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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.

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.


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?

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