October 19, 2008

It's Rare

Perhaps the most overused work in Ebay ads these days is the word "rare". It is always amusing when I find in these ads another example of the same bottle in the same search result. One can hardly blame the sellers for their hyping their bottles but what does it mean when we say a bottle is rare. Does that mean it is valuable? Is it unavailable? Obviously we are supposed to buy the bottle because we might never get another chance. Rare as a descriptor has certainly lost any meaning within the context of the for sale ads.

Rare is a word used to denote low numbers of abundance, uncommon, scarce. What then does it mean when the seller says Very Rare? Or what about Extremely Rare? Why  not use  "Unique" that says it all.

Here’s a supposition that might shock you. I assert that there are more rare bottles than common ones. How can that be you might wonder?. Over the course of the last two hundred or so years that bottles have been produced in this country the majority of concerns producing these bottles were of small size and did not reach any great notoriety.

Take soda bottles for example. Of every hundred soda companies starting out in business, only a handful had a very long tenure. Thousands of soda bottling companies were formed from the 1850s through the 1950s. Most companies were local and catered to a small clientele and the majority of the bottles they made did not survive.

Consider milk bottles. There was time when ever dairy had its own bottles. I remember a bottling collecting friend who grandparents had owned a dairy. We went to the farm once owned by his grandfather and dug several privies. What we found were several bottles unknown to even the family who had been collecting them. Obviously, the bigger dairies would have the more common bottles but even some of their bottles might be rare.

When I was researching materials for the Pontil Medicine Encyclopedia, I gathered information on nearly 4,000 different medicines made prior to the Civil War. When I tried to make a list of common pontil medicines for the book, the list was quite short by comparison to the number listed.

For buyers of old bottles whose experience is limited such that they must depend upon the seller to tell them the rarity of the item it is a perilous situation. Pretty much unless you are specialist in an area learning what is rare will be a time consuming experience wrought with errors in judgment to temper your knowledge. Were I to see a 1930s milk or soda bottle listed for sale and the seller was advertising it as rare, I would be at a loss since I have NOT studied them sufficiently to know the difference.

For many, it is important to have a “rare” bottle. I hear this at bottle shows in snatches of overheard conversation in sentences beginning with statements about how rare thus and such an item is, as though rarity alone confers on the collectible bottle some higher status. Such foolishness belies the shallowness which underlies collectors’ motivation for collecting old bottles or anything else for that matter. “It's rare.” is an idea  that appeals to our basic human nature desiring to possess something which no one else possesses. It is a folly pursued in many parts of people’s lives - whether it be the quest for a home, a car, a spouse, a child prodigy, pet, or bottle. It is no more the proverbial path to happiness than would be eschewing all things material  in favor of sack cloth and sandals . One would be much better off to collect friends because good friends ARE rare and simply appreciate bottles for what they are - beautiful windows to the past.