Collector unbottles his passion


It was a hot June day 22 years ago when Don Strittmatter discovered his passion and hobby: "shiny stuff sticking out of the banks" of a ravine under the South River Bridge.

A curious 12-year-old, he ran toward the shine and dug up two thick, heavy milk bottles. He toted them home to his father, who told him they were from the old Annapolis Dairy and Java Farm Dairy.

These days, the two bottles sit on a shelf in his Annapolis home, but they are not alone. Bottles sit on shelves and in the front yard. Bottle-filled boxes are stacked high in his basement.

Mr. Strittmatter has collected, sold and traded more than 20,000 bottles and has kept as many as 5,000 in his home at one time.

"The attraction is the art, every bottle is different," Mr. Strittmatter said. "Then you want to know its history, who bought it, who made it and who drank out of it."

Most bottle collectors stick with a certain kind of bottle. Some look for bottles froma particular region, for instance, while others collect a specific style.

Mr. Strittmatter said "he's been bitten by the bug twice" and collects everything. He has glass containers that at one time held medicine, poison, liquor, milk, bitters, ink, soda or perfume.

Mr. Strittmatter goes out "every chance I get" digging for bottles like an archaeologist. Armed with a long probe, metal detector, shovel and hoe, he heads out to old homes, dumps or woods. He pokes the probe into the ground until he hits glass. Then he digs down -- anywhere from 2 to 20 feet.

HTC "You never know what you're going to find," he said. "One day you find nothing, and the next day you fill your trunk with bottles."

Three weeks ago he and his girlfriend found a 1935 elephant-shaped Clorox bleach bottle. The company produced "figure" bottles as a sales promotion, Mr. Strittmatter said.

When he was a boy, his mother thought he was crazy to bring batches of dirty bottles home. But she learned to accept his hobby when he began returning with old dolls for her collection.

Mr. Strittmatter, who works for a lawn company in Annapolis, runs a newspaper ad asking for bottles seven or eight times a year. He goes to bottle shows and antique shops, but he gets most of his collection by digging.

His favorite place to dig is where outhouses once sat. Men used to hide from their wives in outhouses, drink and then dispose of the bottles there, he said. Mr. Strittmatter also finds many bottles around old mansions. While poor people kept and reused bottles, rich people tossed them out.

He looks in old newspapers and telephone books to pinpoint digging spots. He also asks older people or goes to the historical section of the libraries to find likely places.

Bottle collecting is a popular hobby in the Baltimore area. About 115 members of the Baltimore Antique Bottle Club meet in Towson once a month to trade, sell and talk about bottles. Every March, a bottle fair is held at the Timonium fairgrounds. About 1,600 people attended this year.

"It's all a part of the collection fad," said Bill Thomas, 52, a bottle collector and former vice president of the club.

Ferdinand Meyer, a former president of the club, said bottle collecting is popular in Baltimore because glass-making was a major industry in the city in the early 1800s.

Mr. Thomas and Mr. Strittmatter said that most people collect bottles because of the art and history, not for money.

"There's not a value in a bottle. It's demand, quality and rarity that determines its price," he said.

Bottles can be picked up for under $1 or fetch sums that reach five figures. Mr. Strittmatter said he once saw a pair of bottles go for $167,000.

The Annapolis native hopes to create a reference book on bottles, but he said every time he thinks he's ready to publish, he finds a new bottle. So for now he'll continue digging and collecting.

"I'll display them one day . . . if I ever get a room that's big enough," he said.

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