Identifying Historic Bottles from MSU’s Campus

This past week we collected a number of bottles from the recent construction at the Brody Complex. This isn’t the first time we’ve been called out to this area, and it likely won’t be the last. The Brody Complex is built on the site of the historic East Lansing landfill. Since the site has been revealing high numbers of bottles and other artifacts, we can’t collect everything. As you can see from Terry’s earlier post on our first excursion to the site (See post here: Better Call Campus Archaeology…), we have a good sample already of the types of bottles found from this period.

However, we do collect things that have value to the history of MSU or East Lansing, such as MSU Creamery bottles, and anything that will benefit the education of students and the community. To this latter point, we look to recover bottles that can be identified or classified, and that will aid in better understanding the past. These include bottles with embossed or paper labels, and bottles with easily recognizable or unique shapes. Since we recovered the bottles on Tuesday, we have been analyzing our finds and doing background research on their origins.

Small Blue Bottle from Brody Complex

The process of identification in some cases is quite easy, especially if there is a label or embossing. For example, one of the artifacts recovered was a small blue bottle with a metal lid. There was no label to the sides of the bottle, however the white residue on the lower half of the bottle also suggested that at one point it did have a label. There was also embossing on the bottom that read: “VICKS” and “NOL”. The portion between these two groupings of letters was damaged and couldn’t be read. However, this was enough evidence to get started. This small type of bottle is used primarily for medicines, and Vicks is a well known pharmaceutical company that has been producing congestion relieving medicines since 1891.

Vicks Va-Tro-Nol Vintage Sign from 1930's

Looking at historic advertisements and bottles revealed a product known as Vicks Va-Tro-Nol, which were nose and throat drops. Some of the earlier forms of the bottle closely mirror the bottle that we recovered from the site. Even though we were missing the label, the lid was damaged, and the bottom embossing was incomplete- we were able to make a quick identification!

Not all are this easy. It becomes quite difficult trying to identify a bottle that has nothing more than an embossed image and some difficult to read text. In some cases, there is no product name present. We, as archaeologists, must always be up for the challenge of trying to identifying the most difficult things. The bottle we were investigating contained generic federal warning text at the top, an obscure picture of a man embossed front and center, and some decorative embossing along the edges.

Bottle with image of man from Brody Complex

Based on the text at the top: “Federal law forbids sale or reuse of this bottle”, the distinctive shape of the bottle, and the presence of some type of grain embossed on the sides, we could automatically denote that we had an empty liquor bottle on our hands. These facts allowed us to begin a search online for “antique liquor bottles with image of a man”. After panning through various websites and constantly refining the searches. This meant looking at a variety of antique and glass resource websites, looking at bottles with presidents faces and various proprietors of liquors to no avail. However, we did find a similar face and bottle on an antiques dealing website. The size and shape of the online bottle was a bit different from ours, but the images were the same. Their description of their bottle noted that it was an old Wilken’s Whiskey bottle. Further research into this company revealed that our bottle was also that of Wilken’s Whiskey. The company was started in the 1880’s and was a family run business. The face on the bottle was Pa Wilken, who ran the distillery until his death in 1936. We were able to narrow the date of our bottle to pre-1940, as after this date the label was changed to Wilken’s Family Whiskey and featured the faces of Wilkens and his two sons on a paper label.

The process of identification can be difficult, but it is also fun. Throughout our search for information on these seemingly mundane objects of the past, we learn more about daily life in the early 20th century.

Author: Katy Meyers Emery

15 thoughts on “Identifying Historic Bottles from MSU’s Campus”

  • I’d suggest using the SHA bottle identification guide at – it’s a very comprehensive guide to identifying bottle dates, manufacturing techniques, etc. Also, look for Dan Tooman’s blog post on the old Campus ARch intern blog: he did a lot of bottle identification for us a few years back, looking at the bottles from our first visit to Brody.

  • I’m Henry Wilken’s great grand daughter the men on the bottle r Henry Wilken and his son Harry and his son in law Thomas! The pic on the bottle is of the distillery! If u have any more I do please let me know I have been researching this for quite sometime … I’m interested in finding a full bottle hopefully two one to taste Nd one to keep!

  • Wow! Well thanks for contacting us. We found this bottle a couple of years ago (it’s now cataloged in our collection), but we haven’t found any since. We unfortunately never did any additional research once we identified the company. But we could do some digging in the MSU Archives and see if they have anything to add. We’d love to know more about Henry Wilken and his whiskey distillery.

  • Hello. While cleaning it my garage, I found one of the Hilkens whisky bottles. It still has the cap and caio ring. It’s fabulous. I’d like to use it for my red wine vibrate that I cook with. However, I’d hate for it to get broken, if it is with money then it will go on the shelf, if it is only a cool, old bottle I wasn’t too use it… What is the likelihood that it would contain lead? I’d hate to poison my family with my spaghetti sauce.
    Thank you.

  • the men on the bottle are harry sr. ,harry jr. and bill. father and two sons . I too am great grandson of harry sr.

  • 4/29/17
    Hi my name is Dan I was on vacation on the outer banks of North Carolina.
    We took a boat trip out to Shackleford Bank Island were there is only wild horses.
    While exploring the Island I came across a bottle mostly buried in the sand with the cover still on it. the cover is rusted through. I brought it home to NH and cleaned it up a bit. It has 3 head pics embossed on it with wheat on each side and the men’s names embossed on the bottom and the fed warning on the top.
    I would like to know where the Distillery was and when did it close. Any other info would be appreciated.
    Thanks Dan

  • Hi Dan,
    In order to help we would need more detailed information about the bottle, such as the names that are one it. However, if it’s not a bottle type we’ve found on campus before simply run different Google searches to try and find out more information, so I don’t know how much help we can be. If you can’t locate the manufacturer online, try looking more up about the bottle type here:

  • That bottle your showing had the paper label on it, it was on the other side but came off. I think it is still pre 1940s if it has the triangle with a W and T on the bottom.

  • I found and one of these old bottles in the Ozark mountains across from my lake house in the woods. It still had the lid on it and was labeled that federal law for bids sale or re-use of this bottle. The bottle has Three Faces embossed on it and the names embossed along the base of the bottle , I think are Harry Wilken Senior and Jr. the third name I Can’t quite make out but I think it says Williams. Not sure would like to know more about this bottle and the distillery it was produced in.

  • Hello Sam and Lauri Denton, if it is a Wilken bottle, the Wilken family started distilling whiskey in 1886 at the Schenley, PA distillery. The background of the bottle we recovered from MSU’s campus is the Schenley distillery and the singular face on the bottle is grandfather Wilken, whose likeness was a mainstay in the company advertisements. They rebranded themselves as “Wilken Family Whiskey” in 1935. Check out to look for more information!

  • Hello,. I have a nice Hilken bottle with the old style cork top spout like the mold blown whisky bottles from the 1800s had.
    If you`d like to see a pic, let me know.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *