side note: digging for bottles

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an obsession

I live on a farm in Maine which has been around for 270 years. at the turn of the last century, we were a nation between the invention of huge mass production and the disposable culture; in other words, we could make things fast, but didn’t have proper channels to get rid of the waste  (of course, we still do not dispose of things properly, but that’s another matter).

the result of this is that in the past, the common practice for waste disposal was the personal landfill – a dump heap. throw all your bottles, sardine cans, chamber pots, canning jars, old boots,  and the like out on a pile and let nature break it down. however, that’ll take a long time for a most of this stuff. it’s unfortunate that this waste has remained to our present day, but it has given me a chance to do a little historical snooping about the people who lived here before me.

I’ve been excavating the trash heap on our property slowly, carefully. above is what it looks like right now. on the left we see the pile of stuff I’ve pulled out of the dirt, and the right is the unexplored area of trash. shards of glass and crockery, metal hoops from barrels, old cans, soles from shoes; all things I’ve discarded while looking for what I really want – intact old bottles. there’s a lot of waste to sort through – the metal is all decomposing on its own, and I’m ok with that – but among the trash we find treasures.

this is my current collection. as bright and lovely as they are, they were all at once in the dirt, filled with roots and bugs. my haul is almost too big for the shelf that it’s sitting on at this point; I’m going to have to move it to a better location or set up another shelf.

a process

digging for bottles takes time and patience. glass is thought of as a fragile material, and in a sense it is; however, when tossed in a pile and covered in dirt, it will remain for a long, long time. the pile has been walked over. it has had fires rage over it. it has had trees fall over onto it. yet, a startling number of bottles have survived to be pulled out by me.

the earth does not willingly yield its contents, and one cannot simply rake through; this could break the bottles. one must slowly remove layers of dirt, pulling out the shards of windows and chamber pots to find the complete pieces.

aha. here we have some sort of flavor extract bottle; it possibly held vanilla or wintergreen. this is a fairly common find, and I have quite a few of them. next in the pile seemed to be an Atlas brand home canning jar, but upon further excavation I discover it is broken. this momentary disappointment is common while digging; I must simply discard it and move on. here’s the atlas jar peaking out… excitement rises – and is shattered.

the next step is to take the bottles home and submerge them, wash them, scrape the rust and mold from their interiors. I do most of this outdoors, though the final cleaning takes place in my kitchen sink. in this trip, one can see some preserve jars that would have had wax paper lids, a Bell jar lid, a porcelain plate (these are harder to find intact than glass), an ink well,  and a few other odds and ends. after some cleaning they come out beautifully clear, never betraying the decades they’ve spent underground.

above is the same canning jar all cleaned. I was really excited to find these. there were actually quite a lot of them. judging by the method by which they were blown into a mold (which one discerns via the seam on their side) and by their uneven rippling and bubbling, they are eighty to ninety years old. the major reason so many survived is that they are thicker than most normal jars, and by the fact that they were in a part of the pile that was fairly undisturbed. they are quite a convenient size for a drinking vessel; it somehow gives me great joy to know that they will be used again in this home for a new function after all these years. I have found 25 of them, pictured below in their drawer for safe keeping.

a historical perspective

the bottles I find give a glimpse into the lives of the people who lived here – merely in what they liked to buy. alcohol bottles, lots of porcelain, trinkets and metal parts have given me clues as to their lives – one of the interesting things I find is old telephone batteries. unfortunately, these are too fragile and have decomposed, and thus cannot actually be excavated intact – they crumble as I pick them up, no matter how careful I am.

each trip up to the pile yields a different snapshot of the past. here’s an example of one hour’s digging time, and some profiles of my finds:

one of the women who lived here was a teacher; I have found some of her inkwells. fountain pens were an element of daily life, and were made to last, unlike the bic in your pocket now; they did require a little more skill to use.

I find these bottles all the time. they read “DAVIES ROSE & CO./LTD./BOSTON, MASS.” on the front. they are from around 1920, and I believe they held a cough remedy that contained alcohol, opium, and chloroform.  man, I bet it worked wonders.

this is a bluing bottle. bluing dye was/is used to offset the perceived yellowing of laundry and human hair. white fabrics and hair tend to acquire a slight yellow-gray tint as they age, especially when exposed to smoke. bluing is meant to act as a complementary color to cancel out the yellowing and keep things looking white. these days, fewer people smoke (also we just throw aging articles away) so bluing is a less common phenomenon. old ladies still blue their hair sometimes.

here we have milk of magnesia, marketed in its distinctive blue bottle. the cobalt glass used was rarely used except to market milk of magnesia, it seems. I have only found one cobalt blue bottle that wasn’t MoM. milk of magnesia is meant to act as an antacid and a laxative, or (as a folk remedy) to treat acne and dandruff. whichever use the people who lived here used it for, they bought a LOT of it. the person with tummy trouble lived here closer to our time as evidenced by the threading for a screw-top. older bottles (like the ones above) are corked instead.

remember when I said that people have had fires atop the trash pile? they must have gotten it burning really hot, because they managed to melt some of the top layer of the time. this is a rare example of a bottle that cooled slowly enough not to shatter. glass is just melted sand, but its molecular structure will only remain stable if the heat changes it is subjected to are very gradual. most of the melted glass I find is just broken clumps of mush and spikiness.

there are also a lot of small bottles in the pile. they happen to be my favorite; these tiny vials just seem to have so much personality to me. many of them are perfume samples or flavor extract. they often remain intact because their cross section is so thick in comparison to their over-all volume and area that they are actually quite strong.

last but not least, an intact canning jar. this one, from the awesome LIGHTNING brand. a reminder that not everything used to come from the store; we used to put things away against future hard times.

in a way, the digging through the pile is a way to instill a similar spirit of saving in myself. we need to remember that we can plan for the future, and take part in our own survival. how many of us are ready to rely on ourselves? this is not meant to be a doomsday conspiracy-theory nut’s fear, this is more of a matter of personal pride and inner peace. do I want to be someone who only consumes, or someone who produces and saves, engaging with the marvelous world we have been given? the old timers had it wrong on some things that we still struggle with today; we shouldn’t just be throwing junk on a pile and never dealing with the consequence  of our material consumption. though we now put our waste in a garbage bin and ship it off, it’s mostly still going into dump heaps. sure, not ones in our backyards – massive ones instead, out of sight. there is a beauty to man-made objects. that much is apparent from these glass objects from the past. I hope we can learn to instill more beauty and inspire less waste, and be able to display the results of our consumption with pride, instead of hiding in in the earth.

3 thoughts on “side note: digging for bottles

  1. alex, i live in southern maine and do a lot of dump digging. you could say i’m a beer can archaeologist. i rescue old beer cans, completely rusted or any condition and restore them. are there any cans in your farm dump i could rescue? thanks, steve

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