You can't always figure the people who collect figurals. They'll scorn the Booz cabin bottle that used to be your grandfather's -- and offer you an irrational sum for the clumsy likeness of the Washington Monument on your kitchen windowsill, the bottle that doesn't even have George on top of it.
Figurals, indeed. "Some collectors call them character bottles," says Jim Phillips, "others, figure bottles. The specialists argue over boundaries and classifications. But most of us just go for the object."
After 20 years of going -- to shows, antique stores, museums -- Mr. Phillips, the retired head of a landscaping firm, is accepted as having this area's choicest accumulation. The new house he moved into last year features a wall of glass-door-protected figurals in the living room, a similar, ceiling-to-floor wall in the foyer, and wait'll you see the cobalt blues in his basement.
When a connoisseur of figurals has arranged many of the standard rarities on his shelves (they're glass too) -- such as an Indian Queen bitters, a grandfather clock, a man in the moon, an early Napoleon, not to mention a Washington Monument in amber -- does that person just sit there, fondly admiring?
Not when there's a chance of more, or better. Next Sunday, in the 4-H Building at Timonium State Fairgrounds, the Baltimore Antique Bottle Club holds its 11th annual show and sale, with 250 tables of dealer wares plus specialty exhibits. Mr. Phillips will be there early, roaming the aisles and eyeing sale objects the instant they emerge from their wrappings. "I've never been able to find a milk glass alligator, or Daws dog," he remarks.
Among old bottles -- milks, inks, bitters, perfumes, poisons, medicines, nursers, sodas, whiskeys, beers, fruit jars, historical flasks, whimsies -- figurals are cross-categorical. Sometimes dispute still rages as to what (if anything) were the contents. Some figurals aren't glass but earthenware or china; some aren't old. Some are old but the painted colors on them aren't; some have been skillfully repaired. Mr. Phillips cites the book, "Statues That Pour," by Otha D. Wearin: "You always have a few people in every group who, if a cat were to have kittens in an oven, would call them biscuits."
Bottles in the shape of human beings, animals, buildings and other familiar objects go back before 1800. A sitting cat, standing bear, violin, Bunker Hill Monument, owl, hand, Grant's Tomb, clamshell, Santa Claus, foot, Napoleon -- the 19th century manufacturer had them made to coax a customer into buying his candy, or cologne, or wine, or syrup, or patent medicine. Later, somebody in the household, thinking "Oh, how dear!" couldn't bear to throw out the emptied container.
"By now, figurals have been laboriously cataloged -- by collectors. The manufacturers, in many countries, left no tabulations; therefore the possibility of finding something not listed, and confounding the cataloger, is ever-present," points out Drew Andersen, bottle club president. Baker Bros. & Co. (Charles J. William Jr., Charles E. and George B.), the city's most prominent 19th century glassmaker, put out Washington Monuments in several colors; didn't Baker, or anyone else, ever do a Battle Monument?
E. C. Booz was a mid-century Philadelphia merchant who perceived that a chimney could also serve as a spout. His rectangular, amber Old Cabin Whiskey bottle was not only bought but imitated. "Don't let anyone today sell you a Booz bottle as the original article," cautions Mr. Phillips; "they're very hard to authenticate." Some collectors have fun lining up a row of the reproductions.
"If you have a bottle of unusual shape, bring it over to our free appraisal table during the show," says Ferd Meyer, co-chairman with Nick Benedict; "we'll estimate its age and value."
Baltimore Antique Bottle Club Show and Sale, March 3, Timonium State Fairground, 4-H Building. Early admission, 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., $10; regular admission, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., $1.50. For information, call 592-3565.