Digger Odell Publications © 2008

As name brand products become more expensive, they are increasingly replaced by generics. There was a time when name brands were the exception rather than the rule. For centuries, commercial products were put up in generic containers. Rather than products being marketed in individual packages, it was more economical to sell goods in bulk and let merchants parcel them out. In a period when dry goods were sold in barrels and boxes, demijohns and carboys were the generic bulk containers for items which could not be transported or preserved in wood. Demijohns were the storage vessel of choice for the wine and spirit merchants.




Samuel Tobias, an early merchant in Philadelphia, advertised in the Saturday Evening Post in 1829 notifying tavern keepers and the public of his very reasonable prices for his own wine bitters, cordials, catsups, and essence of peppermint. Wine bitters, which Tobias described as a very pleasant and fashionable drink was dubbed "Red Rover". At a time when one brand looked pretty much like another save a little paper label, he cautioned the public to look for his signature on the label of the “barrel, keg, demijohn, or bottle”.


The word ‘demijohn’ appears in the literature beginning in the early 1700s. While large blown European bottles exist from as early as the 1400s, the word seems to have come from Persia at some later time. …

or Jemmy-john for demijohn, a large wicker-cased bottle, as though this word had not suffered enough already in its transition from Arabic damagan, itself taken from the Persian glass-making town of Damaghan. The Phililogy of Slang, Littell's Living Age, May 9, 1874.

Other sources trace the origin to a corruption of the French, dame-jeanne (lady Jane but the idea that the word came from a glass-making center makes sense. The characteristic that distinguishes a demijohn from any other bottle, aside from its size, is the fact that it was wicker covered. Early Egyptians covered their bottles with papyrus. This innovation may have spread from Egypt to Persia then to Europe and from there to America.

The earliest American references I could locate, though certainly not the first, were in The American Law Journal and Miscellaneous Repertory, Jan 6, 1809 which mentioned "bags of corks for demi-johns." and in The Balance and State Journal, September 29, 1809 which stated:

"Just Received, by the last arrivals from Europe and for sale on as reasonable terms as can be purchased in New-York, a very handsome assortment of DRY GOODS, adapted for the approaching season. ALSO Indigo, Pepper, Bottled Mustard by the box or dozen, Sherry Wine in qr. Casks, Maderia in Demijohns, for family use."


 The terms demijohn and carboy were often used interchangeably. The distinction seems to be one of function more than form. A poem in The Port-Folio April 30, 1803 speaks of "Carboys Of Vitriolic Acid, For Old Bachelors" while the The Emporium of Arts & Sciences Philadelphia September 1, 1812 relates a story on ‘The Ignition of a Carboy of Aqua Fortis’ which burst into flame. When the burnt remains were examined, the writer referred to “...the remains of the straw and basket.” So like demijohns, carboys were wicker encased bottles. The two terms are differentiated only by their contents. Demijohns were for potable and non-corrosive liquids. Literature references to the word ‘Carboy’ indicate carboy contents to be strong chemicals - mostly acids: Saturday Evening Post Oct 13, 1821 mention of 50 carboys of Oil Vitriol and 10 carboys of Aqua fortis. Oil of Vitriol was sulfuric acid and Aqua fortis was nitric acid. One other reference was found to a carboy of muriatic acid (1833) now known as hydrochloric acid. Today manufacturers still use the term ‘carboy’ for large plastic acid containers.

The other difference found between demijohns and carboys was for 19th century shipping prices, with carboys being charged a higher rate, probably due to their hazardous contents. While carboys denote chemicals, demijohns have become closely associated with wine or spirits. For the remainder of this article, only the word demijohn will be used .


European Examples 1700-1833

  In the 1700s and early 1800s, large ovoid or globular bottles with capacities from 4 to 20 gallons were imported from Europe. Forms varied slightly depending on the country of origin. Comments here will be restricted to common characteristics. The reader who is interested in distinguishing between the many European types of demijohns, is referred to Antique Glass Bottles by Willy Van den Bossche and McKearin & Wilson’s American Bottles and Flasks. The majority of European examples are free blown but not all are pontil marked. When a large bottle was blown, and the neck simply sheared off, the bottoms were flattened but there was no need to use the punty rod as the lip required no further finishing. These examples may have an applied string on the neck attached prior to the bottle being sheared from the blow pipe. Sheared lips with applied strings can be found with both smooth fire-polished or rough unfinished lips. Narrow flat collars are more typical of the early European globular-shaped vessels.

Molds for demijohn were used sparingly and when they were, it was mostly for form. The typical European demijohn was free-blown and ovoid or globular in shape. The American conception of this is revealed in a July 1837 article in the Southern Literary Journal and Magazine of Arts entitled, "A chapter on Noses", which provides a phrenological observation and conclusion based on the idea that the nose was the test of the intellect.. The writer attributes to Aristole in (Physiogn. Cap. 6) the statement, 'Those people who noses are thick at the end, (shaped like a demi-john,) are blockheads." the statement “shaped like a demi-john” was added by the article’s author. While the whole notion of judging a person’s cognitive ability by the shape of his/her nose, is in itself amusing, the revealing statement of interest is that in 1837, there was a form “shaped like a demijohn”, bulbous, one would presume. A Public Sale report for J. and W. Lippincotts & Co. Auctioneers Tuesday Oct. 30, 1821 lists 180 oval demijohns. The globular ovoid shape is an important identifying characteristic for European demijohns.

American Examples 1824-1880

 As America was getting on its feet industrially, the number of imported European goods was enormous. Everything from almonds to zinc was in high demand and short supply. Samuel Cornell...large assortment of European Goods, half pint, quart, half gallon, gallon and two gallon glafs bottles and an assortment of bottles cafes from 6 to 15 bottles, with bottles from half gallon to 3 gallons. North Carolina Magazine Oct. 12 1764.

As American manufacturing grew so did our protectionist policies. Levying tariffs began with Alexander Hamilton in 1789. His policies established tariffs as both a source of revenue for the government and as a means of protection for domestic manufacture. In fact, tariffs provided the Federal government with more revenue than did taxes from the 1790s until World War I. Europeans paid less in wages which made their imports more affordable undercutting domestic manufacturers and labor. Tariffs offered protection for the fledgling American economy. The War of 1812, not only created a shortage of imports, it also provided the impetus for the passage the tariff of 1824 which in part read:

Tariff, Or Rates Of Duties, Payable After The 30th Of June 1824, On All Goods, Wares and Merchandise, imported into the United States of America in American Vessels, under the act passed May 22, 1824, entitled “An act to amend the several acts imposing duties on imports”. The list of items taxed was extensive with black glass, bottles, vials and demi-johns listed. Christian Secretary June 1, 1824:

The Tariff An Act to amend the several Acts for imposing duties on Imports...On black glass bottles, not exceeding the capacity of one quart, two dollars per groce (gross). On bottles exceeding one quart and not more than two quarts, two dollars and fifty cents per groce; over two quarts, and not exceeding one gallon, three dollars per groce: On demijohns, twenty-five cents each: