Collector traces of past in bottles he finds in attics, dumps
John Rudzinski never shopped at Vivian I. Ettinger’s business.
A chemist and pharmacist, Ettinger opened her drug store in 1906, at Liberty and Lafayette streets. She bottled pills and potions at the corner through 1924, and moved to another spot on Liberty in 1925.
By 1931, Vivian was working with her son. They closed in 1933.
Rudzinski has a souvenir from the shop — a small clear glass bottle embossed with the words “Ettinger’s Celebrated Rheumatic Remedy.” More information is etched into the side of the bottle: “V.I. Ettinger chemist Schenectady N.Y.”
The bottle from another era is one of about 500 that Rudzinski owns in a collection stored inside his Schenectady home. Bottles that once contained pills, milk, beer, soda, whiskey and ink have been found in dumps, in dirt when roads are torn up and reconstructed and in the foundations of old homes. They’ve also been found in attics, basements and barns.
Rudzinski and others who seek buried treasure are always looking. The older bottles were hand-blown. Later, during the early 1900s, they were made by machine.
The 71-year-old Rudzinski, a retired pipe fitter and president of the Capital Region Antique Bottle and Insulator Club, collects bottles for their beauty — some of his favorites are amber, green and cobalt blue. Green bottles are favorites because green glass was rare during the early 1900s.
Stories to tell
But he also likes the bottles for the stories they tell. While they once may have been filled with chocolate milk or aspirin, they’re now filled with history.
“They’re about the local dealers back then who were so proud of their work they spent the extra money to have their names on them,” Rudzinski said of his embossed glass, like the Ettinger remedy bottle.
Bottles have been around longer than recorded history. Rudzinski said containers have been with mankind for 3,000 years; the ancient Romans used glass bottles for assorted medicines.
The first successful glass house, he said, was started by Caspar Wistar in New Jersey in 1739.
Some of Rudzinski’s stock dates to the 1800s, and are heavy, tan-colored stone jugs and bottles. They had to be strong enough to hold strong beer brewed more than a century ago.
“They didn’t know how to control the carbonation in beer,” Rudzinski said. “The stone bottles were sturdier. There were probably close to 10 or 11 breweries in Schenectady.”
J.P. Clute once owned some of the stone bottles that now have places in the Rudzinski collection. “Clute bottled beer from at least 1838 to the mid-1940s,” Rudzinski said. “There are nine examples with only two alike. There is one bottle embossed ‘I.V. Clute,’ J.P.’s father. He was never listed as brewer or bottler. It may have been a personal bottle, using his son’s beer for himself. He may have started to brew and his son took over.”
Rudzinski has found some of his bottles in the soil, often using a long poking-style probe that will pierce soft soil and let searchers know if they are around old outhouse or ash pit sites — places old bottles would wind up. Old bottles can also be purchased in antique stores, on eBay and through other collectors.
Some names found on bottles have persuaded Rudzinski to look into the past. That happened when he found some of George Weller’s old containers.
“George Weller was very big in Schenectady,” he said.
Weller made his fortune in beverages — root beer, ginger beer and lemon beer among them. He partnered with James Rodgers, and by 1860 the two men were selling soda and beer. They used pottery bottles through 1867, the year Weller bought out Rodgers and ran the business himself.
“He expanded the business and sold beer, soda, sarsaparilla and mineral water in a 40-mile radius to thousands of customers,” Rudzinski said. “There isn’t any evidence that he brewed beer, probably bottled beer made in Albany or Troy. These large breweries could sell much cheaper.”
Weller remained in business into the 1890s.
Big stone jugs
Stone jugs — Rudzinski has a bunch of them, too — gave buyers more product. They also gave merchants more room to advertise. A large, stone tan crock — a wide-mouthed pot — marked with an ornate blue teardrop design and blue lettering, reads “Benjamin Van Vranken, grocers and provisions, 157 State St., Schenectady.”
Nobody knows what was inside when Van Vranken sold the crock sometime during the 1800s.
“It could have been cider, it could have been liquor, it could have been vinegar,” Rudzinski said.
Containers were an expense for people who bottled beer and medicine. If customers cooperated, they could keep more of their embossed and painted bottles in circulation. “If people brought them back for a refill, usually they would get a discount,” Rudzinski said.
There are other stories. Because people who lived during the 1800s into the early 1900s believed in Native American medicinal cures, some druggists used Indian names for their remedies. Schenectady druggist Thomas Dominick had one, “Ka-No-Ta.” Rudzinski is not sure what it cured.
Hazeltine and Co. also tell a story, from outside the Capital Region. The company was founded in Warren, Pa., in 1869 and won followers for its cough medicine — “Piso’s Cure for Consumption.” The product became so popular that Hazeltine changed its name to The Piso Co. And the company is remembered today by collectors because some of its medicines contained cannabis indica — more widely known today as ingredients in recreational drugs.
Rudzinski has a sample. A green Piso bottle reads “Piso’s Cure” on the side.
Milk bottles also spill facts about the past. Rudzinski said there were once 141 dairies and milk dealers in the Schenectady area. He’s got dozens of quarter-pints, pints and quart bottles from the early 1900s. Some of them are from the Williams Amsterdam Dairy — a Schenectady business.
“Since a lot of the bottles don’t have the city embossed on the bottle, many people think it is an Amsterdam, New York, bottle, but it’s not,” Rudzinski said. “The Amsterdam has to do with the Dutch heritage of Schenectady.”
The Williams dairymen were in business from 1904 through 1960. In 1961, the business became part of Borden’s.
Other dairy names in the Rudzinski collection include Fairmont Dairy, the Sarnowski Farm, Connelly’s, and Cozy Dale Farm. Some of his milk bottles are embossed with symbols. Rexford’s Crescent Dairy delivered products in a bottle decorated with a crescent moon and star. There was even a General Electric milk bottle; a dealer sent milk to the Schenectady works in a custom-made container.
Some milk bottles have been found in groups. Rudzinski has a possible reason.
Milk delivery men of the era were always looking for new clients. They might have tried to persuade people along their delivery routes to switch over — and get rid of their current providers. Maybe a free delivery or more prompt service was promised.
“They’d say ‘We’ll take your other bottles and give them back to them,’ ” Rudzinski said. “And of course they didn’t. They disappeared.”
When he finds bottles, they generally look as if they’ve been in the ground for 100 years or more. They’re dirty.
He fills the bottles and special machines with copper pellets and an assortment of chemicals. The bottles are then placed inside the machines for a steady, week-long rotation. “Copper is soft,” he said. “It doesn’t scratch the glass.”
He doesn’t bother with bottles from the recent past. Tall, slender glass bottles from Canada Dry, for example, maybe with painted labels advertising the company’s grapefruit-flavored “Wink” soft drink, just aren’t worth anything.
But he’s always looking for glass that has value, and a story. So if any people find old bottles in their garages, barns, basements or attics, Rudzinski hopes they call him first. And keep the treasures out of the recycling box.
“I’m in the phone book,” he said.