Beer-bottle barons will buy and trade at Timonium show

February 27, 1994|By James H. Bready | James H. Bready,Special to The Sun

In the beer-bottle wars, in 1994 Baltimore, the capos are Bill and Chris and Joe and Randy. They know one another very well and, mostly, keep their distance. Next Sunday, in Timonium, the four come together, edgy, on the prowl.

Randy from South Baltimore, Joe from Mount Airy, Chris from Edgewood and Bill from Pasadena: What have they in common? Beer bottles from Baltimore, from before Prohibition.

Lots of people have beer bottles embossed with the names of old, local breweries or distributors. They stick candles in them, or ivy, to fancy up a window. Some people, having an attic or old barn, own as many as a dozen of these 12-ounce containers, in clear, aqua or amber glass.

To earn the respect of Bill Schramm or Randy Whitlock next Sunday during the Baltimore Antique Bottle Club's 14th annual dealer show (in the Timonium State Fairgrounds' 4-H Building from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.), you must possess a basic 500 different Baltimore beer bottles.

Between 1850 and 1920, roughly 60 Baltimore brewers and 20-some marketers (their minds more on the return of the bottles than on immortality) spent a little extra so their names would appear in the glass, in raised letters. Paper labels were pasted on, too, but virtually all have perished. John B. Berger, Frederick Bauernschmidt, John H. von der Horst, George Gunther Jr. (umlaut over the u), Frank and Henry Sandkuhler -- Teutons, all; Standard Brewery, Maryland, Enterprise, Bay View, almost always with street address.

"One nice aspect," says Chris Vaught, "is that a whole new bottle name may turn up any time -- at a dig, a yard sale, a bottle show."

In 1965, William J. Kelley self-published a 736-page hardback, "Brewing in Maryland"; in 1974, Everett and Janice Ford self-published a 70-page guide, "Pre-Prohibition Beer Bottles and Breweries of Baltimore, Maryland." The Ford guide (reprinted in 1981) cost $6 and now brings $20 or so; Kelley's was $15, and a copy is reported to have changed hands recently for $250.

There have been discoveries since then, especially in the variations that bulk up a collection -- enough discoveries that "we need a new published catalog," says Joe Greenville.

Who's going to compile it?

Whoever's willing to stay home instead of going off eagerly to dig, yard sale, dealer show. Simply to date a bottle often means having to search through years of city directories.

With or without reference works, Messrs. Greenville, Schramm, Vaught and Whitlock have a keen sense of one another's holdings. Also, they hear the footfall of other collectors, such as Rodger Frantum in Annapolis and Robert Webber in Reisterstown. A rare old bottle entering the market may take several bounces. Rather than sell, the owner offers it in a swap. Sometimes the buyer of a hundred bottles did so to obtain only one or two items in the lot; the rest he then offers around. The market is volatile.

Patience helps.

"Collection-buying is the way you get your first several hundred varieties," says Mr. Schramm, who has been collecting since the late 1960s. The recent death of Russell Franklin -- a long-time bottle-club member, as are all four present-day beer-bottle barons -- set off speculation. Mr. Franklin's first job was at a brewery: breaking pre-1920 beer bottles, as turned in by would-be beer-buyers after Prohibition. Soon, he was putting aside the interesting ones and starting a collection.

Mr. Schramm now owns the Russ Franklin collection.

At the Timonium show next Sunday, Mr. Schramm will exhibit (not sell) his unrivaled collection of Standard Brewery bottles and related material.

Standard, at 1716 N. Gay St., was headed by Robert Rennert, who also owned the Rennert Hotel. One of its brands was Bismarck Beer, and the firm imported lithographed pottery mugs from Germany. Mr. Schramm flinches at the thought of how many Bismarck mugs were smashed, patriotically, during World War I.

A few pre-Prohibition glass beer bottles are so common as to be worth less than $1. Besides the name, a bottle's form of stoppering matters -- cap top, blob top, Baltimore loop seal, certain experimental seals. An August Fenker crockery bottle in good condition would bring several hundred dollars.

At the Timonium show next Sunday, the public is invited to bring in old bottles of all sorts for free evaluation.

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