By: John Tolmie
January is a rough time of year for divers in Connecticut. Spearfishing along the shoreline dies down as the pelagic fish head south and most of our indigenous fish go into hibernation until the spring. Yet Mother Ocean still calls and beckons me with new mysteries to unfold beneath her waves. As cold and unwelcoming as the Atlantic in the winter may seem; It’s not so bad in a nice thick wetsuit. The extra neoprene ensures my core will stay warm for at least an hour. There are also a few extra positives to diving during the wintertime. There are no boats to run you over. You can launch from public beaches. And the ocean is the clearest it will be all year along the shoreline, which is ideal for bottle hunting!
Collectors can find antique bottles in many different locations along our rocky coast. I’ve found lots of trinkets above the tide-line but I find it most rewarding while searching under the waves. As well, the chances of finding a whole bottle are better when hunting underwater. Places from the turn of the century like harbors, seaports, jetties, bridges, piers and beaches hold a rich history of antique glass. I salvaged my first bottle in 1992 while lobster diving along the outer jetties in Narragansett. It was a beautiful sky blue bottle with an embossed American flag on it. It was made by a local soda business in Westerly, RI called J. H. Blackler. I brought it home and after cleaning off all the barnacles I did some research. Apparently the bottler was in business from 1888 until 1926. So someone had tossed it into the sea around between 66 and 104 years prior. From my research I found that Mr. Blackler only bottled sarsaparilla and ginger ale. I wondered about our old neighbor who had tossed this beauty overboard. What did he or she choose to quench their thirst that day? Was it Westerly’s finest sarsaparilla or ginger ale? The beauty of the bottle and the story and mystery behind its journey grew into a manageable addiction of bottle hunting that has kept me enthralled for over 25 years.
Here are a few tips on finding your own antique bottles. If there is a good fishing spot in your area, chances are it was a good fishing spot in the 1800’s. Usually jetty’s that were constructed along Connecticut’s shoreline over a hundred years ago are your best bet. Not all bottles that were thrown in the water sink right away. Often the bottles would float along and then nudge themselves into a jetty’s rocky crevasses. Over time the bottle will get wedged in and covered in sea-growth. The growth will protect the bottle from wear and over time, will preserve the bottle from the elements. The trick is spotting the bottle in the seaweed covered rocks. I rarely find a bottle on its side as mostly they are mouth up or mouth down. Look for the circular patterns in the sea-growth. Often times you will pull out a newer bottle for the recycling bin, but every once in awhile you will pry out a piece of local history from beneath the waves. If you find one… you will be back for more! Cleaning them is a personal preference. Some of my bottles I soak in detergent overnight and scrub off the growth. Others I leave with the growth attached for that crusty old bottle look. Eith
er way it’s a treat to own a piece of local history to display in your home!