Bottle buffs find field varied enough to satisfy all tastes and pocketbooks

They call themselves bottle bugs. Or bottle buffs. Or bottle nuts. But whatever their name, bottle collectors constitute one of the fastest growing hobby groups in the country today.

There are thousands of collectors, hundreds of clubs, exhibitions, swap meets , and auctions. And enough bookd, pamphlets, and articles have been written about this collectible category to fan interest for years.

The field is broad enough to satisfy all pocketbooks. It includes old milk bottles, flasks, decanters, bitters bottles, pharmacist's and chemist's bottles, ink bottles, barber bottles, nurser bottles, perfueme, scent and cologne bottles , soft drink bottles, glass fruit jars, figural bottles, patent medicine bottles , and alcohol bottles. Any real enthusiast could also name other types worth collecting, including mineral water bottles, cosmetic bottles, and that newly popular, but now quite benign, group called "poisons."

One bottle bug says proudly that a very rare and very old bottle once brought the peak price of $26,000 at auction. But plenty of bottles are available for under $20, and beginners can still find interesting specimens in the $2, $4, and the $25 to $75 range. Top collectors may pay from $75 up for choice rare bottles.

Hundreds of unaffiliated clubs exist, but The Federation of Historical Bottle Clubs, founded in 1969, now has about 125 antique bottle clubs as members (representing about 6,000 members), as well as over 300 individual members-at-large. Its purpose is to "promote, foster, and encourage all activities toward the betterment of bottle collecting." Membership-at-large fees (which entitle members to the monthly newsletter and all notices) are $8 a year. Inquiries should go to Mrs. Verna L. Wagner, federation treasurer, 10118 Schuessler, St. Louis, Mo. 63128.

Mrs. Jean Garrison of Sparrow Bush, N.Y., chairman of the federation this year, says the organization has sponsored two major projects.One is the opening in 1979 of the National Bottle Museum at 22 Church Avenue in the village of Ballston Spa, N.Y.

The museum is housed in the old Verbeck House, a Victorian mansion built in 1889 and donated by family members to the federation in 1979. It houses both premanent and temporary exhibits of antique bottles, jars, containers, insulators, and glass-blowing tools. It also includes a library of research materials and reference books covering all phases of the hobby. A bottle collectors' Hall of Fame will be housed there, too, honoring early bottle collectors and early bottlemakers.The museum reopens this season on june 6 and is open until Labor Day.

The federation's second major project was the launching of an every-four-year national bottle show and sale. The first was held in St. Louis in 1976 as a Bicentennial event, and the second in Chicago in 1980. The third is scheduled for 1984, the location still undecided.

Mrs. Garrison says that most collectors get started when they have a strong emotional response to the shape or color of a particular container. Sooner or later this initial interest broadens into historical research. People want to know who made their bottle and how, and something about the people who used it so many years ago. Then they want to join a club or a group so they can learn more, swap both information and bottles, and hear about special shows and sales. They begin to go to garage sales, auctions, flea markets, and exhibitions, and to search the classified ads in bottle publications.

If their interest deepens, they usually take spade in hand and begin to dig -- in their back yards and behind the stone walls and gullies where earlier residents dumped their trash. Bottle diggings are going on all over the country today and are indulged in by all age groups. Collecting is often a family hobby with even children participating in digs and what Mrs. Garrison refers to as "scrounges."

Jean Garrison and her husband, Don, now own over 2,000 bottles. Like most collectors, they have picked up old bottles in family attics, basements, and barnyards, as well as at shows and sales.

Mrs. Garrison says it is usually age that makes a bottle valuable. Antique bottles were made before automatic bottle machines came into use in 1906. Before that date, bottles were blown into a mold or were free blown. They usually were made in colored glass and embossed. Major bottlemakers were located in Ohio, New York, and New Jersey.

At least two auction galleries now specialize in bottle sales: Skinner's Gallery in Bolton, Mass. and Garth's Inc. in delaware, Ohio.Two magazines serve collectors -- "Antique Bottle World" (5003 West Berwin, Chicago, Ill. 60630, $11 .50 a year) and "Old Bottle Magazine" (PO Box 243, Bend, Ore. 97701, $10.50 a year).

Mrs. Garrison's recommended reading list for collectors includes:

The Illustrated Guide to Collecting Bottles, by Cecil Munsey (New York: Hawthorne).

American Bottles and Flasks and Their Ancestry, by Helen McKearin and Kenneth M. Wilson (New York: Crown Publishers).

Bottle Makers and Their Marks, by Julian Harrison Toulouse (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson).

The Collector's Book of Bottles, by Marian Klamkin (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co.).

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