How to Identify the Age of an Old Bottle

Written by deborah stephenson
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A lot of people actively seek out old bottles for collecting, but most of us have come across them accidentally and want to know something about them. If you have ever unearthed an old bottle in your cellar or attic, or while walking in the woods, you can determine its age and a bit more by examining it for several distinct characteristics. Marks and seams from glass blowing tools and moulds are keys that anyone can learn to recognise. A good reference with photos is invaluable as well.

Skill level:

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Things you need

  • Bottle collector reference(s)

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  1. 1

    Turn the bottle over and examine the base. A rough looking rounded area on the bottom means the bottle was probably made before the 1850s---when glass blowers still made bottles by hand individually. The pontil mark, as that rough area is known, was caused by the tool (called a punty rod) used to hold the bottle as the lip (opening) was being shaped. When the tool was removed it left a characteristic mark.

  2. 2

    Look closely at the neck of the bottle. According to Digger Odell Publications', "Bottle Basics," "One of the most important clues to the age of a bottle is the style of the lip." If there is a seam at the base of the lip on the shoulder, the bottle is pre-1890, before which all bottle lips were applied to the bottle as a secondary step. Before 1870 most lips were distorted or crude, containing many irregularities. Faint concentric rings around the bottle lip indicate a bottle made since 1880 when it became a common practice to use a "lipping" tool to make the lip more uniform. Screw tops---crudely made at first---did not come into existence until the 1860s and had ground lips.

  3. 3

    Examine the bottle for a seam, which would indicate the bottle was produced in a mould. Between 1855 and 1870 a device called a snap case allowed glass blowers to produce bottles without the use of the punty rod---this produced a characteristic seam that continued under the bottom of the bottle, dividing it into halves with a circular mark in the centre bottom. The first fully moulded bottle---including the lip---was made around 1892.

  4. 4

    Check the bottle for uniformity. Machine-made bottles from fully automated processes were the norm from the early 1900s, so hand-finishing was no longer required and hand finish marks therefore disappeared. Bottles are smoother and more uniform from the 1920s, and are less likely to have raised labels after the 1930s.

  5. 5

    Consider the colour. Most early bottles (but not all) were clear or a faint aqua colour. Darker bottles were known---particularly for poisons and chemicals or for more artistic and expensive uses---but everyday bottles tended to be colourless or light coloured. Because they were the common colours of their day, they are considered of less value than darker or more obscure colours.

Tips and warnings

  • If you have a bottle that says "Federal Law Prohibits Sale or Reuse of this Bottle", it is a liquor bottle made between 1932 and 1964 when federal law required that statement to be embossed (raised letters) on the bottom.
  • Poison bottles often came in dark blues and greens for visual identification. They also were made in strange shapes---like skulls and coffins---to better differentiate them from other containers in dark pantries.
  • Early soda bottles (such as the famous "Hutchinson") were sealed with wire bails or other devices, to prevent the stopper being expelled by the build-up of gasses inside. They frequently exploded, so they are now fairly rare and considered valuable bottles.

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