History In A Bottle: Cape Fear Bottle Collecting

BY Pam Miller

Used bottles broken glass and old plates sound like trash to most of us but not to the members of the Wilmington Antique Bottle and Artifact Club. To these daring diggers this stuff is lost treasure and much free time is spent on the hunt. Some scratch their heads at the idea of digging up dirt or diving for old bottles but for 30 years this local club has taken pride in its hobby. Not only do the items they find make great collectibles but they often tell a story by offering a unique look at our history. Newly elected club president Jay Styron says “We’re just people who are really interested in the history of the bottles where they came from.”

The Wilmington Antique Bottle and Artifact Club started in 1977 and one of its founding members Lad Bright is still active today. The club currently has about 12 regular members and 12 more members who drift in and out. Styron who has been in the club now for two years says “I think it’s like most clubs. It’s just a group of people that have this like interest and with Wilmington having the history that it has — for 300 years it’s been a seaport — we have 300 years of people’s trash to dig through.”

One of the club’s main challenges is finding the small areas in town where people would bury their trash centuries ago. One of the most common places for people to discard their garbage back then was the ground around outhouses and wells. These filled-in holes in the earth now hold endless amounts of historical goods and unclaimed treasures. If you can find them they’re there for the taking.

Another good place to find these buried antiques is the Cape Fear River. In the 1800s Wilmington used to have a few bottling companies and wineries located along the river banks including a Coca Cola bottling plant. Now the club finds old Coke bottles with “Wilmington North Carolina” embossed in the glass a rare find and also a key to local history. “A lot of the names on the bottles were local family names for the breweries or the bottling companies. You have sodas that were bottled that may have only been around the early 1900s and don’t even exist anymore but are from Wilmington ” says Styron. Also the water areas around the battleship and old wooden docks and pilings hold an abundance of items. That was a huge wharf warehouse area holding naval stores and selling tar cotton and lumber.

Also there were many plantation landings that grew cotton rice and other goods up the river that serviced riverboats from Wilmington dating back to the late 1700s.

Though the items that are found near the plantations are much rarer and valuable due to their increased age it’s a lot more difficult to find these treasures whereas the river area near downtown holds an abundance of items that might not be as rare. “As long as visibility is good enough to see I’ll find something just about every time I dive just because it’s been going on for 300 years ” claims Styron. Though the statistics were against him Styron did find a bottle near one of the old plantation landings probably dating back to the early 1700s making it the oldest object he’s ever found.

Antique bottles dating anywhere from the early 1800s up until today are the most common items found by the club. “For me [the bottles] are sort of like art objects because a lot of them were hand-blown handmade. The lips of them were tooled by hand instead of this mass marketing machinery stuff like we have now ” says Styron. The imperfections of the bottle make the item all the more unique. Bubbles in the glass tilted necks and lopsided bottoms make the bottles extremely collectible and rare because of how they were individually handcrafted.

Not only are these bottles unique because of how they were made but also because of where they were made. Ships from all over the world docked at Wilmington’s seaport depositing their trash in the Cape Fear River along the way. Styron has found bottles from Holland Halifax Nova Scotia Canada and England to name just a few. “You’re not just finding the local bottles and you’re not finding just indigenous. You can find something from anywhere in the world ” claims Styron. “That to me is what a lot of this bottle collecting is about. The history. How did this bottle get from Nova Scotia to all the way down here? Or from England to here? Or upstate to here?”

Club members don’t just search for bottles; they also dig and dive for antique broken crockery broken plates jugs and metal objects. Since Styron mostly dives in the river to find his objects he finds a lot of boat machinery parts and metals from the shipping industry as well. Though objects found in the river are a bit harder to clean up due to the barnacles and algae growth they can be cleaned with gentle care and proper tools.

Many of the people in the club are very knowledgeable about the dating of the antiques they find. Styron dates most of his own findings and says “You can tell by the bottle how it’s made and a lot of the bottles have seam marks going up the side and where that seam mark stops as it’s going up the neck will give you a general idea to the time period that bottle was made.”

If the seam stops at the shoulder of the bottle chances are it’s a mid-1800s bottle. If the seam goes another inch up the neck it’s a mid-1800s to late-1800s bottle. If the seam goes to the bottom of the neck it’s probably from around the turn of the century. If the seam goes to the very top it’s most likely post-1900 when machines started taking over the job. Additionally by 1915 all bottles were screw caps. Therefore crown caps are more valuable and collectible since they date back further in time.

Though the river holds sunken treasures it’s a bit more challenging to find antique bottles and artifacts on land. One of the club’s major problems is finding the right spots to dig. Of course most of the antiques have been found in downtown Wilmington since it’s one of the oldest areas in town and was developed first. Also after 30 years of club digging and other diggers before that there aren’t too many undiscovered areas of the city in which to dig. “Unfortunately bottle diggers are a lot like fishermen. They don’t like to give out their secret spots ” says Styron “A lot of the stuff in Wilmington has been dug. It’s harder and harder to find spots.”

Even construction workers have gotten into the act looking for rare objects as part of their normal excavations.

To help find dig sites diggers in the past have used Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps which were made by the Sanborn insurance company starting in the 1800s. The maps show every building and structure in the city at the time they were drawn including the hard-to-find outhouses and privies.

Using a long iron rod with a T-handle the diggers can push through the different layers of sand until they reach a hard object. “If you hit brick or pottery you can hear it make a different sound. You can locate areas and then start digging out to see if that’s where it is ” says Styron “That’s how you can locate a site on a piece of land.”

You can’t just start randomly digging downtown though. You need permission from whoever owns the land since it is private property. You can’t dig at all on city land.

If you’re not up for the actual dig or dive try hunting on eBay. Many of the club members put their found objects on the internet for those who want to avoid the grunt work.

If you think you might have some bottle digger in you the Wilmington Antique Bottle and Artifact Club meets the first Wednesday of every month at Cape Fear Community College at 7:30 p.m. At the meetings members share the antique objects they have recently found. “There’s a lot of knowledge. So if you bring something in there’s a good chance somebody can tell you the history of it the date when it was made where and things like that ” claims Styron. Also future digs and dives are planned and the club raffles off a variety of bottles. Styron says it’s a true educational hobby club a club for people who still seek the adventure of a good treasure hunt.