Without fail during every bottle show, a collector steps up to my table and asks, “Can you help me with a bottle? I have no idea what it is.”
It’s always fun to see what they’ll pull out of the bag. While I’ve seen just about every category of bottle, it’s amazing how many figural bottles come out of their bags. Everyone can readily identify with popular bottles such as whiskeys, bitters, beers, medicines, poisons and fruit jars, but figurals seem to get lost in the crowd.
As a general rule, for a bottle to be categorized as a figural, the bottle needs to be mostly figural in shape and design. Figural bottle collectors will be quick to tell you the reason they are attracted to these whimsical bottles is because of their unique shapes and designs in the likeness of animals, people, monuments, cars, candy containers, etc. Other popular bottles such as whiskeys, both vintage and contemporary, and bitters bottles also fit into the figural category.
The creative beginnings of a figural bottle are as old as ceramic (made from clay) and glass containers themselves. Glass and early ancient pottery makers frequently made vessels in the shapes of different animals and people. Ancient items from Peru have shown up: A ceramic warrior-shaped bottle (circa 500 A.D.), a ceramic black puma-shaped bottle (circa 1300) and a ceramic human head on a squash-shaped bottle (circa 600 A.D.).
In addition to their shapes, figurals have a few other quirky characteristics. Collectors are usually so preoccupied with the shapes and designs that little attention is paid to the type of embossing or other markings on the bottles, which usually is nonexistent. Also, closures aren’t rated high on the list of concerns.
Early figural bottles utilized a common cork closure, along with ornate ground glass stoppers, eventually evolving to the metal screw-on cap.
Besides their shapes, another unique aspect of figurals is their various colors – and lack of colors. While some glass containers had colors such as cobalt blue, amber, amethyst (purple) and blue-green, the majority of them were manufactured in clear glass or clear frosted glass. For ceramic figural bottles, glazes of all colors are always represented, while glass containers are usually limited to one color. As an example, while the figural glass cigar is totally amber, and the clam flask is totally cobalt blue, some figural ceramics, such as the Ezra Brooks, Jim Beam, and Schaffer & Vater bottles, are multicolored.
The majority of figural bottles were manufactured during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, both in the United States and Europe, and most notably in France in the late 1800s. The French led all manufacturers, producing thousands of clear quality glass figurals that resembled fine lead glass representing nearly every type of known character and monument. Quite often, the bottle manufacturers took full advantage of the current world politics and newsworthy events, producing bottles that supported these events, resulting in a greater attraction to the consumer.
One of the most popular collected varieties of figurals is candy containers. Glass manufacturers such as West Brothers Co.; H. Millstein; L.E. Smith; Westmoreland Glass Co.; T.H. Stough; Jeanette Glass Co.; and Victory Glass Inc., located in Jeanette and Grapeville, Pennsylvania, began producing these containers in the thousands during the late 1800s. It’s interesting to note that the shapes of these glass containers were intricate since each designer had to create an individual mold for each piece. The process required the glass be pressed or blown into the mold one piece at a time. Document archive information reflects that the first two containers were designed as the Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the Liberty Bell commemorating the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia.
By the early 1900s, these containers were being produced in the thousands with shapes representing comic book characters, animals, holiday themes (especially Halloween items made in Germany for the U.S. market between 1919 and 1935), trucks, cars and historical and war-related themes such as tanks, ships, jeeps, navy ships and airplanes, to name a few.
[To obtain more information about candy containers, contact the Candy Container Collectors of America, Jim Olean, 115 Macbeth Dr., Lower Burrell, PA 15068-2628, or visit the club’s website at www.candycontainer.org.]
Earlier, I mentioned that certain types of whiskey and bitter bottles also fit into the figural category. Figural bitters always have, and always will, attract the most attention with bitter collectors. Collecting these bottles, especially the high-end quality select bottles, can range anywhere from $1,000 to $30,000 a bottle. Remember: Color and condition define everything.
The list below reflects the most desirable figural bitters.
• McKeever’s Army Bitters (medium amber)
• Zingari Bitters (light amber)
• Cassin’s Grape Brandy Bitters (brilliant olive yellow)
• W & Co/N.Y.-Pineapple Bitters (medium/dark amber)
• National Bitters – figural ear (yellow with green tint)
• Of Corn (rare aqua, black puce)
• Simon’s Centennial Bitters (medium amber)
• Figural of George Washington (aqua)
• Bryant’s Stomach Bitters (olive green)
• Figural Indian Queen (medium amber to yellow)
• Fish Bitters (citron, olive, rare aqua, clear with amethyst tint, amber)
• Suffolk Bitters (yellow with olive tone)
• Berkshire Bitters (golden amber).
Vintage whiskey figurals were first introduced by Bininger and Co. of New York City, established in 1830. While their initial bottles were made in English glass factories, they switched over to local glass factories, which provided a wider range of different types of bottle shapes such as barrels, clocks, jugs, cannons and Presidential busts that were manufactured into the late 1880s. Other popular favorites were figural pig bitters that were mold-blown with hand-finished necks and the E.G. Booze Old Cabin Whiskey.
Booze bottles were first manufactured around 1860 for Philadelphia merchant Edmund Booz. They were blown in a full-size mold with an applied top in amber but later reproduced in milk glass, blue, green and amethyst colors.
Contemporary modern whiskey figurals include companies such as Ezra Brooks, McCormick, Ski-Country, Wild Turkey, Lionstone, Jim Beam, Kentucky Gentlemen, Garnier, J.W. Dant, Old Fitzgerald and Hoffman, and all were manufactured in a variety of different celebrities, animals, birds, commemorative events and organizations.
Another popular contemporary whiskey figural is the Schafer & Vater whiskey nips. Schafer & Vater was founded in 1890 in Germany. By 1910, Sears, Roebuck & Co. began to import and distribute the Schafer & Vater pottery in the United States. They came in a variety of different shaped flasks, people in different action scenes such as dancing or bowling, and all with a theme of drinking. They soon became popular giveaway items at taverns, liquor stores, dance halls and other events as premiums to celebrate various businesses and the holidays. Collectors seem to prefer the colors of blue and brown glaze over the multi-colored glazes. These nips aren’t big, ranging from 3 to 7 inches high and 2 to 3 inches wide.
If you are interested in collecting a unique type of bottle that would fit into many collections, check out figurals. They have something for all collectors.