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Collecting in the Heartland: Bottles

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 11, 2009 - 

(With apologies to Ogden Nash)Ice cold milk and Mountain Dew,
Fancy wine and Falstaff too,
Sweet perfume and writing ink,
It makes me wonder, makes me think,
Of everything I want and need,
That leaks and drips and spills on me,
Is anything not in a bottle?
Alas, I fear, it’s not a lottle.

Bottle collectors – from hair tonic hoarders to apothecary accumulators, from those with a passion for poisons to others who are wacky for whiskey – all share a common link: They love to hold the things that hold the things.

For every bottle and jar collector, there is a specialty – Coca- Cola or Pepsi; Budweiser or Miller; Whistle or Orange Crush; pickles or snuff; motor oil or seltzer.

The Website Antique Bottle Collector’s Haven www.antiquebottles.com , lists 54 separate categories of bottle collecting.

And that is likely just the tip of the bottle-collecting iceberg.

Take the soda category, for instance. Am I a Dr Pepper or a Mr. Pibb, a 7-Up or a Sprite, Frostie or Moxie, Hires or A & W? Or maybe a little of everything?

George Casnar of Festus, president of the 40-year-old St. Louis Bottle Collecting Association, got his start in bottles as a boy, accompanying his father on his excavating jobs around St. Louis and St. Louis County. He says he was probably around 12 years old and finding bottles became a kind of treasure hunt.

“Things would show up,” he said of the countless hours he spent sifting through piles of dirt and rubble at his father’s job sites. “And what showed up more than anything were St. Louis Smile bottles.”

Smile was a brand of soda bottled around the U.S., and while Casnar has a fondness for Smile soda bottles manufactured in such far flung reaches as California and Hawaii, he has a special spot in his heart for St. Louis Smile bottles, which were made here between the 1920s and 1960s. But he also has older glass soda bottles, dating back more than 150 years, to the 1840s and 1850s.

Racks on his basement walls hold more than 1,000 bottles collected over the past 45 years. One of his favorites, he says, is a five or six-inch Lily Belle painted label soda bottle from the 1950s. The bottle is so unusual, he said, that he knows of only one other like it in a collection.

“Probably only about 1 percent of 1 percent of all bottles are worth anything,” he said. Prices for bottles, like prices of other collectibles, are based largely on appearance, condition and rarity. “Mostly,” he said, “the price is based on how badly somebody wants it.”

According to Casnar, collectible bottles sell for as little as $20 or $30 to “thousands of dollars.” An acquaintance, he said, recently purchased a particularly scarce bottle for $16,000.

Asked why he collects bottles, Casnar replied, “The feel, the history and the mystery. Especially the mystery. I like to find out where it came from, who made it and what did it contain.” Even today, he says, he comes across bottles with manufacturer’s marks that he has never seen.

Pat Jett, of Hillsboro, Mo., is spearheading the club’s 39th annual show from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 15, at Two Heart Banquet Center, 4532 S. Lindbergh Blvd. at Gravois.

Jett’s specialty is fruit jars with what she calls “unusual closures,” the mechanisms that hold the jar lids in place. But she also collects cobalt bottles and milk glass with external texturing “that makes my fingers feel good.”

She fell in love with fruit jars in 1976 when she bought a specially issued Bicentennial Ball brand jar. The jar had a send-away offer for a booklet on the history of Ball jars.  Once she started perusing the book, she said, she was hooked.

Currently, she has about 295 “keepers” in her collection and about half that many that are for sale, if the price is right. Like many collectors, she began buying more common jars, simply because they were available and less expensive. But in recent years, she has begun searching out the more difficult-to-find examples. “You find if you collect for very long, pretty soon you have no place to put the stuff,” Jett said.

Heartland Focus On:

South County Antique Mall, 13208 Tesson Ferry Road, St. Louis, Mo. 63128, 314-842-5566, www.missouriantiquemalls.com

This well-maintained antique mall in a suburban strip center is one of the largest of the St. Louis area malls. It is part of a group that also includes the Warson Woods Antique Gallery and the St. Charles Antique Mall.

Goods are diverse and range from flea market finds such as dishes and household decorative objects to higher end antiques, including smalls and furniture. The mall allows dealers to sell almost new “collectibles” and reproduction items in addition to vintage pieces, so buyers are encouraged to examine and research items before purchasing.

A large lighted showcase area dominates one end of the mall, and an area of booths in the rear of the mall has some craft items in addition to collectibles. The rest of the mall is a mixture of open booths and smaller locked display cases.

Ample parking is available and arrangements can be made for delivery of larger items.

A sampling of items recently for sale at South County:

  • 1979 James Bond Aston Martin Corgi on original card: $45
  • Vintage Sylvia White ladies wide-brimmed hat: $16
  • Jadeite cake plate on stand: $40
  • Mills Penny Scale, art deco green and cream-colored enamel, 3 feet tall: $900
  • 1953 Kentucky Derby frosted souvenir glass: $150
  • 1971 Brady Bunch Viewmaster set with envelope: $22.50
  • 1930s Statue of Liberty combination bookmark/letter opener on original card: $20