We take glass bottles for granted, and use them by the million. The glass bottle is, of course, very old, having been invented (probably) by the ancient Egyptians; but until a hundred years ago every glass bottle was made by hand. In the late nineteenth century every bottle was blown by a glass blower into a metal mold. The blower then broke the bottle body from the blowing iron, heated the fractured neck and finished it with a band of molten glass intended to receive a cork.

Michael J. Owens (1859-1923) devised the first commercially successful, fully automatic bottle-making machine in 1903. The Owens bottling machine revolutionized the production of bottles, which became suddenly much cheaper to manufacture. As eventually refined, the Owens machine had an average production of 50,400 bottles a day. The last two Owens machines in operation were operated at Gas City, Indiana, and were not finally shut down until December 17, 1982.

Glass containers were suddenly cheap and plentiful. Not only did the machine revolutionize the industry, the Owens machines ended child labor in glass-container plants. In 1913, the National Child Labor Committee of New York City said the rapid introduction of the automatic machine did more to eliminate child labor than they had been able to do through legislation.

So, aside from all of you fans of beer bottles, who cares?

Well, of course there are people who collect glass bottles. (There are people who collect almost anything you can name.) But the change in bottle manufacturing methods is of archeological interest as well. The old hand-made bottles had a seam below the neck, with the necks made from a separate piece of glass. Bottles made by the Owens method had a single seam all the way up to the top of the bottle. Accordingly, you can tell the difference just by looking closely. In many areas of the western part of the United States, the date of a trail or a settlement can be determined as before or after the widespread use of machine-made bottles (it took until about 1915 for the machine-made bottles to become plentiful in the West) merely by examining the litter left behind.

The old mining camps in and around Death Valley are particularly interesting places to make this comparison. One more reason to go to the desert.

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