Bottles on the Brain

Halifax Daily News
Jan 18, 1985

Picture one of our pioneer Haligonians in an outhouse around the turn of the century.

He is well medicated with a restorative tonic which bills itself as the working man’s friend, blood-maker and promoter of quiet rest.

The outhouse is the only safe place to drink it in Victorian Halifax because the contents are 60 per cent alcohol.

So we can forgive him for losing his watch, several coins and even his false teeth down the cess pit where he has chucked the empty bottle but we less likely to understand the zeal of bottle collectors in modern Halifax who would cheerfully spend all day at the bottom of the same pit in hopes of discovering them.

There are hundreds of people in metro with bottle collections though only about a dozen could be called true collectors.

Two people from the last group revealed themselves to The Daily News recently, but they preferred to keep their identities secret. One of them has a bottle collection worth about $25,000. The other is a history buff with no collection but he doesn’t want anybody with heavy boots tramping up the stairs to ask who his friend is.

The history buff, who asked to be called Al, says demolition workers often find artifacts as they clear the way for new construction. He says one job foreman told him a musket, sabre and a brass spittoon with a regimental number were taken from a site without the NS Museum being notified.

Legally, such discoveries must be reported to the museum, but finders often fear the institute will confiscate them. More often, museum workers only want to see them, he says. Occasionally, they may offer to buy an artifact.

One of the best ways to find old bottles is to watch for excavation sites, says Al. “We do most of our digging behind tractors.” Another is to look for places that may have been refuse sites in the past.

Old maps that show the natural courses of streams that now run through culverts may yield clues to dump sites. In the country, “look wherever there’s a disturbance in the ground. Certain weeds grow over old dump sites.” If you find the ruins of an old farmhouse think: If I was living here, where wold I dump my garbage?

And then there are outhouses. “Old outhouse pits are the best sources of bottles,” says Al’s collector friend, who thinks Ralph would be a good assumed name. “They’re very well preserved— even the labels can be intact.” As well as bottles, coins and false teeth, you may find silverware and pots as the pit would have been a dumping ground for dishwater.

Ralph started collecting seven years ago when he bought an old box full of bottles at an auction. “The bottles just fascinated me.” They carried the name of Felix J. Quinn, a soda-pop maker in Halifax around 1900. They featured Hutchinson stopers, a rubber cap that dangels inside the bottle neck but can be pulled tight aginst the lip with a hook to seal the contents.

Over the next seven years Ralph read up on the subject and spent around $10,000 collecting bottles.

One of his prize possessions is a Nash and McAllister fired clay bottle with a blue top bearing the name Forest Root Beer, Sydney, Cape Breton. The bottle was probably made in Montreal and may be the only Nova Scotia root beer bottle in existence. It’s worth about $7,800. Similar bottles held ginger beer, a popular beverage for the British Army, but root beer was relatively rare.

A lot of drinks— especially tonics — were alcoholic in those days, particularly nerve tonics marketed to young women “to quiet them down,” says Ralph. “You had to keep them happy and stoned around the house instead of running around town with the boys.”

Young boys, it seems, had to be content with a beverage even milder than beer, Jersey Cream Pop. “Kids would sneak into the attic and drink it,” says Ralph. Some of the bottles would fall down wall cavities where they awaited discovery much later. Ralph paid $45 to the janitor of the old Jubilee Boat Club for a potato sack full of bottles he hadn’t even seen. Their market value is now nearly $800.

Ralph has bottles of all types. Cod-stopper bottles had marbles inside them to seal them up. Kids used to break them open to take the marbles out, so the manufacturer stopped making them.

He has bottles of whisky and rum from the wreck of HMS Brittannic off Grand Manan Island in 1748. He has two more bottles and even an old cannon ball from an early waste pit at Keith’s Brewery.

His Dutch gin bottles have scars on their bottoms from the early firing process. He has master ink bottles in cobalt blue that would sit on a teacher’s desk and supply students’ ink wells. His ginger beer bottles are dark green to keep the brew protected from sun and so congealed matter wouldn’t show.

There is even a bottle of William Randall’s Microbe Killer No. 2 a concoction similar to bleach. It protected cabbages from bugs so it was marketed for human consumption as the “scourge of the evil microbe, the great enemy of all mankind” in the 1820s.

There’s a bottle that once held Tiger Whisky, favored by Halifax’s Chinese community around Queen St. in the late 1800s.

Taverns and saloons abounded in Halifax at the time but punch with rum was even dispensed in local stores as a measure of hospitality until public pressure ended that happy custom.

Bottle collectors can’t practice their trade long befored they become experts in historical trivia. But they are often resented by professionals as interfering pot-hunters, motivated by greed.

Greed certainly played a part in the demise of the Halifax bottle club. Members who went on digs refused to share their finds. Now they don’t even talk about whwere they’re digging.

But Ralph, with a collection bigger than that of the N.S. Museum, says bottle collectors could be a source of information for archeologists. “We have the experience to make reasonable interpretations and there are a lot more of us.”