Here at the Northeast Museum Services Center, we see lots of old wine bottles. We are very familiar with 18th-century, dark green “onions” and “mallets” – freeblown glass bottles with (respectively) a globular and cylindrical shape, pontil mark, and hand-finished lip. These vessels are almost like old friends to us. We were a bit stumped, however, when we came across a few particular freeblown bottle bases from a 1983 excavation at City Point, Virginia (part of Petersburg National Battlefield – PETE). Some oval and some round, these bases were big.
Most of the freeblown bottle bases we see in our cataloging projects have an average diameter of ~10 centimeters. Some are a bit larger, some a bit smaller. The bases we encountered in the City Point collection have diameters of about 17 centimeters. To us, they seemed monstrous (beautifully so, of course). The oval bases were just as large, seemingly too large to belong to the typical oval bladder or chestnut flask-type bottles that we occasionally see.
Researching these bases turned up several specific names from the world of historic bottle terminology: carboy, demi-john, jeroboam, double magnum. All of these types were large bottles used to store and transport large quantities of various liquids. A jeroboam is technically a wine bottle that holds the equivalent of 4 burgundy bottles of wine.
A double magnum holds the equivalent of 4 onion wine bottles. Although these vessel types are typically associated with wine, they could also have been used for other contents like fruit or preserves.
Carboys and demijohns were both encased in wicker to prevent breakage. Both could have been ovoid or globular in shape. Demijohns, which held one quart to five gallons of liquid, were popular among wine and spirit merchants to store and ship their goods. An 1809 merchant’s advertisement in The Balance and State Journal mentions the availability of “…sherry wine in qr. Casks [as well as] Madeira in Demijohns, for family use.” They were also used for other noncorrosive liquids like oils and honey. Carboys, on the other hand,
were intended to hold strong chemicals like acids, varnishes, and ether. They came in one- to twenty-gallon sizes, and in addition to chemicals, are also sometimes associated with pharmaceutical storage. Carboys were sometimes adorned with elegant labels or handpainting to catch the consumer’s eye in the druggist’s window. Those intended purely for window decoration usually had a foot and a globular stopper.
Recovered from a ca. 1763 context, the bottle bases from PETE exhibit sand pontil marks and kick-ups that suggest British manufacture and a date of 1760s. Whether jeroboams or double magnums that once held wine or preserves, demijohns that contained spirits or honey, or carboys used to store corrosive chemicals or medicines, these large bottles were actually not uncommon in the 18th century. People used glass bottles to serve wine at their tables, but also used them to store, transport, and advertise all sorts of substances.
Do you have bottles like these in your collection? If you do, please tell us about them. We would love to learn more about these bottles.
Burton, David. 2011 electronic communication.
Crellin, J. K. and J. R. Scott. Glass and British Pharmacy 1600-1900. London: Wellcome Institute of the History of Medicine, 1972.
Jones, Olive. English Black Glass Bottles, 1725-1850. in Journal of Glass Studies (52):91-156.
Jones, Olive. 2011 electronic communication.
Van den Bossche, Willy. Antique Glass Bottles. Antique Collectors Club, 2001.
All photos courtesy of Willy Van den Bossche (Antique Glass Bottles) except pharmacy scene, which is courtesy of Crellin and Scott (Glass and British Pharmacy)