Antique Glass Jars: a Microcosm of Everyday History

One of the items often forgotten in the business of antique glass collecting – or at least a type of collecting that doesn't get nearly the glamorous press that Carnival Glass or Depression Glass does – is the collection of antique glass jars and bottles. But in many ways, these glass pieces reveal more about the lives of those who originally used them than other types of "special glass."

Don't think that collecting glass jars or bottles is just a matter of grabbing any old piece and adding it to a pile of other jars that it can barely be distinguished from. These antique glass items fall into a considerable number of different categories, so this type of collection can be widely varied, and require as much knowledge and discernment, as any other type of collection. For example, you can have inkwells or soda bottles, flasks or canning jars, and many other different types. There are variations in shape, color, and materials, not to mention how the jars were constructed.

Fruit jars existed as far back as the mid-19th century, while Mason jars were patented in 1858. But there are other features on the different kinds of jars and bottles that give sure indications of date. Bottles made before 1870 will have a different kind of lip at the opening than those made after 1880, when lipping tools had been invented and came into wide use. The bottoms, too, can help a collector to date these pieces. A glass rod was once attached to the bottom of these jars or bottles while the lip was being formed, and when this rod was broken off, it left a rough circle behind it. But in 1855, tools were invented that meant the rod was no longer needed, so instead of that round mark, on later jars and bottles you find a half-circular mark with lines coming out of it.

Eventually, rather than those markings on the bottom, manufacturers began to put other things like a patent number. This, too, can be used at least to narrow down a date range for the bottle or jar. Some makers also put mold numbers somewhere on the jar, which gives a collector another potential lead for identifying the type of jar and its maker.

Color can be another indication of date as well as of the bottle's original use. For example, in the mid- to late-18th century, rather than being clear, most bottles were aqua or a greenish color. A bitters bottle tended to be amber. Druggists' bottles were fairly commonplace, but those that were made in a cobalt color are now considered very valuable. And druggists' syrup bottles are quite rare, and are worth even more on the occasions when they do appear somewhere. Of course, any bottle that was once corked should come with the original cork, or its value will be diminished to some degree.

Jars and bottles sound like such ordinary things, hardly worth collecting at all or taking any notice of. Yet they speak of everything from the canning of fruit, to the mixing of medicines, to some gentleman taking a secret swig from a booze flask in his pocket. A collection of antique glass jars and bottles can be microcosm of everyday North American history contained in a single display cabinet.