Antique glass milk bottle with orange lettering

by Dr. Lori Verderame

Milk bottles with the names of many different dairies from many different locations are popular kitchen collectibles. Before the paper milk carton or the plastic jug, dairies sent milkmen out to deliver glass bottles. The bottle’s shape, label, color, and markings tell you how old it is and where it originated. Here’s how to spot a valuable milk bottle.

Don’t look for the traditional pontil marks on glass milk bottles since most American milk bottles were produced around 1870s, after the period of using mouth blown bottles. Read other ways how to tell the age of bottles. The scar from the glass blowers rod when it was removed from the glass bottle is called a pontil. That mark helps date some glass pieces, usually from circa 1850.

Some early mouth blown bottles were blown in a three piece mold. The three pieces produced the base and the two sides of the milk bottle’s body. Mold seams on milk bottles are found around the base of the bottle. Another mold seam on these types of milk bottles is found measuring from the top to the base of the bottle. These bottles date between 1880s and 1910s.

Once machines were used to blow milk bottles, the look of milk bottles changed. Early milk bottles were made using the Owens Automatic Bottle Machine which left a round scar on the bottom of the bottle. The Owens machine used suction to pull molten glass into a mold and the glass was then cut by a knife which left a scar mark. The Owen’s suction scar, as it was called, is a rough off center mark. This machine was widely used from circa 1905 to 1920. And, two digit numbers on the bottom of milk bottles from this era may represent the plant code or the year of production like 15 for 1915.

Another bottle machine used a plunger to remove the glass bottle from its mold leaving a different type of round scar, the size of a penny, on the milk bottle. These bottles were commonly used in the 1920s.

The shape of a milk bottle can tell you about the time period when the bottle was made. For instance, round bottomed bottles with tall sides were made prior to 1930 and most square bottomed bottles with short sides were made after 1940. Duraglas, introduced in 1940, was the trademark Owens-Illinois glass company used to describe their more durable and lighter weight glass milk bottles.

In the 1950s and 1960s, amber milk bottles were prevalent and they were used to keep out damaging sun rays and light.

Marking milk bottles

Milk bottleDairies often embossed their name, logo, or initials onto the base of their milk bottles. This made it easy to identify their bottles at stores and bottle exchanges. Since milk bottles were used over and over again, it was important for a dairy to get their milk bottles back after use. The more times a milk bottle was used, the more profit for the dairy.

The word “Store” was embossed on some bottles. If a dairy had home delivery routes as well as store sales, then they needed to distinguish which bottles were for home and which bottles were for store use. Stores usually charged a bottle deposit fee to encourage returns. This deposit fee would have been waived for home delivery customers.

In addition to milk bottle labeling, most states had laws that allowed dairies to register their milk bottles. A registered bottle meant that it was illegal for any firm other than the originating dairy to use that milk bottle. Re-use was only allowed by the original dairy.

Some milk bottles had etched labels with a frosted design handwritten or stamped into the glass bottle. Others had a raised embossed label featuring a dairy’s symbol, logo, or name dating it to the 1930s. There were dairies that made bottles with an all-over design and some that produced applied color labels in red, blue, or black with the dairy’s name or logo after 1933.

What to Look For

Machine bottle scars on the base of milk bottles, dairy names embossed on the base of milk bottles and milk bottles with war slogans or popular characters are very valuable.

Common fakes include colored labels that easily scratch off of the glass bottles or those bottles marked “Wheaton glass works.”

Some of the rarest milk bottles are early bottles with a domed glass lid and a metal bail. Some rare, early bottles were made of white milk glass or green milk glass, not slag glass. And, other rare bottles were those marked Thatcher brand milk bottles with an embossed label picturing a cow and farmer, and bottles featuring war slogans, popular period characters like Hopalong Cassidy or Walt Disney cartoon figures.

Dairy Antiques

Milk and cream cans are some of the most common dairy antiques. Dairy collectibles include not only milk bottles but milk cans, crates, and milk boxes among other items.

Until the adoption of farm bulk tanks and tanker trucks in the 1940s, milk was stored in cans. Milk cans came in 5, 8, and 10 gallon sizes. They had plug covers or umbrella style covers.

Leakage was costly so cans were durable. They had to stand up to the issues facing shipment by rail car. Early cans had riveted seams and handles. Welded milk cans were introduced later. Cream was concentrated so cream cans, unlike milk cans, were small. Cream cans came in 4, 8, 10, and 12 quart sizes. The lids were attached by a chain.

Values for milk bottles and other dairy collectibles vary widely. People pay high prices for that old milk bottle from their home town that stirs memories. Dairy collectibles are very expensive and popular on the market today.

Get an online appraisal of your milk bottle or diary antique and collectible from Dr. Lori.