Published 2nd January 2009
The 5th Earl of Bedford was recorded as purchasing several hogsheads of 'Shably' for his cellar in 1658 whilst at the same time investing in twelve dozen bottles to accommodate it. Even Samuel Pepys felt it worthy of recording that in 1663 he visited 'The Mitre' to see his personal bottles being filled.
The first verifiable mention of domestic bottle production seems to have been something of a catch all when in 1632 Sir Robert Mansell acquired the sole patent for the making of "broade glasses, looking glasses, bottles or vessells made of glass of any fashion, stuffe, matter or metal whatsoever". Before the century ended there were thirty eight bottle houses in the Britain producing in excess of two million bottles each one at a time!
It is perhaps fair to mention at this point that whilst the earliest 'mass produced' bottles were of a free blown 'shaft and globe' type, a sort of balloon with a long neck, an effort towards continuity and speed was developed with the advent of the so called 'onion' bottle, a short and squat version of the same, when a cup shaped wooden mould was developed to enable glass blowers to produce a consistent size and shape, but not thickness of bottle.
I can't speak for you, but in spite of this seemingly rudimentary advance two million hand crafted bottles seems to me a gargantuan amount. Bottles were not cheap things the Earl of Bedford paid 3s 6d for a dozen plain ones, but the application of a circular seal bearing his crest came at a premium 5s a dozen. As a status symbol and to prevent theft they were considered as being worthwhile even when you consider what an unholy equation alcohol, brittle glass and merry making can be; indeed the Earl's predecessor the 2nd Duke when raised as a Knight of the Garter suffered the loss or breakage of nineteen dozen bottles at his inaugural banquet!
The earliest existing sealed bottle is marked for John Jefferson and is dated 1652 although somewhat enigmatically a much earlier bottle for 'CBK 1562' is mentioned in an early polemic as being unearthed in Chester in 1939, but alas this seems to have gone the way of many of the Earl of Bedford's bottles and is now lost to time!
Practicality rather than beauty provided the next advance in shape for the wine bottle when the 'onion' bottle was flattened to produce an oval 'bladder' shaped wine bottle – one with a smaller foot that allowed the storage of more bottles per square foot when stood upright on cellar shelves as was the custom during a period when it was still customary for gentleman of a certain stature to entertain in their private cellars rather than the dining room.
All subsequent changes were equally as subtle, the 'mallet' was a sort of squat basically more cylindrical shape, but with a longer more defined neck which neatly provided the transition towards the cylinder shaped bottles when it became the norm to store wine in bottles horizontally rather than on their bases.
By the end of the century and into the nineteenth the 'cylinder' was the shape of preference and here perhaps the transition into sameness and mass production finally arrived with the advent of a three piece iron mould patented by Henry Ricketts of Bristol, arguably this provided much less interesting vessels, but wholly more predictable ones for those who were more interested in the contents rather than the bottle.
Antique Wine Bottles was written on Friday, 2nd January 2009.