Bottle collectors work to organize NH's first national show in Manchester
WALKING INTO Michael George's bottle room in his New Boston home feels a little like walking into a kaleidoscope.
Shelves and showcases are filled with amber, green, blue and gold bottles of all shapes and sizes, and light shines through them and plays off their smooth and textured surfaces.
George found his first bottle when he was 9, and has been collecting ever since.
"I got the bottle bug," laughed George as he sat in his kitchen where bottles line the window sills. "It opens up this entire world."
In high school, George started researching the histories of New Hampshire's glass factories and studying old maps that led the way to dump sites where bottles were buried, along with the rest of a town's trash. Today, George is a respected glass bottle historian and an authority on New Hampshire glass with a popular website, bottleshow.com, and a widely admired private collection.
"My collection has exceeded what I ever thought it would be," he said. He and his wife and co-collector, Janet, now spend time exploring New Hampshire's ponds and waterways, searching underwater for bottles tossed away more than a century ago.
New Hampshire is a glass-rich home to a network of collectors. Many are dealers who buy, sell and trade bottles at shops and shows sponsored by groups like the Merrimack Valley Antique Bottle Club, which welcomes anyone and everyone with an interest in old bottles.
"There are no social distinctions when it comes to bottles," said George. "It's a diverse group and there's a lot of camaraderie."
George favors late-18th and early-19th century flasks and whiskey bottles embossed with intricate designs, eagles, Masonic symbols, and images of historical figures like Andrew Jackson, who filled them with something intoxicating and passed them around like campaign flyers.
Milk bottle mania
Milford resident Jim George, who isn't related to George, is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Jim George's dad, Ernest George, a dairy specialist for the University of New Hampshire, co-authored the "Milk Bottle Collector's Guide to New Hampshire and Vermont Dairies" in 1987.
Earnest George and co author, A.B. "Gerry" Jerard compiled a catalog of more than 600 small dairies. After Ernest George's death in 1998, the book was updated and now lists more than 1,200 farms from the two states. Around that time, Jim George decided to get serious about milk bottle collecting.
He now has a collection of 2,500 to 3,000 milk bottles from all over the United States and things he calls the "go withs," bottle caps, signs, bottle carriers and the insulated boxes people left by their door for deliveries.
"It's a disease," he joked.
Items he feels he can part with are offered for sale at a booth at Milford's N.H. Antique Coop, where he works.
While an early 19th-century flask might be a hot collectible because of its embossed design and color, milk bottles are attractive to collectors because of their glazed labels, designs and the dairy's name and location. "Some bottles have World War II scenes, others have farm scenes; bottles marked with names of colleges are rare finds," he said adding collectors often stick with bottles from dairies in their home towns and neighboring communities.
According to Jim George, the highest asking price for a milk bottle has been around $2,500 to $3,500 for Borden's ruby red round quart containers that were a test run for a Christmas milk bottle. Employees told management it looked too much like blood, so the idea was squashed.
About 25 red milk bottles are out there in collections, and they are, as Jim George puts it, "the holy grails of milk bottle collecting."
Many collectible milk bottles are available for $10 to $20, with high-end bottles costing a few hundred dollars. In contrast, historic flasks and bottles in Michael George's collection sell for thousands of dollars.
Ink and medicine
Brookline resident George Senges specializes in ink bottles. Senges, who was recently browsing for ink bottles in Nashua, said he found a nice amber-colored ink bottle about 2 inches high with a price tag of several thousand dollars. "Everyone collects something different," said Senges. "When I started, the popular thing was poisons."
Pembroke resident Ed Cloe focuses on collecting bottles for cures for everything from headaches and heart trouble to kidney problems and malaria.
"It was probably mostly alcohol and some herbs," said Cloe.
One of his favorite bottles is from the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company.
"It's a cure for drunkenness and a liver renovator," he said.
Stowe, Mass., residents Greg Bair and Maureen Crawford have wide-ranging collections.
Bair has been collecting since he was a kid. About 10 years ago, he met Maureen Crawford, an antique dealer with a weakness for bottles that originally contained Sawyer's Crystal Blueing Agent.
Since then Bair and Crawford have combined their collecting expertise and inventories and live with a friendly black lab named Lucy and thousands of antique glass bottles.
"We try to have some rooms that are bottle-free," said Bair.
Crawford has an extensive collection of elegant cologne bottles, while Bair has a range of flasks, bitters bottles, medicines, demijohns and just about anything else that strikes his interest.
First NH show
Crawford, who like Bair is a member of the Merrimack Valley Bottle collectors, is committed to spreading the word about the value and beauty of historical bottles. For more than a year, she and Michael George have been organizing New Hampshire's first national antique bottle show, which will be held in July at Manchester's Radisson Expo Center.
"We've been contacting bottle clubs all over the country and we have more than 250 dealer tables," said Crawford, who is hoping the show captures the attention of a new generation of collectors.
Michael George sees the show as an opportunity to raise awareness of the craftsmanship that went into glass, particularly New Hampshire glass made in factories in Suncook, Temple, Stoddard, Keene and Lyndeborough.
He and Crawford hope the show will help build an appreciation for the contribution New Hampshire glassmakers made to New England's economy and history.
"Bottle collecting is all about research and learning the history," he said.