The Clues Are in the Bottles

A few years ago I wrote about playing archeologist in the makeshift room off the kitchen in my house. It was (not very well) built mainly to serve as a passage between the kitchen and the stable where the horse lived, when the house was built (and a way for the servant girl to get to the clothesline out back). It was cobbled together from scraps of wood and mismatched doors and such, but by the time we got to it, it was crumbling. So we decided to replace the floor before it collapsed under us.

What I hadn’t known was that a prior owner (and I think I know which one) had been using one corner as a dump. He was planning to sell the house and move into the one next door, so he was getting rid of a lot of stuff. I had a wonderful time exploring the mess in the dirt, although I did get rid of most of it. But I kept a lot of the bottles that I found. Ah, those simpler times before plastic containers!

I did scrap the broken or chipped ones, but I still had a lot left. Now that I plan to sell this house, and have hired a clean-out group that is going to hold an online auction for some of the things, I wondered if anybody in the auction universe would like a batch of commercial bottles that probably date from before 1900. But that meant I had to clean them, or at least get the mud off them.


It has been a rather fascinating project. I now have an idea of how those long-ago owners lived, based on their trash. And the bottles themselves are rather intriguing as a collection.

All Atwood bottles

The clear winner in terms of numbers are the few dozen bottles that once held Atwood’s Jaundice Bitters. I found myself wondering how much alcohol was in the stuff, since there were a lot of empties, so I had to look it up: 16.5%, or about a quarter of each bottle. Other ingredients varied from brand to brand. It was said to be good for jaundice, headache, dyspepsia, worms, dizziness, loss of appetite, darting pains, colds and fevers. It was also good for “cleansing the blood of humors and moistening the skin; also for liver complaints, strangury, dropsy, croup and phthisis.” (I confess that I had to look up strangury, which Merriam-Webster defines as “a slow and painful discharge of urine drop by drop produced by spasmodic muscular contraction of the urethra and bladder,” and I also checked phthisis because I had an ancestor who died of it—it turns out to be a fancy word for a form of tuberculosis.

Another one of the most plentiful ones are for blueing (anybody out there remember blueing? It’s supposed to make your white laundry whiter.) There are a few bottles that held stove blacking (that came with a built-in applicator). A few cute little bottles look like they once held ink. Maybe a few bottles that once held cosmetics? (When I washed them, the water came out pink or red.) The largest bottles were for cod liver oil.

The few cosmetics bottles and a couple of perfume bottles, along with all that blueing, testify to a woman’s presence in the house, although whether that was a servant or the lady of the house isn’t clear.


Burnett Cocaine


But my clear favorite is the bottle with the molded title: Bartlett’s Cocaine of Boston. No label, no explanation. Only the one bottle. I had to look that one up to, and it turns out to have been . . . a hair tonic, which sold for decades. Whatever I do with the collection (most likely sell it at auction), I’m keeping that one.

It’s been an interesting glimpse into domestic life more than a century ago. What about you? Do you find old objects intriguing, or do you think they’re just trash?

12 Thoughts

  1. We once found a bottle (which I still have) deep in the woods that had the letters made into the bottle that said embalming fluid. Love the old bottle with the wording made into the bottle instead of stamped on or a printed label.
    Makes you wonder where it came from and why was it tossed where it was. I find things like that very intriguing.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

  2. I’ve actually gone bottle dumping, meaning digging up old dumps in the woods. It can be addicting. Just about every old house (or even new ones) with some undisturbed land have a dump. Some medicine bottles can be worth $1000s, I never found any of those but some cool Jumbo peanut butter jars, milk bottles, and household products like Clorox or a powder bottle with silver lid. Most interesting to me were the Mt. Madison greenish bottles, which were from an old bottling plant in the White Mountains. I’ve explored the old factory, which is nothing but a few walls and scattered bricks now.

  3. I love old bottles but gave no room to store such things. I’m in the getting rid of stuff stage in my life. I do have a couple of old canning jars I still use. Love it his blog and have forwarded it to a couple of my antiquing friends.

  4. Sorry for the typos. I’m not adept at typing on my phone. 🙄

  5. How fascinating! I love that you shared this. I have a few old bottles — most of them are cobalt glass which I used to collect.

  6. What great finds! I love antique, old, whatever one wants to call it. I am happiest in antique stores and junk stores looking for treasure. Or wandering around junkyards or wherever old trash heaps are. You never know when you will find something. My mom collects bottles she finds along the riverbank. I hope to inherit them.

  7. When I was 13 we moved into an old Victorian house with a barn behind it. It was in a thriving, long-founded Washington, DC suburb, but apparently, the original owners were considered by their relatives to be ‘out in the country’.
    Yes, we found letters, pictures paintings, and glass slides, among many other items, The barn had been tossed-over many times, since the fellow who lived there also sold ‘patent medicine’; (we had pages and pages of the company letterheads).I was told by neighbors that the kids in town used to break in and search for the alcohol-filled bottles.
    The house had been a rental(as it was for us), slated to be torn down.Everything was abandoned and I tried to keep a lot of it, but could not take some on an across-country move and then when I got married, my sister abandoned most of what was left in another state.
    Alas, the barn was destroyed, but the house was not only NOT torn down, it was restored and added onto.The town is also refurbished and renewed;it’s one of the tonier suburbs now and that house must be worth a couple of million. I often wonder what all the stuff we found would have been worth.

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