If you visited Morristown National Historical Park’s Library during the past several months, you may have noticed a collection of historic bottles on one of the Library tables. I’m currently cataloging these 48 bottles, which were found locally by park staff and are part of the Museum’s collection. The glass bottles, dating from the late 19th to early-mid 20th century, include condiments, cleaning products, alcoholic beverages and medicine bottles. They were discarded as trash around a hundred years ago, but now they are providing us with valuable archaeological clues.
Dating bottles from a historic site can not only help us determine when a site was occupied, but can also provides us with insight into the status, habits and customs of its inhabitants. For example, historical records of a 19th century neighborhood might tell us the area was composed of middle-class immigrants who purchased local products. But the archaeological evidence might show the community may have been wealthier than originally thought, as evidenced by expensive perfume, champagne bottles and crystal stemware. Also, although residents may have purchased products from local suppliers, artifacts such as bottles may indicate the majority of purchases included commodities and liquor from their homeland, giving us a better understanding of their habits and culture.
It isn’t known where the bottles I’m cataloging come from. However, in order for me to learn more about them, I roughly categorized them according to type. All alcohol bottles were placed together, as well as all drug, household cleaners and food storage bottles. After sorting the bottles, there appeared to be a high amount of medicine bottles (26) and household cleaning/chemical bottles (12). There were also seven food storage bottles and three alcoholic beverages. The bottles were then photographed. Many contained soil in their interiors, as well as remnants of the products they once held with a slight patina in certain areas. Some bottles, such as the household cleaners, contained portions of labels. These labels will give us useful information regarding the contents of the bottles once I begin identifying them. Interestingly, none of the bottles were broken – all were whole.
Once all bottles were photographed, they were ready to be washed. The bottles were first placed in a bucket of water containing Orvus soap and were cleaned with various tools including toothbrushes, sponges and picks. They were then rinsed in another bucket containing water and left on trays to dry. I was careful not to wet any bottles containing paper labels, which could easily be removed when placed in water.
Each bottle was assigned a catalog number to help distinguish it from the other bottles. This will also prove useful when identifying and entering information into the Park’s artifact database system. Clear shellac was placed on the bottle and a small label containing the bottle’s catalog number was put on top of the shellac. A last coat of shellac was then placed on top of the label to seal it. When placing catalog labels on bottles and other artifacts, it’s best to put them in a location that is not visible or covering important information. For example, I placed the majority of my labels on the bottle bases and was careful not to cover any embossed maker’s marks.
The next step is to research and identify these bottles. Bottles can be identified and dated in a number of ways, including looking at container shapes, manufacturing techniques, designs and color. All of these factors help identify their function and provide us with a rough date estimate. In my next blog, I’ll explain how we can identify bottles based on these factors and discuss what these bottles can teach us about their original contents.
Blog post by volunteer, Maria Ribaudo. More about Maria here.