by Amanda Benge – Archaeological Technician
In the mid-seventeenth century, it was the practice of those with wealth to mark their expensive possessions with personal crests, symbols, or initials known as seals (Hume 1969). These seals were placed on any number of manufactured goods to indicate ownership. Some of the best examples of this practice are seen on glass bottles seals (Hume 1969). Seals or buttons are small globs of molten glass, also known as gathers, which are pressed to the shoulders or neck of the bottle towards the end of the glass production process. The glob is then stamped with a pre-made brass seal, which included letters, symbols, crests, or names of the intended recipient The seals were used to identify a wide range of information related to the bottles and their contents, including: personal ownership, governmental ownership, advertisement, and the contents (Hume 1969).
There existed a wide variety of styles and designs for seals depending on how much the intended consumer was willing to invest. At the time glass bottles were an expensive luxury that most were willing to forgo in favor of ceramic vessels. Initially wealthy upper-class colonists were the only ones able to afford to have brass seals made and added to their glass bottles. Personal seals would include a recognizable family crest, symbol or name embossed on several of their specially made wine bottles as a way to flaunt their wealth and gentility (Veit and Huney 2014). Glass makers would include special colored dyes that would be added to the gather as it was placed on the body of the bottles to make the seal stand out (Veit and Huney 2014).
The wealthy upper class were not the only ones that had seals made, however, taverns and inns were also well known to use bottle seals on their goods. The earliest known intact bottle seal was recovered from a tavern called the King’s Head Tavern dated 1657 in England (Hume 1969). Taverns and inns used seals for the advertising of their business and to ensure that the bottles were returned to the tavern once emptied (Veit and Huney 2014). Unlike a gentleman’s personal seal, taverns and inns would impress their business’ symbols or name sometimes along with what was contained in the bottle.
It was not until the late-seventeenth century, that colonists of lower social classes could afford to have their own glass bottles marked with a simplified version of the personalized seal. Glass makers would, as a cheap alternative to having an expensive brass seal made and cut, use a wooden matrix affixed with individual letters to impress the consumer’s initials into the disk gather. These bottle seals usually only contained two letters, and on rare occasion three, indicating first and last name of the intended owner (Hume 1969). On these more crudely made marked bottles, people would list dates along with the seal in a process called scratching. It is difficult to interpret the significance of dates scratched onto bottles as they could mean anything from the date the bottle was made, a significant date to the person that owned it, or when the bottle was filled and sealed
During excavations on a mid- to late-eighteenth century site near the town of Colchester by Fairfax County Park Authority, one such wine bottle seal was recovered with the initials P.W. pressed into in (pictured to the left). Upon closer inspection of the letters, one of the archaeologists on site, Aimee Wells, recognized the initials as belonging to Peter Wagener. He was a wealthy landowner that originally owned the land that the Town of Colchester was created and built on (2011).
The popularity and necessity of personal bottle seals steadily decreased until the end of the eighteenth century. After which commercial seals are the only seals we see in the archaeological record, used by vineyards and bottlers (Veit and Huney 2014).
2011. Cool Finds from 44FX0704. November 06. https://cartarchaeology.wordpress.com/2011/11/06/cool-finds-from-44fx0704/. Accessed december 24, 2019.
Hancoock. David. 2009. Oceans of Wine: Madeira and the Emergence of American Trade and Taste. New Haven : Yale Univeristy Press.
Hume, Ivor Noel. 1969. “Bottles, Glass, Liquor.” In A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America, 60-62. Philidelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Hume, Ivor Noel. 2005. “New Messages in Old Bottles: Saved from being thrown into the York River, Glass Fragments Reveal Clues to the Past.” In Something From the Cellar: More of This and That , 77-84.
Veit, Richard and Paul Huney. 2014. “New Bottles Made with My Crest: Colonial Bottle Seals from Eastern North America, a Gazetteer and Interpretation .” Northeast Historical Archaeology Vol 43, 43.