About a year ago, I decided to clean out a shed that adjoins my house. I found several antique bottles – soda bottles, medicinal bottles and old fruit jars. I remembered, in the back of my mind, that some might be valuable, but I was in a hurry and the garbage can sat right next to my project. In the bottles went.
A couple of months ago, I was asked to write a story about a show for antique bottle collectors in Lincoln. I drove to Renfroe, a community located a few miles past Pell City, where I met the sponsor of the show, Jake Smith.
He invited me into his house to take photographs of his bottle collection, which his very understanding wife, Amanda, encourages him to display on numerous shelves. (She, too, is a collector, but she collects more traditional items, such as Christmas figurines.)
Smith told me how he came to sponsor the show. Several years ago, when he began walking for the sake of his health, he began picking up bottles along the roadways and noticing their ages and origins. Many were made in various cities in Alabama, and some were quite old.
He investigated and learned the history of the companies that made bottles, especially those in northeast Alabama. He attended a show or two and met like-minded collectors. As his collection grew, he began building the shelves that now hold dozens of bottles.
Some of Smith’s bottles are pretty, but others are not so glamorous, especially a crushed – but rare — bottle full of dried mud that is holding it together. Then you might see beauty in it.
Smith could not afford to spend much on his new hobby, but he traded and sold bottles, and he bought himself a few prized ones. Once, he paid $100 for a 5-inch-tall Nehi soda bottle perched on a tiny glass globe.
Now his collection includes bottles from all but nine of the known bottle-makers in Alabama.
Smith said that traditional curvy soda bottles are called “Mae West” bottles, because of the late actress’ famous curves. Other soda bottles are called “Straight Sides.”
Three years ago, Smith decided to host his own show, and it was a success. Collectors from throughout the South came to display, trade and purchase bottles.
This year, he asked each collector to contribute at least one bottle to a table where children could pick out one for free in order to begin their own collections.
“We want to grow this hobby,” he said.
Smith amazed me with tales of the “Kola Wars” in the early 1900s, when early soda makers hired hitmen to roughhouse and shut down mom-and-pop soda makers who had created their own soda formulas.
Author Dennis Smith (no relation), who moved from our area to New York state, attended the Lincoln bottle show. His book “The Original Coca-Cola Woman” tells the story of Caroline Mayfield, who, in 1896, divorced her husband, James, an early soda businessman, and went on to make her own fortune, once setting up a syrup company in Birmingham in 1909.
Some of the processes that collectors go through are a little undignified. Avid collectors try to find old outhouses — and dig in. It seems that when former outhouse owners began installing indoor plumbing in the 1940s and ’50s, they filled in the holes beneath these outdoor johns with household garbage, much of which contained bottles.
Other collectors go to the deltas of rivers and creeks, where they dig to find bottles that have been covered over with sediment.
These folks, I conclude, deserve every penny they get from the sale of their antique bottles.
Sherry Kughn is a local freelance writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.