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Reflections of a Bottle Collector


Matt Schaeffer

March 2000


It was during the late summer of 1971 that I found my very first old bottles while helping my father tear down an ancient, dilapidated barn on one of our landlord’s farms. After nearly 30 years of collecting antique bottles, I occasionally pause to reflect upon the early years. Whenever I do, I invariably ponder the question of "why." Why was it, despite so many other options for the use of my time, that I chose to immerse myself in this hobby? Other boys might have seized upon the opportunity to smash any bottles they could get their hands on, and without so much as a passing thought. For me, however, the hobby crystallized at that special moment in time.

I was three months short of 12 years of age, and was just beginning to emerge from my cocoon of youthful naivete. Through the fuzzy screen of that centerpiece of our home, the television, I routinely sat with the family and watched mute and expressionless as scenes of the daily horrors of the Vietnam War were broadcast into our living room during the evening news. Eerily, those images from behind the front seemed to blend seamlessly with the nightly reruns of the popular series, "Combat," and I recall no emotions toward the event, one way or the other. While I still found "Combat" entertaining, my GI Joe was relegated to the back of a drawer, with the marbles, and next to the shoebox containing a weird mixture of plastic green army men, and red, yellow and blue cowboys and Indians. My interests were changing.

Girls were, for some reason unbeknownst to me at the time, of increasing interest to me. Perhaps it had something to do with the advent of bikinis and mini skirts, both of which finally appeared in our corner of the parochial, rural Midwest that summer. And Goldie Hawn’s gyrations on Rowan and Martin’s "Laugh-In" certainly must have contributed to this emerging interest.

Music, too, assumed an important place in my awakening. That summer, I reclaimed an old wooden radio from a nearby county dump (scrounging through the county dump was always a great adventure). Clutching the radio beneath one arm as I steered my banana-seat bike two miles back home, I was elated to discover that it actually worked. Now in possession of this device, I was suddenly "plugged in" to the world beyond the immediate countryside. Almost instantaneously, I became aware of modern rock and roll, a form so vastly different and much more appealing to me than the Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis variety that emanated, seemingly incessantly, from the six-foot long, Zenith console record player in our country farmhouse. So, with money I earned from stacking bales in the haymow that hot summer season, I bought my first 45 RPM, "Joy To the World" by Three Dog Night, and this music began to compete for time on the Zenith. To my surprise, the radio offered the additional bonus of short wave band. Thus, through nightly audits of BBC and unknown other channels in languages I could not understand, my conception of time, space, and distance in relation to my own place in the world was drastically transformed.

As my awareness of and interest in the world around me burgeoned, certain things, for one reason or another, were impressed indelibly upon my memory. Perhaps the force of these memories is due in no small part to the fact that our country was experiencing a stylistic paradigm shift. Certain things were definitely "in," and they emerged upon the cultural scene with a force so powerful that they posed a stark demarcation between the old and the new generations. The American love affair with the automobile provided a thread of continuity with the past, but the cars of the time were so radically different in style than the big, heavy lumber wagons of the 1950s and 60s, not to mention a lot faster! It was a time of unbridled self-expression, fueled by a future-orientation and, at least among youth, a social attitude of non-conformity with past traditions. Love-ins, sit-ins, and rock fests were the order of the day. Peace symbols abounded, as did love beads, bell-bottoms, vests, and harness boots. Patriotic red, white, and blue fabric with the patterned message "VOTE" would soon follow in early1972, as the people of the nation dressed in clothes that symbolized an intent to take charge of the country’s political future in what would prove to be a crooked and farcical election.

But of all the many memories I have of the time, perhaps the most salient impression I retain is that of an almost unbearable, but strangely pleasant "brightness." The daily summer sun, in particular, seemed exceedingly intense that summer. In concert with the sun, so too, the bold and vibrant colors of the time reflected that extraordinary brilliance: lime green and chartreuse, hot pink, lemon yellow. All my senses were attuned to a society and culture that seemed to tense and pulse in voluntary rhythm with the immense changes underway at its very core.

Among other fads, brightly-colored, fuzzy feet with adhesive backings were everywhere—stuck on the dashboards and windows of cars, on doors and walls in houses. And they were available in almost any size; even foot-shaped rugs were suddenly fashionable. It may have been a manifestation of a frenetic optimism during a time of great social and political uncertainty; whatever its underlying impulse may have been, America certainly had an obsession with color in the summer of ’71.

Amid this intoxicating sea of vibrant, psychedelic color in which our society was collectively swimming, one evening I occasioned to glimpse a fleeting rainbow of color atop the windowsill of a house as we passed by in the car. There, the owner had arranged a variety of common whiskey decanters, each filled with a different hue of brightly-colored water. As the light from the house passed through the bottles, it illuminated their shapes and colors, creating a rather stunning and pleasant effect from outside. This décor involving colored bottles quickly became something of a raging fad, and its commercial potential was quickly exploited in the form of Wheaton miniatures, Ezra Brooks and Jim Beam decanters, Avons, and various other varieties of decorative bottles that proliferated during that time.

Later that summer, I found my bottles. The barn had been built during the time of the War Between the States. I was standing in the midst of history. I could feel it and smell it, and in my imagination I could even see it. As I pulled against one loose end of a board inside the wall within the manger of the old barn, I could hear it, too, the rusty nails wailing and groaning as history mourned the loss of itself. Well-worn from the rubbings of countless horses, and smooth against my palm, the reluctant board gradually yielded and finally gave up. As it did, the bottles gently tumbled out from their resting-place within the wall and lay, awaiting my decision, on the dirt floor amid the chaff of another century.

I stared at the bottles. In a peculiar reflection of the age itself, two roads diverged at that moment in time. I might have smashed them, hence taken a path well-worn by many boys; in fact, such was my immediate thought. However, reminiscent of Robert Frost, "I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference." I put the bottles in a rusty pail and carried them home.

As I reflect on the summer of ‘71, it never ceases to amaze me how that period remains so vibrant in my mind. Why this is so, I can only speculate, but my mental record of that time is more complete than any other, before or since, that I’ve experienced. Finding the old bottles in the barn was the precipitating event in the development of my hobby, but the context of events during the time leading up to it was of critical importance. The bottles that tumbled out from behind the wall in the old barn were, in some very deep and meaningful way, dynamically interconnected within the context of the historical time and space of which I suddenly became so conscious in the summer of ‘71. And that, too, made all the difference.

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