On a wing and a repair

After decades of wondering, the “whatsamathingie that looks like a wingy” mystery mark finally reveals itself

By Jim Hagenbuch

From the middle 1970s to middle 1980s, I was lucky enough to be in a position to buy and sell quite a number of bottle collections. Most of these collections were assembled a decade or so earlier when bottles were more readily available and before the era of many of the bottle shows.

One of my favorite shows at that time was the Louisville bottle show every March. Started by the late C. `Tiny' Kennedy in 1972, the Louisville show became one of those "must do" shows for any serious collector or dealer.

Because of its central location, the Louisville show drew collectors and dealers from a large part of the country. The show was also attended heavily by local collectors; for some of them, it was the only bottle show they would attend all year.

Two of these local collectors were Ivan Cline and Marvin Truitt, both from the town of Evansville, Indiana, about 126 miles down-river from Louisville. Both collected bitters bottles, with Ivan having one of the larger collections of that time. They became good customers, not only at the Louisville shows but also from buying off my "bottles for sale" lists that I would periodically mail.

I remember buying a small grouping of bitters bottles from a collector who lived near me. It was your basic bitters collection of the time, made up mostly of amber Indian Queens, National `ear of corn' Bitters, Fish Bitters, plus numerous barrels and cabins. One of the nicer bottles in the collection was an E.E. Halls Bitters barrel in a nice yellow. While looking over the bottle for condition I became aware of an odd-shaped mark, about one inch in length, near the mold seam just above the base. It was in the form of a half-moon or straight airplane wing and had a very different glass texture than the rest of the bottle. I assumed it had something to do with the metal snap-case used to cradle the bottle while the lip was being finished and gave it no additional thought.

I called Marvin in Evansville, telling him what I wanted for it. He agreed, sending me a check the next day. After Marvin receiving the bottle he called me. "Jim, I want to return the bottle because it has a repair on the side." At first I was taken back, as I didn't remember seeing any repair on the bottle! I asked Marvin where this repair was located. He said, "It's on the side near the base, I can't imagine how you could miss it!"

I apologized to Marvin for missing the repair and told him to return the bottle for a refund.

When the bottle arrived a few days later, I immediately opened the box, as I was very interested in seeing where this repair was that I had missed. There, on an area near the base, was a small piece of paper that Marvin had attached with an arrow pointing to the odd "airplane wing" mark that I originally dismissed as being a snap-case mark.

As years passed and thousands of bottles passed through my hands, I began paying more attention to the occasional bottle I found having this odd wing-shaped mark. All the marks were the same shape, but varied in size. The largest one, well over an inch in length, was on a half-gallon Wynkopp's Sarsaparilla; the smallest, less than a half-inch, was on a blown three-mold geometric ink. Besides having the same shape, all had a very smooth finish, looking like a smooth pond in the middle of a varying textured landscape and all appeared to have been pressed into the bottle.

I also realized that not all of these strange wing-like marks were vertical, like the one on the bitters I sold Marvin. Some were at on oblique angle, while others were almost horizontal. For this reason, and because some were on earlier pontiled bottles, I dismissed the possibility that they were created by the traditional snap-case, the tool used after the pontil period, to cradle the bottle while the lip was being finished.

So what created it? Thinking back to the Marvin Truitt bottle, I realized that he was correct: It was a repair! But not a repair made in recent times, as Marvin thought, but a repair made at the glasshouse when the bottle first came out of the mold!

It's a known fact that early glassblowers worked on a piece-rate basis, and that the bottles and flasks they were blowing were meant to be tossed away, or, as often was the case, recycled. So speed, not quality, was essential to both the worker and the glasshouse.

This meant that a bottle or flask coming out of the mold with, let's say, possibly a hole in an area where not as much glass from the gather flowed, or having some sort of other anomaly, would have been subject to a quick repair. Remember, this was a piece-rate job, so why throw away a good bottle when a small, readily available hand tool, could be quickly used to correct the flaw.

It was this tool that created the wing-like mark occasionally seen on early bottles and flasks. A tool that was used to "press" the area where the flaw existed, eliminating it and creating a usable bottle. That was the tool that created that “whatsamathingie that looks like a wingy."

It should be noted that all of the marks that I've seen were on mold-blown bottles dating from the early 1800s to around 1870.

So why not later? Because sometime in the 1870s, possibly early 1880s, glasshouses began venting their molds. This venting process was done by creating a series of tiny holes, oftentimes no bigger than a pinhead, traveling from the inside of the mold to its outside surface. Venting allowed air trapped between the glass blowers' expanding gather of glass, and the inside surface of the mold, to escape, resulting in a much smoother glass surface. It is this air trapped between the surface of the bottle and the inside of the mold that is responsible for what is often referred to as the "whittled" glass look so coveted by many collectors.

But vented molds eliminated more than that. This trapped air would also have blocked the flow of glass to certain areas of the mold, most often the base corners and panel edges. Of all the bottles I'd seen having this unusual airplane wing mark, most were in these locations.

If you look closely at some of the later bottles in your collection, say bottles from the 1890-1900 period, you can see where the mold was vented. Look in the shoulder area or along the corner panels. Oftentimes, you will see what appears to be a tiny pimple on the surface. These pimples are where the mold vents are located. The pimple of glass is really a very tiny amount of glass that pushed up into the vent after all the trapped air was pushed out.

And, while you are looking over your collection, take a look to see if you have a bottle or flask with the “whatsamathingie that looks like a wingy.” If you do, cherish it, as you will be one of the very lucky few to have one.....

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