The glass bottle

Posted in Arts and Crafts, Historical articles, History, Medicine on Tuesday, 26 November 2019

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This edited article about bottles originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 675 published on 21 December 1974.

Milkman, picture, image, illustration

The Milkman

Can you imagine a world without bottles?  It’s hard to visualise a way of life without any bottles at all; and it would have been very hard for our ancestors to have done so at any time in the last 350 years or so.

For the bottle is one of the oldest forms of container. Egypt and Mesopotamia had glass bottles about 2,000 years ago, but even if we ignore them and think of Europe, English glassmaking dates back to Tudor times. Medicine bottles were being made then by glassmakers in the well-wooded Sussex Weald. There they could obtain the wood which was the necessary fuel for their ovens.

Tudor bottles were of irregular shape – no two were exactly alike – because they were not blown in moulds. It was only when the craftsmen began to blow the soft molten glass in moulds that it became possible to turn out quantities of bottles of identical size and shape. Even then, for many years, only the bodies of bottles were “mould blown”; the necks were made separately and stuck on by hand.

In England, the seventeenth century saw glass bottles replacing stoneware and traditional leather bottles, especially for wine. Wine bottles were often marked with a prunt or seal – a misleading term because this did not seal the bottle in the ordinary sense, but was a glass circle applied to the shoulder of the bottle, with the owner’s initials or badge moulded in it.

Sometimes the owners were noblemen or wealthy citizens who prided themselves on a good cellar, but sometimes they were merely innkeepers, who sold wine in bottles. Their seals often showed their inn signs or other symbols, and with them began the use of glass as a packaging material in something like the modern sense of the term.

Conveniently for people now who want to trace their history, the seals on wine bottles often include a date: the earliest known example still in existence is a King’s Head bottle of 1657, which was found at Wellinborough and is now in the Northampton Central Museum.

Within a century of this date, bottles were being made in some quantity at glasshouses in London, Bristol and other places in England, and at Leith in Scotland.

They were made not only for wine, but for beer and cider and for various tinctures sold by the apothecaries or chemists of that time. And by a strange trick of history, the sparkling wine which was to make champagne a famous name was first bottled in London in the 1660s or ’70s.

Wine came here from Champagne in casks, and what put the sparkle into it was English packaging skills. London bottlers already knew about corks, which were pressed well home and held tightly down by string, when they were unknown in the inland province of Champagne. There, the bottles were still being sealed with hemp soaked in oil.

English glassmakers were the first people to make bottles that were strong enough to withstand the build-up of pressure in the contents. The French soon started making such bottles in their own glassworks – early in the eighteenth century – but they referred to the material as verre anglais (English glass) – a compliment to England.

With bottles made of glass blown in moulds, it was a logical step to include lettering or designs in the inside of the mould. If these were recessed in its walls, they would indicate the contents on every bottle. Such letters moulded in the glass were characteristic of bottles used in many trades from the eighteenth century onwards. The Victorians favoured patterns and pictures which made a decorative background to the wording.

But there were also traders who wanted to display their names, and their claims, more boldly than moulding would allow; and so the printed paper label came in. Such labels were used on a number of patent medicine bottles and on at least two kinds of wine bottle, one for port and one for a German wine, before the end of the eighteenth century. By the 1830s, a number of French champagne bottlers were also using printed labels. Bolder styles of lettering and the spread of colour printing soon made the paper labels more eye-catching than their forerunners – and no doubt helped to make the fortunes of many nineteenth-century bottlers of potions and lotions.

The more conscientious manufacturers in this century attached a lot of importance to labels in preventing fraud. In 1874, an English sauce manufacturer announced that “in consequence of Spurious Imitations of Lea and Perrins’ Sauce, which are calculated to deceive the Public, Lea and Perrins have adopted a new label, bearing their signature, ‘Lea and Perrins’, which will be placed on every bottle of Worcestershire Sauce after this date, and without which none is genuine”.

In America, about the same time, the proprietors of a patent medicine called Mother Seigel’s Syrup put this wording on their label:

To guard against fraud we have had this finely engraved steel-plate label made, which will be affixed to each bottle sold by us.

Below the proprietors’ name, the printers’ name was printed rather larger than usual, and surely this name in itself was enough to frighten off anyone intending to forge Mother Seigel’s labels: it was the American Bank Note Co.

In 1695, it was estimated that Britain was making 240,000 dozens of bottles each year. Changing the date to 1965, we find the figure for quantity increased to 35,000,000 gross. Increased population and a higher standard of living are part of the explanation of this fantastic increase; they explain the demand side of it. The supply side is explained by the mechanisation of glassmaking.

This began with the invention of semiautomatic machines at Ferrybridge, Yorkshire, in the 1880s, and continued with the series of fully automatic machines patented by Michael Joseph Owens of Toledo, Ohio, from 1899 onwards.

The design of Owen’s machines involved a device like the pump you use for pumping bicycle tyres, but much bigger and heatproof, which on one stroke sucked in molten glass to form the neck of a bottle, and on the next stroke blew air into it to blow some of the glass down into the further, and larger, end of the mould to form the body.

Patent registers bristle with applications for patents for making better bottles, and especially for bottles which were specially shaped or had special forms of closure to keep the fizz in the fizzy drinks.

The Hamilton bottle, patented in 1809, had no flat bottom surface; you had to keep it lying on its side, and in this position the contents kept the cork permanently moist, so the fizzy waters stayed fizzy. Hamilton bottles stayed in use for many years: so, also, did the famous Codd bottles, made to Hiram Codd’s patent specifications of 1871-2.

In the neck of every Codd bottle was a round glass “marble”, pressed against moulded glass shoulders by the pressure of the gas in the lemonade and held there until you wanted to drink the lemonade, when a shaped wooden peg was used to press the marble down and let the liquid out.

In Britain today, the most widely used bottles, in one sense at least, have no special features of design, no labels, and very little advertising matter on them: they are milk bottles, of which about 32,000,000 are delivered every day.

They average about 25 trips out from the dairy and back before they are finally lost or broken. In these days when we have to conserve our resources, the dairies set an example to some other bottle-using industries.

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