This weekend I finally decided on a place for my grandmother’s bottle collection. For two years the bottles have been packed away and I have been waiting to finish remodeling or find the perfect piece of furniture to display them (having my 3 cats in the back of my mind too!). Saturday we picked up a chicken nest for our dining room and the stars seemed to align. A few objects from the mantel found a new home on the nest. My bottles would live on the mantelpiece, I decided. I am so pleased with their placement, in a spot where I can enjoy them each day.
In the 60s my grandmother was part of a Bottle Digging club. As a child, I remember her bottle collection resided in boxes in her garage. I heard stories about the bottles and saw them occasionally when I would help her clean out her garage.
Shortly after I got married and moved into a 19th century home the bottles were gifted to me. My grandmother figured I would have the perfect spot for them in my butcher’s cabinet and she knew I was the antique lover in the family. My husband and I brought them home from her house, unpacked them from yellowing newspaper wrapping, gently washed them and placed them in them in our kitchen. All 70+ of them.
I didn’t put a whole lot of thought into the collection. They were just kind of there on the top shelf of my butcher’s cabinet for a long time. That is, until grad school, when a project required I learn the story behind an object. I researched everything I could about bottle digging, interviewed my grandmother, and wrote a paper about the collection for a class on material culture.
Here’s what my grandmother had to say about the bottles and her adventures in bottle digging:
Most of them came from Cumberland Island where rich people lived years and years ago. We pulled them from the area where servants put the garbage. I belonged to a club of about 50. I was the librarian and it was my job to take care of all the books we used for research. I was in the club from early 1969 until 1972. We met every month in downtown Jacksonville. When I joined I didn’t know anyone. I learned about the club from a neighbor. On the weekends we would go on digs. Most of what I found came from Cumberland Island where rich people lived for years and years. We dug in the area where servants put the garbage. I wore a wet cloth around my neck and carried my tools with me. We climbed over a fence to get to the area and took a buggy ride to the dig site. The only thing remaining was glass, milk glass. Small children loved to find the milk glass. I also found ones that were shaped like torpedoes and I found ink wells and insulators from telephone poles. Some people sold what they found for profit and the profit would pay for the entire trip. One lady buried them in her backyard in containers because she had no other storage. At different points all mine were out on shelves.
It was pretty difficult to get my grandmother to talk about the bottles and the collection as is typically the case in getting the older generations of my family to reminiscence. But, I got this little bit of information from her and learned a lot about my grandmother in the process. You see, my grandmother was the most put together person I have ever known. Her hair and nails were always done. She loved to shop and dress up. I don’t ever recall seeing her dirty, digging in a garden or cleaning outside. But, here she was, telling me stories about climbing fences and digging for bottles!
I was so grateful for this story. My grandmother passed away a few short months after I interviewed her.
It turns out I have used this interview over and over again in classrooms and in presentations over the last 5 years and my grandmother’s bottle collection has touched countless educators and students in the process. I typically use it in teaching sources of information, but I think I would rather focus on collections as teaching tools here.
Every bottle in the collection has a story and I wish I knew the story of how they were found. For these objects the story of their use is a fascinating one, but the story of this collection is much more interesting.
I love using collections in the classroom because they truly tell the story of individuals, their passions, and their interests.
One year, instead of doing a typical Open House, we did a Collection Night. Students brought in their collections and wrote a short label about their collection. Then, arranged them on their desks as part of a discussion on museums as collecting institutions.
That same year our back to school icebreaker for teachers was a Guess the Collection activity. Teachers brought their collections in and we displayed them in the auditorium. We all made guesses, matching the teacher to a collection. I had worked with some of those teachers, but I learned something new about each person I worked with.
Here are a few ideas for using collections in the classroom:
- Students bring in small personal collection of objects. Chart collection types. Categorize and classify collections.
- Read Treasures of My Heart or another book about personal collections.
- Read a painting, Charles Wilson Peale The Artist in His Museum. Discuss the subject, remind students he is a collector and this is his own museum.
- Collection day: Have students be their own docent for their personal collection display. Invite another class to visit your collection museum in the classroom.