Collector finds history bottled up in glass jars Crownsville man gathers 1,500 CENTRAL COUNTY -- Arnold * Broadneck * Severna Park * Crownsville * Millersville

February 04, 1993|By Angela Winter Ney | Angela Winter Ney,Staff Writer

From the curves and etchings, the raised patterns and letters of an old milk bottle, Bill Mueller can draw an outline of history.

In one bottle, he can find the story of a typhoid outbreak at the Naval Academy in 1910 attributed to bad milk that prompted officials to open their own dairy. In the amber-colored glass of another is the tale of marketing techniques -- the glass made the milk look creamier.

"A lot of these bottles, if they could talk, would sure have a story to tell," says Mr. Mueller, a Crownsville postal carrier who has amassed a collection of more than 1,500 bottles.

He has brown whiskey jugs and slim medicine bottles. He has a wooden crate used by the milk man to carry bottles from the wagon to the porch and the milk bottles that are his favorites.

A few are worth considerable sums, but the money isn't what interests him, Mr. Mueller says.

It's the story behind the bottles that grabs him, he says, the trivia about dairies that advertised in etchings on the glass or those that thought dark glass would protect milk.

"I collect for what they represent," he says, caressing a milk bottle that reads: "Premium Quality -- Mothers who care".

"Dairy farming was a seven-day a week job, 365 days a year, in all kinds of weather, and there were a lot of dairies in Anne Arundel County," says Mr. Mueller, 53.

He started his homage to the dairy farmer in 1978, when he found old bottles on his property while clearing an old ball field for construction. The bulldozer turned up milk and whiskey bottles discarded by ball players.

"I brought the bottles home and cleaned them up, figuring we'd have a yard sale," he says. "But I acquired an interest."

That was 600 dairies ago. His goal now is to get bottles from as many dairies as he can find, and though he knows of more than 800, he suspects there were many more dairies in the state.

He digs in old house dumps and under porches. He advertises in newspapers.

"This one," he says, picking up a plain, brown bottle, "I found this on the banks of the Magothy River. You wonder how it got there and who had it. You just never know."

Mr. Mueller keeps his eye out for bottles other collectors want, and they do the same for him. At this stage of bottle collecting, collectors rarely sell, but they will trade to improve their collections, he says.

Milk bottles are particularly scarce, he says, because they came and went in a little more than one lifetime. "They didn't take off until the 1880s, and by the 1960s, they had mostly disappeared."

The Naval Academy, for example, made its own bottles for only three years.

In the last decade, milk bottles have "come into their own," he says, at least partly because the grand-children of dairy farmers have started keeping bottles from family dairies. Relatives often show up at public auctions, pushing milk bottle prices higher.

But Mr. Mueller also has met folks who gave him bottles, so pleased were they that he was preserving part of their history.

Some milk bottles bear only a last name and a street address, with no city noted. With research, Mr. Mueller often identifies these as coming from Baltimore.

Over the years, he has collected a lot of other dairy memorabilia, such as signs from dairies, or advertisements in newspapers, along with his bottles. Only a few milk bottle collectors search statewide, though many local collectors are at work, Mr. Mueller says. He meets other collectors at the Baltimore Antique Bottle Club and the Delmarva Bottle Club, which meets in Lewes, Del.

The Baltimore club is holding its 13th annual show March 7 at the 4-H building at the Timonium Fairgrounds.

A veteran collector, he dreams of building a rustic room with shelves to display every last bottle. Only a fraction of his collection fits into his modest living room.

But that doesn't mean he has enough bottles, insists Mr. Mueller. In another year, he'll retire from his job with the post office, and then, he says, with a broad smile, collectors beware. "Then I'm really going to go look for milk bottles."

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