in a case. The elegant large bottles contained gin from Holland. Among his outstanding and beautiful case bottles is one picked up by a friend at an old abandoned tin mine in Australia.
James Fulton, a newcomer among the bottle collectors, has amassed a collection of approximately 1,500 specimens in about 1 year of bottle hunting. His most recent acquisition is a lovely demijohn found in the Interior of Panama which could be 150 years old. His large collection consists of every variety of bottle on the Isthmus. There are clay beers, taper gins, bitters, cosmetics, Paraiso Springs Coca-Cola, wines, black glass, blue medicine, inks and many others. His favorite is the square Aromatic Schnappes bottle from Holland. Fulton has found most of his bottles along the Canal and not more then 2 inches below the ground.
J.P. McLaren, Chief of the Sanitation Division, an enthusiastic collector, is currently displaying a bottle collection at the Canal Zone Library Museum. His remarkable collection of approximately 500 quality bottles includes beverages, household and patent medicine bottles from many parts of the world -the U.S., the Caribbean, many European countries and from as far off as India. He points out Canal Zone bottles which are collectors' items simply because they are bottles of this area. One of the oldest is a Niagara bottle embossed with the names J.E.Dumcombe, Canal Zone, R.P., and I.L. Maduro, Canal Zone, which contained soda water, lemonade and other sweetened carbonated beverages, and has a marble in its pinched top to let out a jigger at a time. The same bottle has been found embossed "Isthmian Aerated Water Factory, Colon" showing the wide usage of all bottles for different beverages. Medicine bottles in the MacLaren collection bear such names as Pink Pills for Pale People, Lydia Pinkhams; Blood Purifier, Benjamin's Lung Balm, Davis Vegetable Pain Killer, Chamberlain's Colic, Cholera and Diarrhea Remedy, and Morses Indian Root Pills.
It is interesting to note that the patent medicine habit was a serious and dangerous one in the United States at the turn of the century. A mother who gave her child a dose of Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup was actually doping the child to sleep with opium! When our grandmothers nipped a bottle of Ayer's Cherry Pectoral for their colds, they were drinking a mixture of 34 percent heroin! A large number of these products found their way to the Canal Zone.
Bottle collectors usually classify their bottles according to the contents they once contained. Bottles for beverages probably have the most extensive assortment with bitters bottles taking the lead. When a stiff tax on the sale of gin and the number of pubs went into effect in England, a surprising number of apothecary shops came into existence selling medicinal gin to help cure the ailments of the day. The practice carried across the Atlantic to the United States and a new product, bitters, was born and became very popular. More than 400 kinds of bitters were put on the market to relieve the aches, pains and thirst of our ancestors who enjoyed their liquor under the guise of cure-alls. Many of these are found in the Canal Zone bottle collections.
Dating a bottle and getting the facts of a find may involve considerable research such as writing to companies, researching lists of businesses which have been inactive for many years, and contacting other bottle collectors. The actual value of a bottle is not necessarily determined by age. A collector may be interested in embossed bottles, bottles of a certain age, color, shape or height, bottles of a particular method of manufacture , or other categories according to his whims. Collectors know that bottles made from earliest times to about 1860 were free blown, made by a glassblower who dipped the end of his blowpipe into a pot of molten glass and the size and shape of the bottle was determined by blowing and reheating the bubble at the end of the blowpipe. The worker cut the glass from the blowpipe leaving a rough scar referred to as a pontil mark. This mark is the surest sign of a valuable collectable bottle. Free blown bottles were never alike. They were often lopsided, had uneven walls and crudely applied lips, as the lip was applied after the bottle was shaped. Another sure sign of a very old bottle is a "sheared lip" (before 1840). The lip was formed by simply cutting the glass free of the blowpipe with a pair of shears, leaving the lip with a stovepipe look. After 1840, bottle makers applied a ring of glass around the sheared lip. Wooden molds were used from about 1800 to 1860. These molds were whittled from apple or maple wood and the bottles cast in these carved molds have the telltale whittle marks which collectors look for. The molds were in two, three, four or five pieces. The glassblower blew a few puffs lowering a glass lump into the hollow mold and then continued blowing into the tube until the glass was forced against the sides of the mold. Raised letters were whittled in the molds and the molten glass took the shape of the container. Ninety percent of the bottles made before 1904 were not embossed. Before the Civil War, instructions for taking a medicine or the name of a firm was written on a piece of paper and tied to the neck of the bottle. Molds were replaced by semi-automatic machines and then in 1903 as automatic bottle-making machine came into existence. But it was 10 years before machinery replaced hand blown mass production of bottles.
The fascination of searching for these bottles that reveal what our Isthmian forefathers drank, ate, and used to cure their ailments, has captured the fancy of several other Canal Zone collectors such as, Alwyn Sprague, Carl Glass, Kenneth Manthorne, Al Chandler, Robert Stewart, Edward McFarland, Charles Rheberg, Gustave Bliss, Karl Longley, Lois Harrison, and Judy Williams.
Bliss, who is with the 352nd, U.S. Army Aviation Detachment at Fort Clayton, has found the subject of glass recovered on the Isthmus so intriguing that he is writing a historical narrative with pictorial views of the bottles found in the Canal Zone and vicinity. Bliss' efforts are sure to be invaluable to future collectors and historians.
October 14, 1998