Double-faced baby bottle rubs shoulders with Joe Louis in prodigal Sonny's World

August 09, 1998|By GREGORY KANE

LET'S CALL IT Sonny's World. You enter it when you cross the threshold of a home in the Southwest Baltimore community of Carroll. It is a world that takes you back to a time when bottle-making was an art, when a Coke cost 5 cents and milk was measured in gills.

Sonny's World -- not an official name but as good a name as any for this collection -- got its start 30 years ago, when James "Sonny" Johnson went to a flea market on North Point Road.

"I saw a lady I knew with her son, Lawrence Smith," Johnson recalled. "She asked me if I had a hobby. I said no. She picked up a double-faced baby bottle and handed it to me. She said, 'Now, Sonny, you have a hobby.' "

Johnson's been collecting bottles and other items ever since. The double-faced baby bottle -- a milk bottle that has the face of a baby on two sides at the top -- was his start. Since then, he's collected a six-pack of Coca-Cola from the Soviet Union with the soda still in the bottles, a brown Carnation milk bottle that was used on an experimental basis in the 1960s, a Thatcher's Dairy milk bottle from 1884, a glass coffee mug from the old White Towers restaurant and a Pepsi bottle that comes, Johnson thinks, from Germany. And that's just about one-third of the stuff on his dining-room table.

Then there's what might be called the piece de resistance of the collection: that Joe Louis Punch bottle, nestled not quite inconspicuously among the others, its maroon label with the white letters telling us, "It's a Knockout," making it stand out from the others. Johnson copped it at a flea market in 1973 for $5.

"I remember when I was a kid," the 68-year-old Johnson reminisced. "I hadn't seen that bottle since I was a kid. I had to get that bottle. You don't see it every day. The last time I saw it was in 1938."

Johnson doesn't remember how much Joe Louis Punch cost, but he remembers the taste -- "kind of a grape-cherry flavor" -- and that the company lasted only a couple of years and that it was bottled in the 500 block of W. Biddle St., which is where Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard now runs.

Also on the table, propped up between bottles, is a poster for the soda. The poster -- which Johnson bought seven years ago for $25 from a little shop on Howard Street -- has a picture of the bottle and then-heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis. Johnson feels the poster's condition is too good to make it an original. He suspects it's a replica. But he's sure the bottle is authentic. On the bottom is the year, 1937, when, Johnson says, it was probably bottled.

Johnson's joy since he retired as a welder from Sparrows Point in 1992 is acting as the tour guide for Sonny's World. Dressed in a green sleeveless shirt and light-blue shorts and with his eyes dancing, he can barely contain his glee at showing visitors the next item in his collection.

The tour soon led to Johnson's basement, where he hauled out an Underwood typewriter from 1925. He gingerly set it on a table and began pecking.

"It works!" he shouted, cackling almost uncontrollably. "I had it fixed. The typewriter cost me only $20, but I paid $170 to have it fixed."

On the wall hangs what Johnson says is an authentic "doughboy" hat from World War I. Under it is "an authentic 1925 Shelby Flying Cloud bicycle," Johnson said with pride. A hand-carved rocking chair bequeathed to him by his Aunt Mary sits on the floor. In the corner is a cabinet handed down to his Aunt Mary from her aunt, who lived in Boston. Johnson says both women lived well into their 90s.

"That shows you how long they've been in the family," he said of the rocking chair and the cabinet.

Johnson, it seems, was born to collect. He gets artifacts even when he isn't looking for them. He whipped out a scrapbook and turned to a page that had five Indian Chewing Gum cards on them.

"I've lived here 44 years," Johnson said. "Five years ago, I changed from oil to gas heat. They pulled out the old furnace, and that's where I found these cards."

The historian in Johnson isn't confined to bottle collecting. In his collection are the front pages of The Sun from Dec. 8, 1941, about the attack on Pearl Harbor; the front page of the Stars & Stripes from Aug. 9, 1945 ("Russia Joins War on Japs" reads the headline, with a quip in the top-right corner that reads, "Weather in Japan: HOTTER and HOTTER); and the Sept. 2, 1945, front page of the Sunday Post of Glasgow, Scotland, about Japan signing the peace treaty.

History lives in Sonny's World. As he and his close friend Early Kersey sat in Johnson's dining room, they wondered why more black people hadn't kept Joe Louis Punch bottles as mementos. Johnson concluded too many blacks have no sense of history.

"The Royal Theater should never have been torn down," Johnson asserted. "It was built in 1922 by black people. It was called the Douglass."

Pennsylvania Avenue's Royal Theater is a piece of Baltimore's history we have let get away from us. But thank heavens we have Sonny's World.

Pub Date: 8/09/98

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