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.
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.
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.
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.