Posts Tagged With: bottles

Were the Inhabitants of the Freedman’s School the First Environmentalists?

Next in our student series, Michelle Tesser investigates the three glass bottle stoppers found at the Benedictine monastery and Freedmen school.

Were the Inhabitants of the Freedman’s School the First Environmentalists?!

These bottle-stoppers unearthed at the Freedman’s school and monastery on Skidaway Island tell us something about the inhabitants of the area in the 1800’s—but what? Were these people the first ‘hippies’ or ‘hipsters’– an environmentally conscious community!?

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This molded aqua glass bottle stopper would have had cork around the shank, allowing the bottle to seal. (Photo credit: Laura Seifert)

Historical records tell us after the Civil war, Benedictine monks were invited from Europe to build and run Freedman Schools in the Savannah area. In 1878, after success on Perry Street in downtown Savannah and a failed attempt on Isle of Hope (that pesky yellow fever outbreak ruined it all!), the monks opened a ‘manual labor’ school on the grounds of Hampton Place, a defunct (and burned out) plantation. This school had no tuition, so the students spent part of their time getting a formal education and part working the fields, with the intent of selling the crops for profit to fund the school. This was a concept that didn’t go over too well with the parents of these children. As newly freed slaves, they envisioned a better future for their kids. Also, most African Americans were Protestant and unsupportive of the Catholic monks. The school never made enough money from crops, and as attendance declined steadily, the school closed in the 1890s.

But the bottle stoppers! What do they mean? What can they tell us? How were they used and why? Were the monks and students environmentally conscious, concerned with non-biodegradable refuse?

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Amber bottle stopper with some patina, which is the glass decaying. (Photo credit: Laura Seifert)

No, plastic wasn’t used in bottles back then! Drinking vessels were all reusable containers. Whether a ceramic mug or glass bottle used for storing drinking water or cow or goat milk, there were no disposable Styrofoam coffee cups or plastic Evian bottles. These glass stoppers were used just as the caps on our reusable water bottles: to keep the contents clean and contained.

Glass stoppers were the third most common type of bottle closures used in the late 1800’s, behind cork and crockery, so it’s not surprising they were found in abundance here in Georgia. The styles varied from ornate, used in fancy decanters, to form-functional, like the ones unearthed on Skidaway Island- but the purpose was the same: to insert into the bottle and protect the contents within. They are sectioned into three parts, for purpose of definition and craftsmanship. The portion inserted into the neck of the bottle is the shank, the finial is the section protruding from the bottle and can be grasped to open or close it, and the neck joins the two halves together. These stoppers are crafted in a mold, then ground down to fit the intended bottle securely, creating an airtight seal. Some glass stoppers were reinforced-so to speak-with a layer of cork, wax or both to ensure the contents wouldn’t be contaminated. As shown in the picture above, some were embossed with logos of the manufacturer, just like our metal beer bottle caps- although those are on the surface, not etched into the metal like in this glass stopper. A simple concept, just like our modern versions, but the beautiful craftsmanship is much cooler and prettier than our twist-tops or water-spouted sports bottles.

Sources

Benedictine Monastery and Freedmen’s School, Phase 1 report

Historic Glass Bottle Identification & Information website

Michigan State Campus Archaeology Program blog

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Dusties: Bottled History

Jake Knudsen combines his love of history with his chosen profession to continue our student series, with his (not late) post, Dusties: Bottled History.

I am a Liberal Studies major with a Theater minor. I currently work in the liquor industry and will be making my career in that industry, so one can definitely wonder how I ended up in an archaeology class. I stumbled across archaeology entirely by accident when taking a class with a teacher I knew I enjoyed from a previous semester. Now I am on my sixth anthropology class and third archaeology class. Since taking these classes, I have been able to view my current career choice in an interesting, archaeological light that has exposed the negative side of bottle trading taking place daily. This really shows some of the incredibly poor ethics within artifact finding.

Let me preface the following statement with this: Being in the liquor industry, I have joined some of these bottle trading groups to keep up with current market trends and to see what the popular selling items are at the moment. There are several groups on Facebook that condone the sale and trade of alcoholic beverages, which is remarkably illegal but is also not allowed on Facebook. I do not buy or sell on any of these groups. That being said, on these websites, I have seen some INCREDIBLE bottles chock full of some incredible history. Commonly referred to as “dusties” these bottles are anywhere from 30 to 130 years old. I have seen bottles that have been recently discontinued and bottles that are pre-prohibition. I have even seen bottles that were from the early era of the George Washington Distillery.

People know that these “dusties” are worth a large amount of money and do not hesitate to sell them or auction them off for high dollar. I’ve seen people trade pre-prohibition bottles for cars. It breaks my heart that an industry full of such rich history also faces same the difficulties and unethical practices historians and archaeologists face on a daily basis, but unfortunately this will be a problem until people all start to take action together. Here are a few resources you can contact if you find bottles or archaeological artifacts that pertain to the liquor industry or if you are searching for information to help prevent the “secondary market trading” and the unethical practices faced worldwide. If you find artifacts that you have questions about, contact the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, also known as DISCUS. DISCUS has been around for 75 years and has one of the largest, most thorough histories of distilled spirits in the United States. You can also contact the Kentucky Distillers Association, also known as the KDA. The staff at the KDA redefines professionalism and respect for all things bourbon and bourbon history and would be able to help with identifying artifacts and potential ground breaking discoveries.

Practice good ethics when you are out in the field. By taking artifacts and pieces of history away from their proper resting place, you have the possibility of leaving holes in the timeline. Practice good ethics and when in doubt, if you are not sure if something important- JUST ASK!

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