History lessons on tap at National Bottle Museum
by Ann Hauprich
(Story also appeared in two of the author’s books about the village.)
Ballston Spa High School is normally a place where history lessons are presented in classrooms overflowing with textbooks and maps. But all the stops were pulled out on Saturday, June 7, 2008 when the academic setting on Ballston Avenue hosted the National Bottle Museum’s 2008 Antique Bottle Show & Sale.
The annual event drew collectors from coast-to-coast who share National Bottle Museum Executive Director Jan Rutland’s assertion that while one cannot put time in a bottle, it IS possible to preserve history in a bottle. To satisfy those thirsty for knowledge, the museum overseen by Rutland on Milton Avenue in Ballston Spa houses about 2,000 antique bottles — each of which contains a valuable history lesson.
The same could be said of the fragile artifacts which were displayed at the weekend event that also showcased flameworking demonstrations by Rutland’s husband Larry and his assistant Talyah Alpern as well as a presentation by Mike Polak, author of the red-hot “Antique Trader Identification & Price Guide” from Krause Publications.
Calling old bottles “precious links to our past,” Rutland said such collectibles are used to trace the history of entire industries, as well as national and world events. Just as many of the displays inside the museum are enhanced by what collectors call “go-withs” (such as advertisements, posters, currency and other items relating to a particular era in bottle manufacturing) so did many of the weekend exhibits include bonus information aimed at educating those yearning to know more about their wares.
“Most people aren’t aware of this because it doesn’t get much play in history textbooks,” said Rutland, “but bottle manufacturing was America’s first major industry, and it dictated an entire way of life for the individuals involved. People apprenticed for years to craft utilitarian objects by hand, and it was common for glass blowers and their families to live at the glass factory sites.”
These pre-planned communities belonged to the glass factory owners, who dictated every aspect of daily life for residents — right down to what they could eat and drink. Located in remote areas with ready access to vast supplies of sand and wood, these villages typically included a general store, a blacksmith, a saw mill, a box or crate builder and a school.”
Early glass factories produced sturdy bottles for world-famous mineral water from Ballston Spa and Saratoga Springs and the essence oils from Lyons near Rochester. Others produced bottles for ink, milk, perfumes and a wide assortment of spirits. Glass can, of course, be produced in all colors of the spectrum, and early glassblowers knew this could be accomplished by adding certain compounds to the basic glass mixture. The results ranged from deep blues (cobalt or copper), purple (nickel or manganese), green (chromium or copper), reds (selenium, copper, gold), browns (nickel or carbon), yellows (iron), and opal/milk glass (tin or zinc).
An engineer’s flame-working blueprints
Trained as a structural engineer, Larry Rutland appreciates the aesthetics of structure in natural and man-made objects such as flowers, trees, buildings and bridges. Although still a full-time engineer, the husband of National Bottle Museum Executive Director Jan Rutland is in the process of developing a private studio in their home and teaching teen and adult flameworking classes at the Museum Glassworks.
Reflects Larry: “I first became interested in art in the early 1960s, starting with pastel portraits and landscapes. Later I used pen and ink with watercolor wash and then created full watercolors. I also produced some landscapes using oils. After a long break from the painting scene, I discovered the art of forming glass in the flame of a torch. I am currently concentrating on contemporary art — glass marbles, pendants, buttons and figurals, which reflect my appreciation of nature.”
National Bottle Museum Executive Director Jan “Bubbles” Rutland is seen below with a picture of a glass blower crafting a demijohn in the early part of the 20th century. At right, she holds a sample museum artifact. The nearby Museum Glassworks was purchased and equipped with torches and hand tools for teaching lampworking, a process of working with glass rods and tubing to create smaller objects from hot glass. A full-size glass furnace was also installed so that students and visitors would be able to experience for themselves techniques employed by glass blowers of the past that are still used by the glass artists of today. Story and photos by Ann Hauprich.
Among the largest bottles are those called demi-johns, huge glass containers once used to ship or store bulk items ranging from seeds for farmers to tanning acids for the leather industry. Some of the demi-johns were built into custom designed boxes or crates so they could arrive safely in open railroad cars.
According to Rutland, the most sought after examples are those that ere mouth-blown prior to the invention of the automatic bottle-making machines in 1903. “These beautiful objects are treasured for the history they represent,” stressed Rutland. “At the early factories, strong men toiled in intense heat 12 hours a day blowing glass bottles individually using a blow pipe. It took a team of three to five men to produce each bottle and jar.”
In addition to its many functional and decorative bottles, many collectors are on the lookout for antique marbles and paperweights to delicate whimsies, also called “end of the day” pieces because glass blowers known as gaffers, usually crafted them as gifts for family and friends at the end of their shifts. The resulting items took forms ranging from ornate vases and pitchers to fragile hats and canes. Others specialized in collecting delicate glass violins and fiddles that were once used to hold women’s cosmetic products as well as liquors and liqueurs.
Then there are the glass perfume decanters and the fragile artifacts that might well be dubbed “Buried Treasure” because they were retrieved from privy pits.
Many visitors wonder how a national museum ever ended up in such an unassuming place as Ballston Spa.
“They forget,” she said, “that this village boasted the first famous spa in the Northeast and was once a thriving resort town that attracted people seeking cures from its therapeutic mineral waters as they do now in Saratoga Springs.
Other interesting artifacts inside the National Bottle Museum include an antique pharmaceutical counter, complete with a prescription record book dating back to 1904.
Artifacts found on or behind the counter include such things as a container for lung salve claiming to cure everything from pneumonia and pleurisy to appendicitis, piles and “phthisis” — an early name for tuberculosis.
Oh, yes. In case you’re wondering, the National Bottle Museum does NOT buy antique bottles. All items on display were either donated to the facility or are on loan by request.
So, unless you come across a genuine example of time in a bottle, it’s probably best to keep your old flasks safely at home where friends and loved ones can help you uncork the history lessons each bottle inevitably contains.