Collectors at Lexington show of antique bottles see them as 'artifacts of our history'

bestep@herald-leader.comAugust 3, 2014 

History wrought in glass was on display in Lexington on Sunday from medicine bottles blown in the 1700s to ornate whiskey flasks from the 1800s and colorful soft-drink bottles made in the 1950s.

The occasion was the 2014 National Antique Bottle Show of the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors, which started Saturday at Lexington Center.

Collectors from more than 30 states offered thousands of glass items at the show.

The event also included seminars and a number of displays, among them a collection of Kentucky pocket flasks and one of bottles from Celery-Cola, a company in Birmingham, Ala., that ultimately went out of business after the federal government claimed the drink contained enough cocaine and caffeine to hurt people, according to the display.

"It goes deeper than a hobby for us. These are artifacts of our history," said Randee Kaiser, co-chair of the show.

One of the rare bottles on display was a pale green Price's Patent Texas Tonic made in the 1840s when the Texas territory was its own country. The bottle, which has "Republic of Texas" embossed on it, is one of only three known to exist, said owner Tom Phillips of Memphis, who was at the show.

It was a return to Lexington for the bottle.

The man peddling the tonic reportedly marketed it in Kentucky and other states, and the bottle ended up in an outhouse on South Upper Street, where Versailles collector Cliff Campbell and his partner Jerry Richie dug it up more than 20 years ago.

"We just knew this is a good bottle," Campbell said, but they didn't know how good until doing some additional research. He was at the show with a display of his own.

Phillips said he paid $1,500 for the bottle in 1987. It's worth $3,000 to $4,000 now, and would be worth more if not for a small hole in one corner, he said.

Some collectible bottles go for only a few dollars, but the top price paid for a bottle at an auction Saturday night — a bitters bottle from about 1870 — was $8,500, Phillips said.

Bitters were medicines heavy on alcohol.

A whiskey bottle from Louisville brought $7,500 at the auction.

The history and beauty of many of the bottles draw enthusiasts. It took great skill to blow a bottle before they could be made on machines.

"They were works of art, made by an artisan," Phillips said.

Phil and Tina McCoy came to the show to find out more about old bottles. The two, who have searched for artifacts at Civil War sites, recently moved to a house in Bourbon County built in 1838 and plan to dig for items on the property.

It's a thrill to dig into the dirt and uncover a bottle or something last touched by someone 150 years ago, Phil McCoy said.

"It puts chills down my back," he said.

Collectors buy bottles at estate auctions, but digging at old outhouse sites in cities also yields a lot of bottles.

Chris Capley of Lexington, who was at the show with his wife, Samantha, said he found a bottle from the 1780s in a privy at the site of the CentrePointe development. He said he had permission to search at the site.

"You never know what you're gonna pull out. It was just junk to them at the time," Capley said.

Cliff Berry of Fishers, Ind., brought a display of half-pint bottles made in the 1800s to hold alcohol, but found two to add to his collection, paying $525 for the pair of brown bottles with eagles embossed on the front.

"To get both of them together is something else," Berry said.

Organizers and collectors said the show — the first held in Lexington — was a success.

"We've done well," said Bill Johnson, a collector from Snellville, Ga. "The thing I love is the fellowship."

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.

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