Digger Odell Publications ©2007


I would like to share some of the ideas for researching bottles. Generally the best source for information on old bottles is the local library. The bigger the library, the better the resource material. Any large city library will have numerous sources for the novice. Do not be afraid to ask for help.  Librarians are specialists in finding information and may have many helpful tips if you ask.




Perhaps the best place to begin is with Directories. City and State Directories are annual volumes much like our current day telephone book yellow pages. They provide lists of both persons and businesses, giving addresses and often advertisements for products. Your library might have Directories for your city or state.  They might have directories on microfilm as well.  Many large libraries have ordered microfilm copies of major city directories for all over the country.  You can call the Library or may even be able to use the Internet to discover if they have these types of resources. Directories for small towns and rural areas are the most difficult to obtain.  If your local library does not have them you might try the local historical society or even the State Historical society.  The New York State Library, in Albany, has an extremely fine collection of city directories from cities across the country. You might find that your state library (usually located in the capitol city) has directories for many of the cities in your own state. More often than not the sets that you do locate are incomplete.


Directories are useful for determining when a product or company was in business.  You will be able to find street addresses and changes of ownership by looking at directories over a period of year to see how the listings change.  Since the directory was an annual publication, it is necessary to look in a large number of volumes to trace the history of a company or individual. If you have even a vague idea of when the company you are interested in was in business, then you might begin by looking in the volumes that are within a few years of that date.


The directories were published by a number of large concerns over the country. They obtained the information contained in each volume by using the Post Office roster from which they were able to compile a reasonably accurate and complete list of the persons and businesses in a city. They charged the advertisers for the service, and many of the smaller concerns may not be mentioned.


These directories come under a number of different titles. Different types are City Directories, Business Directories or Gazetteers. Occasionally State Directories can be found. These volumes were most often organized into several sections. The first section is usually an alphabetical listing of the persons and their trade, and in some there appears a separate section entitled the business directory, companies can be located by looking under the various subtitles as: Bottling Works, Patent Medicines, Leather Goods, and Stoneware. In other directories there may be a separate advertising directory. Generally the city directories provide one of the best and most often complete sources of information about a company or individual.




City, County, or State Histories constitute a second source of information available in the library. These books contain historical accounts of the early settlers, prominent individuals, early industrial growth, and geographic and topographic information. Information of interest to the bottle collector is not as commonly found as it is in the city directories, but when pertinent material can be located it is usually more in depth. I have had good luck finding information on breweries, mineral springs, bottling works, pottery and glass houses from these histories.


Related to the County and State Histories are books on the prominent men of a state. I located one such book entitled Great Men of Ohio. While perusing the text, I discovered a picture of one Frank J. Cheney, manufacturer of Hall's Catarrh Cure, and a history of the entire concern. My experience has shown that only the larger industrial concerns are covered in these histories, and they have proven of little value for finding information on some obscure company.




A third source of bottle information is old newspapers. Joseph Baldwin, author of Patent and Proprietary Medicine Bottles, lists over four thousand different medicines, of which about ninety percent were discovered by looking through newspaper advertisements. Often the ads will list the names of products, addresses, testimonials, and given an exact date of when a company was in business.


The advertising section is not the only source of information in newspapers. The obituary column may, if the exact date of death is known, give a complete history of a person. From my experience this has been an excellent and most often complete history of a person or business in which I have been interested.


The news section will upon rare occasion contain a story which might be of interest. Many times businesses were destroyed by fire, robbed, or moved to a new location. Articles such as these may give information that is unavailable from other sources.


Almost all libraries will have some older newspapers available to the public. Most often these are recorded on microfilm or cards. The larger libraries may have thousands of copies that were printed prior to nineteen hundred. Some books are available to help you find the newspapers you might want to look through. One very useful source for early material is the History and Bibliography of American Newspapers 1690‑1820, compiled by Clarence S. Brigham, and printed by The American Antiquarian Society, 1947. This is a two volume set organized by state, with subtitles for the names of newspapers by city. The information in this set tells the founding date of the paper, how often it was published and by whom, and most important, the names of libraries or historical societies that have copies.


A second reference for newspapers are editions compiled by individual states. I located one entitled Guide to Ohio Newspapers 1793‑1973, Stephen Gutgesell Editor, published by the Ohio Historical Society, 1974. This volume gives essentially the same kind of information as the above described set, and identifies the libraries and historical societies in Ohio that have copies.


Your library may have a similar volume which lists all of the newspapers in their collection and the dates available. In the 1930s the WPA project hired people in Cleveland, Ohio to look through all of the old newspapers and write up abstracts about each day's paper from 1818‑1935. These volumes entitled Annals of Cleveland were helpful for locating articles or ads.



Patents, Design Patents, Trademark and Labels

Many large city or university libraries will have a complete sets of these documents. The amount of bottle related information is astonishing. There are perhaps 10,000 items relating to insulators, fruit jars, medicines, mineral waters, beers, whiskeys, perfumes and hundreds of other items.


The word "patent" is a general term which can refer to a number of different things.

Patents are define by the Patent Office as: a property right granted by the Government of the United States of America to an inventor “to exclude others from making, using, offering for sale, or selling the invention throughout the United States or importing the invention into the United States” for a limited time in exchange for public disclosure of the invention when the patent is granted.  There are three types of patents:

Utility patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, article of manufacture, or compositions of matters, or any new useful improvement thereof;

Design patents may be granted to anyone who invents a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture; and

Plant patents may be granted to anyone who invents or discovers and asexually reproduces any distinct and new variety of plants.

Patent Pending: A phrase that often appears on manufactured items. It means that someone has applied for a patent on an invention that is contained in the manufactured item. It serves as a warning that a patent may issue that would cover the item and that copiers should be careful because they might infringe if the patent issues. Once the patent issues, the patent owner will stop using the phrase "patent pending" and start using a phrase such as "covered by U.S. Patent Number XXXXXXX." Applying the patent pending phrase to an item when no patent application has been made can result in a fine.


Invention patents were methods of manufacturing, formulae, machines and the like. Patents were granted in this country as far back as 1790, but the first numbered patent was issued to Senator John Ruggles as the inventor of a locomotive steam engine. By 1871, over 100,000 had been issued. These days they are into the millions of patents. The applicant for a patent will be required by law to furnish a drawing of the invention whenever the nature of the case requires a drawing to understand the invention. The drawing must show every feature of the invention specified in the claims. Each patent is given a number which can be used to access information about the inventor, and the invention.  The Patent Office Gazette has drawings of each of the patents submitted.



Design Patent: may be granted to anyone who invents a new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture Design Patents became patentable in the year 1842, the first one was granted for a style of printing type. Design patents provide a wealth of information for would be bottle researcher. Design patents were granted for a number of unusual bottle designs. Figurals, nursers, and many styles of pharmaceutical and chemical bottles are listed and pictured in the Gazette.


Many bottles have the words "Patent Applied For," "Patented," "Trademark," or "Copyright." Sometimes a date will appear, or a number which can be looked up in the Official Gazette. Or you can log on to my web site and use the table of patent numbers to date your bottle or antique.


Trademark: A trademark is a word, name, symbol, or device that is used in trade with goods to indicate the source of the goods and to distinguish them from the goods of others. A servicemark is the same as a trademark except that it identifies and distinguishes the source of a service rather than a product. The terms “trademark” and “mark” are commonly used to refer to both trademarks and servicemarks. Trademark protect words, names, symbols, sounds, or colors that distinguish goods and services. Trademarks, unlike patents, can be renewed forever as long as they are being used in business.  The law governing Trademarks went into effect in 1872, but several were issued prior to that date. The law gave certain rights to individuals who registered a design, or name for a period of twenty years, after which time they were renewable. By 1900 over thirty‑three thousand had been issued.


Labels were apparently granted registration rights the same year as trademarks. Descriptions of these can be found in the Official Gazette but they are not pictured

Copyright is a form of protection provided to the authors of “original works of authorship” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works, both published and unpublished. The 1976 Copyright Act generally gives the owner of copyright the exclusive right to reproduce the copyrighted work, to prepare derivative works, to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work, to perform the copyrighted work publicly, or to display the copyrighted work publicly. Very little information is available for bottle researchers in copyrights.


All of the patents, designs, trademarks and labels were recorded in a document known as the Official Gazette. These were published weekly, and bound into large hard bound volumes by the year. By the later part of the 19th century, it required anywhere from two to four volumes to list and describe all of ‑the issuances. For each entry in the Official Gazette there was information about the product and person requesting the patent, design, trademark or label. In the case of patents and designs, detailed drawings and descriptions are given. For trademarks and labels, the name of the product, years in use, person requesting, and essential feature were described in an abstract for each registration granted. Beginning in the 1890s, the trademarks were actually reproduced in the Official Gazette. All issuances were given a number and can be located in the Gazette by those numbers.


Recently the Patent Office has put a tremendous amount of material available on line.  You can access these records by going to http://www.uspto.gov/ which is the Patent Office site.  Using the site will be another exercise in learning but one which will reap great benefits and tons of information. 




Text Box:

For the really adventurous dirtless digger a trip to Washington, D.C. is a digger's heaven.

The Scientific and Technical Information Center of the United States Patent and Trademark Office located at Crystal Plaza 3, 2C01, 2021 Jefferson Davis Highway, Arlington, VA, has available for public use over 120,000 volumes of scientific and technical books in various languages, about 90,000 bound volumes of periodicals devoted to science and technology, the official journals of 77 foreign patent organizations, and over 40 million foreign patents on paper, microfilm, microfiche, and CD-ROM. The Scientific and Technical Information Center is open to the public from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday except federal holidays.

The Patent Search Room located at Crystal Plaza 3, 1A01, 2021 Jefferson Davis Highway, Arlington, VA, is where the public may search and examine U.S. patents granted since 1790. Patents are arranged according to the U.S. Patent Classification System of over 400 classes and over 136,000 subclasses. By searching in these classified groupings of patents, it is possible to determine, before actually filing an application, whether an invention has been anticipated by a U.S. patent, and it is also possible to obtain the information contained in patents relating to any field of endeavor. The Patent Search Room contains a set of U.S. patents arranged in numerical order and a complete set of the Official Gazette.


The actual labels and trademarks are now housed in the United States Copyright Office. Little use of this national treasure has been made. Many of the trademarks and labels may be the only remaining vestige of hundreds of products. I included a number of labels which I photographed in my book Indian Bottles and Brands. The label shown below is one of the many which are kept in large scrap books. The use of these must be arranged through the Copyright Office, but descriptions of all the labels and their manufacturers are found in the Official Gazette.

Another potentially productive source is the Senate and House Reports. One annually produced volume is the Patent Office Report which is similar in function to the Official Gazette, but contains no drawings or detailed descriptions.

In 1896‑97 the Senate conducted an investigation which was published under the title Drug Trade in Foreign Countries. Although the scope of this study is too broad to summarize in this article, persons interested in English, Australian, or other foreign medicine bottles might profit from looking through this volume. The illustration shown is a portion of a list of American proprietary medicines that were exported to Canada in the year 1896.

There are probably many other yet undiscovered sources of bottle related information in the voluminous government documents. You can find indexes to all government documents in many large libraries, and your library can probably tell you where the nearest library housing governments is located.

An eighth source of historical information is trade cards, almanacs, and advertising circulars. These go‑withs can provide amusing and often helpful information about the products and the companies that produced them. I have found that the stories

contained in the almanacs relating to the history of the company are often exaggerated versions of the truth. However, I have often wondered about the testimonials that indicate a person had tried several cases of a product. If only I could find the place he dumped those empties.

The final source of bottle information I would like to suggest is researching by mail. In order to know who to contact, you will have to go back to the library and look in the reference section for a book called: American Library Directory, 29th ed., Xerox Corporation, New York: 1974. These volumes, or others like them are published every two years, and your library may have the 1976 edition.

The Library Directory contains a list of libraries, organized by state, and including State, Public, Branch, College, Special, Law, and Medical libraries. The directory gives the library's address, telephone number, number of volumes, special collections, staff size, and date founded. (The earlier the date founded the more likely they are to have helpful material.)  Historical Societies can be located in a similar publication called the Directory of Historical Societies and Agencies in the United States and Canada, a joint publication of the American Association for State and Local History, Nashville, Tennessee: 1972. This directory gives essentially the same information about Historical Societies as the Library Directory give about libraries.

Researching by mail takes time and patience. Requesting information by mail can be both profitable and frustrating at the same time. In the course of researching my book, I contacted over 350 libraries and historical societies. I found most people very helpful. The larger libraries and historical societies often requested a fee for researching services. For best results I suggest that you (1) send along a SASE, (2) keep your request simple, and (3) provide them with as much and as accurate information as you can.

Although most of the letters are answered within a few months, I had one which arrived over a year after I had requested the information. About half of the people I contacted were able to send helpful material, some suggested I write to another place, some put me in contact of actual relatives of the persons in whom I was interested.

No article on researching old bottles would be complete without mentioning other collectors. Everyone in the field of bottle collecting has some information which they might share with fellow collectors. Perhaps our greatest source of information is each other.

So if where you live the ground is frozen, or the sun is shining, take a little time out and try your hand at dirtless digging. I hope you find a multicolored, open pontiled, freeblown description of your favorite bottle.*