Popular folk myth says that if you hold a seashell to your ear you can hear the ocean — when Mark Smith looks into a glass bottle or encounters an old piece of stoneware he sees history.
“You can tell a lot about the history of a community,” Smith, 58, says of bottles and stoneware as he walks around his huge collection housed in the basement of his Sayville home. “Every piece down here has a story.”
Smith plucks a soda bottle from a shelf as an example and holds it up. “This is from Thomas E. Hawkins & Sons in Bayport, from 1890,” he says. “If you were having a party and wanted soda, they’d bottle it up and bring it by horse and wagon to your house, then they’d pick up the bottles or you’d drop them off. For adult beverages, one of the hotels or saloons in town would bring you a case of beer.” Grabbing a liquor bottle, he adds, “This is from Macy’s, 1910 — before Prohibition. Macy’s and A & S (Abraham & Straus) used to sell liquor.”
Smith started collecting bottles at 12 while growing up in Sayville and has since amassed hundreds of bottles and pieces of stoneware from back in the day. He is one of about two dozen collectors expected to participate in the upcoming Long Island Antique Bottle Association Show and Sale scheduled to be held Jan. 26, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the Juliette Low Friendship Center in Bayport. Some items date as far back as the Civil War and prices will range from $1 to about $1,000. The suggested admission fee is $3, with children 16 and under free.
There are only about 20 active members in the Long Island Antique Bottle Association, which includes Smith, but they say they’re an enthusiastic bunch when it comes to spreading the word about how collectibles can provide breadcrumbs leading to history. Smith says that some of the deepest treasure troves can be found in the Long Island area, with some real gems being found in Manhattan and Brooklyn where there are neighborhoods filled with some of the oldest residential and commercial buildings in the country. Smith says there’s a lot to be unearthed on old properties where outhouses were used for trash when there was no garbage collection.
For example, "if there were a lot of medicine bottles [found near a home], someone was sick," he explains.
Some of the finds expected at the show and sale include medicine, milk and whiskey bottles used in Long Island homes, or by local farms and companies, and stoneware including jugs, water kegs, pitchers and cake savers. The stoneware pieces in Smith’s collection come mostly from Huntington. “There were multiple stoneware companies there over about 100 years starting from about 1804,” Smith says.
Howard Crawford, 53, president of the bottle association, plans to have pieces from his collection of beer, mineral water and soda bottles in the show and sale. The Manorville resident started collecting old bottles when he was 13.
“I grew up in Islip and there were so many woods [on Long Island] at the time so I’d wander into the woods and start digging, but I did most of my digging in different garbage dumps,” Crawford says.
Crawford says that at one point he had so many types of bottles that he had to narrow them down to just those used for beer, mineral and soda so that his collection would be more manageable. Some of the most notable pieces is a beverage bottle from a hotel in East Islip owned by Frank Markvart. “He was very involved in the local school district in the early 1900s and his hotel was on Main Street — Long Island at one time was inundated with hotels.” Crawford adds, “It’s entertaining to find this stuff. You find out so much by doing the research on these things — it’s like finding gold.”
WHAT: Long Island Antique Bottle Association Show and Sale
WHEN/WHERE: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Jan. 26, Juliette Low Friendship Center, 760 Lakeview Road, Bayport
INFO: $3 suggested admission donation; free for children 16 and under; 631-589-9027 or email email@example.com