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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!?


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?


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.


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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