On The Bottle
Baltimore’s antique bottle collectors covet the milk, ink, and beer of yesteryear
Published: February 29, 2012
Tom Salvatore is torso-deep in a hole. He’s spent the last several hours digging, and by now the thick layer of trash that carpets the backyard of this vacant West Baltimore rowhouse is eye level. Busted televisions, potato-chip bags, empty malt liquor bottles, plastic 2-liters, a toilet tank, syringes, a bra. Phil Edmonds squats above him on a discarded mattress, a precarious mound of garbage at his feet. He leans down to flick a limp used condom away from the precipice but instead it falls into the hole, onto Salvatore’s thigh. Salvatore shrieks, flings it aside, and resumes probing the bottom of the hole with a thin steel rod.
Salvatore and Edmonds are antique bottle collectors; they dig for their quarry in the pits of former outhouses. (Privies, along with their more obvious uses, served as makeshift trash cans into the early 20th century.) At the telltale squeak of rod on glass, Salvatore reaches down into the hole and pulls up a muddy glass bottle. It’s from around 1910, from Baltimore’s own George Bauernschmidt Brewery, once the largest in the city. “The Miller Lites of the time,” Salvatore scoffs. “A condom fell on my leg for this?” he says, laughing and tossing the bottle onto the garbage heap. He reaches once again for his shovel.
Such are the lengths to which antique bottle collectors will go. And Baltimore, it turns out, is home to many a voracious collector. Most belong to the Baltimore Antique Bottle Club (BABC), an organization founded in 1970. The club, which has 150 members, meets monthly in the fluorescent-lit basement cafeteria of the Baltimore Lutheran High School in Towson. There, collectors interested in whiskey bottles, medicine bottles, ink bottles, early pottery, and a vast array of other pieces barter, sell, and mingle. One guy only collects beer bottles with intact paper labels. A woman collects glass-stoppered perfume bottles. One man cleans and polishes “dug” bottles for a fee, and another repairs antique pottery. Most buy them on eBay or at bottle shows, but some, like Salvatore and Edmonds, get their spoils the hard way: by digging down into former privies or scouring old dumps. Several antique bottle magazines exist to support the hobby, as do specialized clubs, like the National Association of Milk Bottle Collectors and the American Poison Bottle Collectors Association. On March 4, the Baltimore club will host its annual blowout event, the largest one-day bottle show in the world. With over 300 tables, last year’s show drew more than 1,300 people.
It’s no accident that Baltimore has such a robust crew of antique bottle collectors. At its peak in the 19th century, glass production was Baltimore’s third-largest industry, in part because of the vast, varied output of Baltimore Glass Works, a factory based in Federal Hill. Another advantage Baltimore collectors have: They live on the East Coast, where bottle use started early. “Some of the guys that collect out in Colorado and those areas, if they find something from the ’20s and ’30s, they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh!’” says BABC President Nic Queen. “And for us, that’s like, ‘Eh, not so much.’”
Baltimore Glass Works was known for producing glass in a variety of unusual colors, particularly from the 1840s to the 1860s, and some collectors focus on finding the same bottle in a range of colors. Collectors distinguish between several different eras in glass bottle manufacture, broadly divided into hand-made and machine-made. Some of the most sought-after bottles are from the pontiled age, which extends all the way from antiquity to just before the Civil War. These bottles were made by a glassblower by hand, and they have a telltale mark on the bottom—the “pontil scar”—where the rod that held the bottle in place as it was formed was snapped off. There are blob tops and crown tops—invented in Baltimore in 1891—free-blown and blown in mold. It gets increasingly arcane from there, and that’s without even mentioning ceramic bottles.
Collectors seem to get a thrill from using their esoteric knowledge to reconstruct a piece of history—however minute and seemingly inconsequential. Phil Edmonds recalls a research project he embarked upon after encountering a shard of an unfamiliar, off-brand medicine bottle from the 1830s. By perusing court and land records, history books, and ads from old newspapers, he discovered that the man who created the patented medicine—dubbed “Catholicon,” it was touted as a universal cure—was also the state tax collector and a poet important enough to be listed alongside Edgar Allan Poe in an 1882 Western Maryland history book. “That’s just a plethora of luck on a bottle that basically nobody’s heard of,” Edmonds says. “Nobody gave a crap about this stuff. It seems important. Whether it really is. . .” He trails off with a sardonic smile.
The allure of bottle collecting is a bit different for every collector. For some, it’s the connection to family history. Pete Whiteford, who is known in the club as Maryland’s milk bottle authority, began collecting as an homage to his father, who was a dairy farmer in Harford County in the 1930s, when “there were more cows than people.” Whiteford keeps a binder listing the 1,021 Maryland dairies he knows once existed. (That number is constantly growing as new bottles are discovered.) So far, he’s collected bottles from 707 of them.
Doug Campbell began by collecting toys. (His Baltimore rowhouse is crammed with approximately 12,000 miniature trucks and buses, he says.) He started collecting milk bottles because of a fascination with milk delivery trucks, and segued into medical bottles after becoming a pharmacist. Campbell is now the curator of the Maryland Pharmacists Association pharmacy museum. (One of his scores, on display at the museum, is a prescription bottle of whiskey from the Prohibition era.)
Many collectors had stockpiling tendencies as children. “I was always bringing junk that I found home, and I think this is what it turned into as an adult,” Queen says. “I would find stuff in the woods: ‘Look! Somebody threw this perfectly good bucket away. It’s got no handle, but . . .’” Henry Waskey, 17, and Joey Haman, 16, made the transition to full-on collectors early in life. “I just started finding some old Coke bottles and stuff around,” says Waskey, who lives in Ellicott City. “And I sort of got into it after doing research.” The pair now digs in old dumps, primarily on the hunt for milk bottles from local dairies. Waskey says he makes $20 to $30 a week selling bottles on eBay.
Despite the sweat equity valuable finds tend to require, money can be part of the appeal for collectors. Antique bottles have sold for thousands, even tens of thousands, of dollars. At a recent BABC meeting, Phil Edmonds casually gestures with a small cornflower-blue bottle with a sunburst-shaped bottom, a mid-19th-century ink bottle type known as “The Star of Baltimore” that he found on a privy dig. “This is probably a $1,500 bottle,” he says. A few diggers, like Chris Rowell, have taken the potential value of antique bottles to its extreme and turned the hobby into a profession. “I am a full-time bottle aficionado,” Rowell says, but he concedes that his expenses are few. Tom Robusto, a life insurance salesman who has been scavenging in old dumps for more than 40 years, says he’s put his children through college by selling bottles. And Tom Salvatore, the trash-tunneling privy digger, will never forget one particular holiday gift: About 10 years ago, on Christmas Day, he dug up enough valuable bottles from a Fells Point privy to make a down payment on a new house. But such finds are exceedingly rare and hope of financial gain is not enough to sustain a collector; he—Baltimore’s bottle collectors tend to be men—must have an appreciation for history, a love of the hunt, and above all, that persistent, driving itch known only to true fanatics.
Nic Queen, who has been collecting for eight years, is already clearly beyond help. Bottles cover every level surface in his Glen Burnie home. In the living room, a parrot named Samantha keeps watch over a shelf of pre-Civil War crockery. A small back room is home to Queen’s collection of Baltimore beer bottles, and the bathroom houses empty bottles of hair tonic and Citrate of Magnesia (the forerunner to Milk of Magnesia). The dining room is home to a cabinet of milk bottles, including some with bulbous tops for separating cream. A packed credenza of miniature pharmaceutical bottles—vibrant blue Bromo Seltzer, tiny clear Bayer Aspirin—squats nearby. In the front yard, Queen has installed a “purpling box”; prior to World War I, manganese was used to make clear bottles. Over time, when exposed to sunlight, it causes bottles to turn a delicate violet, an indication of the bottle’s age. But perhaps the most beautiful bottles in Queen’s home are those that perch in front of his dining room window. These are primarily from England, a country known for creating a wide range of colors. The sunlight shines through amethyst, cobalt, amber yellow, and emerald green glass, gently rainbowing the room.
“What started out with two bottles turned into a full-blown hoarder’s-type sickness,” Queen says, gazing at the bottles. “It’s ridiculous.”
Queen is primarily a dump digger. Before the introduction of organized trash pickup—not until the 1950s in some parts of Maryland—people burned or dumped their trash, either in family or neighborhood dumps. On a recent sunny Saturday, Queen and his digging companions, Tom Robusto and BABC Vice President Paul Fite, drive to a favorite dump not far from Queen’s house. The site—an overgrown, woodsy area bordering a parking lot and a field—is enormous, perhaps the size of a football field. According to Robusto, who’s been digging here for two decades, collectors have been digging in this dump since the 1960s. Yet they are still finding keepers.
A few steps into the woods and broken teacups, clock gears, shards of Depression glass, and, yes, bottles litter the ground as far as the eye can see. Only a fraction of the latter are of interest to connoisseurs, which explains the large number that have been unearthed and abandoned. The dump dates back to the 1920s—unlike urban privies, some of which date to the 18th century—so many of the bottles are of that vintage: small squared-off McCormick’s spice bottles, castor oil bottles, bottles from Read’s Drug Store with their characteristic cursive script, jelly jars and Clorox bottles, whiskey bottles and ketchup bottles. The group tromps over hillocks previous diggers have created and navigates past tree roots that may have brought up older material. (Though the dump itself is from the ’20s, the group regularly finds older bottles here, likely discarded after long use.) Occasionally someone scrapes at the ground with a potato rake.
“I’ve learned a lot about how people lived back then by looking at their trash,” Fite says. Robusto nods. “You can see all the upset stomach bottles in this dump. I tell you, food processing was rough back then.”
Though professional archaeologists have been known to label amateur bottle collectors as looters, diggers of all stripes tend to feel they are preservationists. “Bulldozers are just plowing through history out there,” Robusto says. “And it’s gone forever.”
But, Queen and his companions say, the camaraderie, the thrill of the hunt, and the joy of being outside are what make it consistently fun. “The exercise, being out in the woods, you see a lot of nature,” Queen says. “Everything from deer, fox, to snakes and everything else.”
Privy diggers, on the other hand, are more apt to discover stash houses than wildlife. “We get to see the back end of the city—the ‘pontil’ of the city,” Salvatore says. “I’ve had to climb out windows, I’ve been stung by bees, I’ve fallen through ceilings. It’s absolutely unsafe.” He and Edmonds—who have each been digging for more than 20 years—reel off a litany of mishaps: encounters with angry dogs, swarms of subterranean cockroaches, Baltimore City police officers. Once they found a loaded gun in a cinder block—they unloaded it and buried it in a privy—and they occasionally wander into occupied drug dens. (While more developed historic neighborhoods such as Federal Hill and Fells Point also make for good privy digging, permission to dig can be difficult to obtain; Edmonds and Salvatore generally don’t bother seeking it when they dig behind a vacant or on a construction site.)
It all begins in scholarly fashion. Edmonds and Salvatore study a variety of historic maps, including 19th-century fire insurance maps. The property lines for the latter are identical to today’s. When they compare these maps to a modern map, they are able to pinpoint the probable location of a privy. Once at the site, they take out their tools and the detective work begins.
On a recent afternoon, Edmonds and Salvatore stand on a dirt lot near the University of Maryland BioPark. The pair has been digging together for a decade and their personalities seem a happy fit. Edmonds, who works in the Department of Agriculture’s strawberry-breeding program, has a thoughtful, dry delivery and a tendency to pause before he answers a question. Salvatore, a software engineer, speaks in a rapid, funny patter, often interrupting one story to introduce another. Today they’re digging on a new construction site, which attracts bottle diggers “like bees and honey,” Salvatore says. A concrete pad once covered a likely privy spot, but now it’s been scraped away. Using thin steel probes made of old truck springs, they feel for soil with a bit of give. At one point, Salvatore’s probe descends and he hits something hard; he pulls up the probe to look at the tip. A red residue dusts the end, indicating he has hit a brick. (Privies were lined with stone, wood, or brick.)
Now fairly certain they’ve hit a privy, the pair starts to dig. As shovelfuls of dirt, remnants of rats’ nests made of plastic bags, and the broken neck of a 1940s milk bottle fly past, the guesswork begins. “Looks like you’re maybe outside of it,” Edmonds says. Salvatore pulls up a brick. “No mortar, no cement on the brick. Big tell right there,” he says. “Because they wanted the privies to drain.”
“The bottles are metamorphosing as we speak,” Edmonds laughs.
“We’ll speculate the whole time and it will change constantly,” Salvatore says.
Digging a privy is a long process—some can descend as deep as 15 feet—and talk inevitably turns to digs of yore. Salvatore and Edmonds reminisce about the great digs that could once be had before the area around the Shot Tower was revitalized. Cannonballs sometimes turned up in those digs, and once they found a ceramic roach trap, circa 1810.
After an hour or so, Salvatore and Edmonds decide the privy is a bust. Older bottles have appeared on top of more modern garbage, a sign that the hole may have been dug before. It happens. In fact, that very morning, Edmonds and Salvatore had set out to dig a hole a few blocks away only to find they were too late. A mound of dirt and an array of discarded bottles, iridescent from prolonged exposure to the uric acid of the privy, greeted them. “This is a statement,” Salvatore says, showing a reporter the spot. “It’s like leaving your mark. ‘Look what we found, dude.’” A man and a woman step out of the cramped squalor of the neighboring alley, most likely from a vacant building that Salvatore says the woman, named Tiffany, lives in. “How’s it going? I see that we missed out,” Salvatore says. “What did they look like? An old man?” The pair consult, note that one of Salvatore’s rivals wore glasses, and continue on their way.
Competition is stiffer than one might think, though there are perhaps only 10 other privy diggers currently active, by Salvatore and Edmonds’ estimate. But diggers have a unique vision of the city. Depressions in parking lots, places where the concrete has possibly sunk down into an old privy, speak to them. Where most of us see natural hollows in a backyard—or fail to notice anything at all—they see the remains of a privy dig. And the likely areas are few and ever dwindling. “Everybody’s vying for the same spots,” Edmonds says. “You know how big the city is. But we all have our eyes on the 1850s map.”
The afternoon wanes and the diggers decide on a last-ditch attempt at a site near Union Square Park. The crumbling house dates to the late 19th century, and the backyard, as previously noted, is an absolute sea of trash. Digging down, they come upon what is known as a barrel privy; the rusting metal hoops of the wooden barrel are all that remain. Salvatore brings up shovelfuls of soil and then fragments of a beige chamber pot from the mid- to late 19th century. Broken teacups, a porcelain doll leg, and several undesirable bottles follow.
Privies that belonged to responsible owners with the means were regularly cleaned by what are charmingly known as “honey dippers”—men who would come and remove the trash and other detritus from the pit. “What you hope for is that they just didn’t do a good job cleaning it,” Edmonds says. He and Salvatore decide they need to remove an old standpipe from the hole for better access. (It likely dates to just after the turn of the 20th century, when a flush toilet was installed.) A prolonged period of violent sledgehammering follows and the standpipe breaks, releasing a swampy, methane-y smell. Encountering such stenches is par for the course for a privy digger, but this is not the vintage of stink Edmonds and Salvatore are looking for. With wistful expressions, they try to describe the odor of 19th-century fecal matter. “It’s not like what you smell when it’s fresh,” Salvatore says. “It’s not offensive. I can smell the end of the probe and say, ‘Aw, yeah, we’re in the shit.’”
“It’s a pleasant smell, almost like licorice,” Edmonds says. “‘It smells like pontils.’ We say that.”
The soil on the end of Salvatore’s shovel suddenly visibly changes, from the dark, ashy color of privy muck to the tan of the soil beneath. The diggers hit bottom dirty, exhausted, empty-handed, and happy as can be. Salvatore looks up from the depths of the hole. “As weird as it sounds,” he says, “there is some sense of enjoyment here as I’m doing this.”
The Baltimore Antique Bottle Club’s Annual Show and Sale will be held on March 4 from 8 a.m.-3 p.m. in the Physical Education Center at the Essex Campus of the Community College of Baltimore County, 7201 Rossville Blvd. For more information, visit baltimorebottleclub.org.
> Email Andrea Appleton