Glass records an industry's rise and fall
BALLSTON SPA, N.Y. -- Meg Stevens believes collectors are born, not made.
"As a child, if I got a story book, I wanted every story book by that author," she said. "When I started collecting paper dolls, I collected over 1,000 paper dolls. ... that's the collector thing that says, ‘I enjoy one. I am going to really enjoy 30.' "
And with regard to glass bottles, she found that sense of satisfaction in violins. She estimated she has at least 200 glass violin bottles, of various sizes, colors and decorative levels. And peering into a display case at The National Bottle Museum, she saw two in the collection she does not have in her own private collection.
"I tried to play violin as a teenager, and even I couldn't stand the noises I was making," said Stevens, president of the The National Bottle Museum board of directors and a volunteer. "The violins are just pretty. They are really pretty, and I like pretty glass."
The violin grouping is one of the special installations on display at the museum, which houses a permanent collection of more than 2,000 bottles.
According to The National Bottle Museum website, in the early 1800s millions of glass bottles were manufactured for the mineral waters of Saratoga County alone. And a glassworks in the nearby town of Green field employed hundreds of workers and glassblowers from the 1840s to the 1860s. In that era, all bottles were manufactured exclusively with "hand tools and lung power."
The glass bottles were not only in demand for the containment of mineral waters but for milk, whiskey, essential oils, pharmaceuticals and other liquids.
"The demand for glass containers was staggering. It was an era when vast commercial em pires rose and fell. In many cases, only the glass bottles re main as witness to the drama," reads a history of the industry provided by the museum.
Acting as a modern witness to that past drama attracted Gary Moeller, the site's director and collections manager, to the modest museum, housed in a three-story brick commercial building in the historic business district. He began working with the museum more than a dec ade ago.
"I'm a historian by training," said Moeller, walking through the site. "You had these factories that would start places, and communities would grow up around them, and then those communities in many places still exist. So it was one of the roots of growth in this country" -- and the bottles form a clear link to the past.
Some 2,000 bottles in the museum's collection appear on multiple shelves along the long left wall of the museum's first floor. They run floor to ceiling in myriad shapes, colors and sizes.
"Stolen from Wm S. H. Cheney," reads one bottle in the collection, which is among Moeller's favorites.
"At the time if you went to any of these people and bought a bottle of their product, what you bought was the product. The bottle still belonged to them," he explained.
The primary level is also home to the tools of the glass bottle-making industry. Moeller is happy to guide visitors through the process of hand-made glass bottle making, its milestones, and the impact on communities. He even speaks of the industry's eventual demise, which began in 1903 with Michael Owens' invention of the bottle machine.
On the second floor, a display of uranium glass on loan from Stevens glowed an eerie shade of lime green. Also known as "Vaseline glass," it has a yellow hue generated by the uranium oxide added to the glass, which fluoresces when illuminated by ultraviolet light.
"They really didn't know much about radioactivity," Moel ler said. "They liked the way it made the glass look. ... Once it is sealed in the glass it is pretty safe. ... You would probably have to hold it for a couple hundred years for it to be a problem."
Asked to quantify that safety assessment, Moeller said the uranium glass items would be a two on a scale of one to 10, 10 being the most dangerous.
The tour moved on to another exhibit, just in case.
Back on the first floor, a pharmacy display with an actual antique wooden store counter held a potential hazard, too.
A variety of one-time medicinal bottles line the pharmacy. A book, "The People's Common Sense Medical Advisor" by Ray Vaughn Pierce, includes various cures of the day: "Dr. Pierce's Favorite Prescription," "Dr. Pierce's Gold en Medical Dis covery," and "Ex tract of Smart weed."
Opium was a common ingredient in many of his "medicines."
Whether it's an affinity for history, aesthetics, or something in between, Moeller and Stevens implored people to take a chance on The National Bottle Museum.
"You are going to be very surprised," Stevens said. "It is a hidden jewel that people don't realize we have."
Carrie Saldo can be reached at www.carriesaldo.com
What: The National Bottle Museum
Where: 76 Milton Ave., Ballston Spa, N.Y.
When: Museum hours Friday to Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Sept. 30; Monday to Friday, Oct. 1 to May 31
Admission: Free on Saturday with a National Museum Day downloadable ticket
For a free ticket on Saturday: www.smithsonianmag.com/museumday
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