More than 1,500 antique collectors from around the country converged in Essex Sunday for the Baltimore Antique Bottle Club's annual exhibition, which organizers billed as the world's largest, one-day antique bottle show.
Ancient beer, milk, wine, medicine and all manner of other glass bottles in an array of shapes, sizes and colors lined hundreds of tables in the Community College of Baltimore County-Essex gymnasium. Vendors told the tales behind each bottle's embossing and use to collectors and curious passers-by alike. The club has hosted the event for 37 years.
Rick Lease, the club's president, said each bottle represents "a capsule in history." They're among the most popular antique collectors' items, he said.
"Glass is forever," Lease said. "Cans rust away. Glass does really, really good, unless it breaks. Other than that, it's timeless. It's not going to go anywhere."
Also on display: Baltimore's rich bottling history.
At one time, the city had hundreds of breweries and dairies, not to mention Isaac E. Emerson's Bromo-Seltzer company, which packaged their drinks and drugs in glass bottles, according to Nic Queen, the club's community outreach officer and past president.
The city was also once home to Crown Cork & Seal Co., now Crown Holdings, which invented the crown-top bottle and bottle cap, which is still used on glass soda and beer bottles today, Queen said.
"It opens you up to a huge history lesson of Baltimore and the surrounding areas," Queen said.
One vendor, Tom Robusto, 60, of Glen Burnie gestured to a line of bottles with lots of ridges — a feature used to denote poisons, so that people wouldn't accidentally mistake the bottle and drink them in the dark before the advent of electricity.
Others, claiming to cure all manner of ailments, often contained morphine, lead, opium, cocaine and other sinister ingredients in the days before the Food and Drug Administration regulated medicine.
"You can actually hold history in your hands," Robusto said. "You can find stuff thrown away by our ancestors."
Ernie Dimler, curator of the Bromo-Seltzer Clock Tower collections and the Maryland Glass Room, compared the exposition to the Super Bowl. His 16-year-old son, Andy, came with him.
"I dream about bottles," Dimler said. "I couldn't sleep last night I was so excited."
Larry Cavanaugh, 55, perused one table with his wife, Barbara. He started collecting as a child, picking through overgrown areas where old houses once stood for remnants of the lives once lived there.
The bottles at the exhibition ranged in price, based on their rarity, from a few dollars to thousands.
"I have a way of picking the most expensive one up," Cavanaugh said, with a laugh.
Mike Hogan, 66, brought his son-in-law, Frank Walker, 38, and his grandson, Kayden Hogan, 8, along for the day. The elder Hogan said he used to go looking for the bottles with his friends. It was a fun way to spend an afternoon outside; you never knew what you might find.
"It's the thrill of the hunt," he said. "Most people never get rich.
"It's not what you get. It's the opportunity of the next thing you pull out."