Shattering prices don't deter rare glass collectors at Essex show

History's throwaways and discards emerged as coveted attractions Sunday when bottles, vials and flasks that spent decades buried in dumps and privies returned in translucent glory.

Billed as the "largest one-day bottle show in the world," the Baltimore Bottle Club's 33rd annual sale and exhibit, held in Essex, drew container connoisseurs who didn't flip a cork over paying $750 for a rare cobalt-blue poison bottle produced at Carr-Lowrey, a factory on the Middle Branch of the Patapsco in Westport.

"In bottle collecting, color is king," said collector Steve Charing, a Howard County enthusiast who produced a display of container glassware associated with barber shops. In addition to bottles that held hair tonics, the astringent witch hazel and scent bay rum, he showed off delicate Victorian hand-blown glass decanters in tones of amber, cranberry and chartreuse.

"Men in the 19th century could be very fussy about their hair preparations," he said. "The ones with enough money would have their own decanters for tonics made to their own formulas, maybe with a certain scent."

His own favorite bottles were those with a hobnail surface over a creamy white glass base. "These are beautiful. They were never thrown in a dump," he said.

The Baltimore Bottle Club's show is an event so sacred to its believers that 200 assembled at 8 a.m. outdoors in a chilly wind to be the first through the doors of the physical education center at the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County.

It was a day to celebrate Baltimore's once-thriving glass blowers and manufacturers, such as Carr-Lowrey, where Avon containers and Head and Shoulders shampoo bottles were born, and Maryland Glass, the Noxzema jar maker.

Dealers explained that bottle makers marked their wares with embossed lettering schemes on the bottom, enabling collectors to know the provenance of what they are buying. And if color and condition count, so does a knowledge of the bottle's origin.

"I like collecting local stuff," said Eric Ewen, a truck driver from Woodlawn who wants to own milk bottles from the different dairies that once flourished in that section of Baltimore County. He named the farms — Blue Ribbon, Hillcrest, Fair View, Franklin and Asbestos Ridge.

He said milk bottle collecting has its own niche among the many categories of bottle fans. Because customers paid a deposit for the reusable bottles, each container was clearly marked by the dairy that supplied it.

Bill Mueller, a Crownsville milk bottle collector, said Maryland once had 800 dairies and as many different milk bottle designs. He showed a Dundalk bottle for Eddie's Markets (five-cent deposit required) and a quart bottle for Berlin's milk on East Lombard Street.

The show drew numerous exhibitors from other states. Jerry Jones, a retired telephone company employee from Pleasant Gardens, N.C., arrived with his stash of empty precious poison bottles.

"Bedbugs were more of a problem in the past than we think," he said as he displayed a lethal insecticide bottle embossed with "Pratt's killer for bedbugs."

If milk bottles routinely carried the name of the dairy, poison bottles were traditionally embossed with bumpy ridges so there would be, in theory, no confusing the blue milk of magnesia bottle with the mercury bichloride intended to clean surgical instruments.

A cobalt blue poison bottle made by Carr-Lowrey glass in an "irregular hexagon" pattern was priced at $750. It was also marked for Bowman's drug stores, which Jones said was a California chain. "That bottle made in Baltimore wound up being sold on the West Coast."

The way to tell a bottle made by the old Maryland Glass Co. was its letter M surrounded by a circle, said Glen Mansberger III, a Baltimore Bottle Club member who lives in Harford County.

His wares included those from all over Baltimore's Charles Street — containers from the McCormick spice plant on South Charles; a liquor bottle from Hopper-McGaw, the fancy grocer at Mulberry; and a hooch pint from Charles A. Thumel, proudly embossed 1908 N. Charles.

Not all the containers were glass. Chris Vaught, a construction worker from Ingleside in Queen Anne's County, displayed gray stoneware soda bottles from the 1840s, many of which he dug from old Fells Point and South Baltimore privies.

"They might hold root beer that had a small alcoholic content," he said. "Or spruce beer, maple mead or honey mead. The best places to find them are in the urban areas because, on a farm or rural site, you'll never know just where a privy was located."

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