Let's take a trip back to the beginning of the Great San Francisco Bottle Digs. In the July 1966 issue of the Western Collector magazine in the section under "Bottle World", is an article I had written for Paul Evans; a good friend and publisher for "The Western Collector" magazine. Bear in mind this all transpired fifty two years ago.


By Warren Whited

July 1966

It was just over a year ago when I was bitten by the "Bottle Bug" while visiting my brother, who has been an avid bottle collector for over four years. Gene is a self-employed contractor (using a backhoe mechanical shovel), and it was on the Golden Gateway Redevelopment Project, which is a complex of apartment buildings, town houses, shops and open plazas, being built where the produce district of San Francisco existed. It wasn't until recently that he started literally turning up some beautiful, old and rare specimens of glass.

Back in the early and middle eighteen hundreds, San Francisco Bay extended as far inland as Front, Commercial and Montgomery Streets. Old wooden piers extended out over the present Davis and Drumm Streets and the Embarcadero. Much of the Golden Gateway project lies in this area.

As years progressed, there was a demand for better shipping facilities. Also, the City was growing and more room was needed. Land reclamation or bay filling was the answer to these two demands, so now days many of the old buildings destined to fall are sitting where sailing ships once tied up to the old docks. In bygone days, when the four-masters were moored there, it wasn't uncommon for the crews to throw their garbage over the side, along with any liquor, beer or wine bottles broken in a rough voyage from some distant land.

Digging in the City where demolition and excavations are taking place is just plain TABOO! Many times Gene has had to pass up some beautiful specimens on the job, because he had to keep his rig moving. Speed is of the essence on these jobs! During his lunch break or possibly after work, he would poke around in the pits, and even this was frowned on. He was caught one night in a pit digging by flashlight, when one of the job bosses came on the scene. But for the fact he and the boss are close friends, he could have been on his way down to the Pokey.

About the only way to dig up the choice old bottles coming from these particular sites is to find out where the fill is being hauled and dumped, and then try to get permission to dig in the piles. Gene found that the excavated fill from this particular site was destined for landfill by the old radio tower, next to the Third and Army Streets dump near Islais Creek (slough). The two of us went there and found that many other antique bottle hunters knew of the dump sites before we did, as there wasn't an unbroken bottle in sight. So we just assumed that other had just picked bottles off the surface of the piles as there was not much sign of digging the piles. This type of digging is is a real gamble as you may dig one pile all the way down and find nothing, and then on another you can hit a bonanza.

It was on my first time out here that I dug my wide mouth rum bottle. Early 1800's. It's free blown, battledorf case shaped, (shaped by wooden paddles while the gather is still hot to obtain the Case shape), large open or tube pontil base and cut and flared lip mouth.

Note: McKearen's Bottle Bible refers this particular bottle as a Rum because in it's day, Rum had the consistency of molasses. Yet these bottles may never have served that purpose. The evidence quite clearly shows that recycling was prevalent way back then, as this wide mouth jar along with many broken ones had probably contained pickles, having residue of cucumber seeds inside. The jar was also known to have contained snuff and powdered jalap, (used as a purgative). This wide mouth has a flared lip, is sea green color with some opalescence, and has a four-sided tapered body. It's nine inches tall, three and a half inches wide at the shoulders, and two and five-eights inches wide at the base. This Case bottle was found along with some beautiful black glass ales, beers and whiskeys, blown in three-part whittle effect molds. (The whittle effect created on some bottles was due to the gather being blown in a cold iron mold, creating steam between the cold mold and the glass). Many of these bottles were embedded in sticky gray bay mud mixed with clam shells and many broken bottles with their wired-on corks still intact.

Another beautiful work of art by mother nature's affect on glass is this aqua, graphite base, Dyottville Glassworks A.W. Rapp New York. Reverse: Mineral Waters-R-This Bottle is Never Sold.

I was greatly amazed at the preservation of some leather items such as buccaneer style shoes, woman's high laced boots, men's copper riveted boots and many leather knife scabbards. I started a good collection of brass artifacts consisting of suspender hooks, suspender buckles and sash buckles.

Many who have viewed the brass buckles and officer's belt plate swore they were reproductions. Not so. These artifacts were heavily encrusted with a black scale making them practically indefinable. No one in our bottle digging group at that time was aware of the proper metal cleaning techniques, as we were primarily into bottles. We used the same technique in cleaning metal artifacts as we did heavily stained glass. We soaked the metal in Muriatic acid for a period of time (tested junk brass first) to loosen the crud, then a final cleaning using a toothbrush and metal polishing compound.

Other piles consisted of rust colored sand which we assumed to be the original fill dirt.

Also from these piles we collected numerous medicine bottles of various shapes and colors. All blown in molds and having open pontils. There was a variety of French perfumes, Italian medicines, English and American medicines including a "Puce" open pontil Lyons Powder (Insect and Rat Poison).

On two different occasions I dug a pair of Ben Franklin type spectacles.

I also hit it big in the mineral water department in one pile when I scratched out four emerald green Hathorn Springs, Saratoga, N.Y. mineral waters and two amber Saratoga Star, Saratoga, N.Y. mineral waters.

On another dump dig my wife and I decided to make a day of it, so we took a picnic lunch with all the trimmings out to the middle of the dump. After you worked up a good appetite, you didn't mind the mud aroma let alone the stench drifting across the slough from an old rendering plant that processed cow carcasses for tallow. After we had scarfed down our well deserved lunch, I happened to glance down at a gold glint reflecting in the sunlight in a clod of clamshell mud.

I literally poked my fingers into the mud and pulled out an 18K Victorian Twin Heart Monogram love or friendship ring. We knew that this particular area of mud and debris had come from the Golden Gateway project that had been originally filled in the 1850-1860 time frame, therefore this ring had not touched a human hand for over a 100 years. But, who knows at what time in history the ring was actually lost? In the Cove from a three or four masted sailing ship or off a pier? Or from one of the numerous conflagrations San Francisco suffered in the early years. How often I begin day dreaming and let my imagination take me back to the past. Now on to some demolition and pit excavation diggin's.