Trash From the Past

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In 1925, Paul G. McIntire purchased the land on which Washington Park is located from the City of Charlottesville, only to turn around and present that same property back to the City as a park and playground for "colored" people. In previous years, the property served as the site of a dump and proposed shelter for people with contagious diseases. The construction of the pool foundation has unearthed a portion of the trash site that was buried at Washington Park over a half a century ago.
The objects turning up include ceramic, metal, stone, and glass. What can these objects tell us? The answer is simple: a myriad of information. Metal and stone can be scrutinized to determine what trinkets and tools were utilized by the people of the Washington Park neighborhood. Some ceramic pieces reveal the beautiful china patterns from earlier in this century, while others show the simplicity of everyday ware. The glass containers reveal the various popular beverages, medicines, tonics, beauty products, and poisons of the day.  

Of the objects found at Washington Park, the majority has been discarded glass bottles. Glass was one of the first manufactured products to be made in Virginia at Jamestown around the year 1610. The art of glass blowing was a time consuming process. The glass ingredients had to be heated to 2500 degrees and cooked for 30-40 hours. The glassblower would then insert a blowpipe into the mixture, remove a mass of molten glass and blow small puffs of air into the pipe while continually turning the glass glob. The very most that a glassmaker and his helpers could make in a day was about 240 bottles. This process was used until roughly 1903 when the automatic bottling machine took over. This machine could turn out an amazing one million bottles a week. Therefore, it should be no surprise that the Washington Park site contains so many bottles.

Bottle collecting is an active and fun way to learn about history. Soda bottles are probably the most popular type of bottle collected. Developed in 1886, Coca-Cola was the first successful cola drink. Doc. Pemberton of Atlanta created the mixture in a three-legged pot in his back yard. He took a glass of it to a local druggist for his opinion. The druggist added ice and tap water to the syrup, tested and like it; and agreed to sell the drink as a headache cure. In 1916 the Coca-Cola company was nationally known and had adopted a standard bottle design call the "hobble skirt" or "Mae West," which is the design still used today. Prior to this, a variety of shapes could be found. Most soda bottlers made their own products and sold them locally.

Some of the soda bottles recovered from Washington Park, which were bottled in Charlottesville include: "Lemon-Kola," "NuGrape," "Soda Water," and "Boys Star." Various styles of Coca Cola bottles from both the Lynchburg and Staunton bottling companies have been found, but the largest number of soda bottles found to date are from Pepsi Cola of Charlottesville.

poison bottlesIn recent years, poison bottles have become one of the most popular in the collector market. Most poison bottles are ornamental and brilliantly colored. While it may seem senseless to promote the sale of poisons by using decorative bottles, the reason was really one of utility. During the 19th century, the literacy rate was quite low; thus everyone could not read labels. In addition, the sparse household lighting found in most homes made it virtually impossible to distinguish the wording on labels. In the early 1870's at the suggestion of the American Medical Association, a standardized system was adopted so that people would be able to recognize bottles containing poisons. 
 
Raised surfaces depicting a skull and crossbones or a coffin became the standard symbol of poison bottles. In addition, these bottles were often in dark colors, blue, amber, or green. These bottles are fascinating and come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors, some of them quite spectacular. One of the poison bottles found at Washington Park is three-sided with "poison" printed on a raised surface in a beautiful cobalt blue color.

If you are looking for American beer bottles dating before the mid 19th century, you will search in vain. Despite the large amounts of beer consumed in this country up to 1850, beer bottles did not exist. All beer at that time was stored in barrels. Taverns tried to discourage the sale of beer in bottles, as this hurt their trade. But try as they might, they were unable to stand in the way of progress. By 1870, beer was obtainable in bottles in most parts of the country. The first beer bottles used in the U.S. were made of pottery. Glass became dominant following the Civil War. The average beer bottle contained a quart of beer and had a cork stopper. Breweries did not emboss their names and emblems on bottles until early 1870. Until the 1930's beer was customarily sold in green glass bottles. When production of beer was resumed following prohibition, green glass was abandoned in favor of brown. It was believed that brown glass would repel sunrays better and thereby prolong the brew’s freshness. To date Washington Park has yielded only one known beer bottle; a brown bottle with a raised emblem from the Pabst Brewery of Milwaukee.

Everything that is uncovered from a former dumping site like that at Washington Park can be labeled as trash, because all the artifacts were deliberately discarded. Nearly a hundred years ago, the people of Charlottesville threw away the items that they believed to be trash without even a second thought. Today this trash from the past opens a window into our City’s history and allows us a unique glimpse of earlier times.

Want to learn more about archeology in central Virginia?  Visit The Archeological Society of Virginia.

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