top of page

Collecting: Message In A Bottle

EDITION 19 | AUTUMN 2022 | WORDS Jan Daffern | PHOTOS Duncan Brown

People collect all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons, and our latest collector is no exception. Like an archaeologist at a dig, Ian Hamilton has unearthed a fine array of bottles and jars from times past. Jan contacted him and found out all about it, and a bit of history as well.


It was a pleasure to meet Ian Hamilton, a member of local band DejaBlue, whose music often reflects and radiates the past. In perfect rhythm, Ian’s colourful collection of bottles and stoneware storage jars also reflect the past, creating attractive decorative displays around his home.

Unlike many collectors who buy or swap their collectibles, Ian has discovered almost all his collection while working in or around houses that were being demolished or repaired. Surprising bottle and jar discoveries can still be found in many parts of New Zealand, particularly around areas of early settlement from the mid- to latter parts of the 1800s.

Today, many of us recycle and reuse what we can or take advantage of rubbish and recycling centres. In the not too distant past, bottles and storage jars were either stored under houses and sheds for possible later use, or disposed of by being buried underground. For a dedicated bottle or jar collector these areas are like a goldmine when the earth opens up, revealing its hidden secrets.

During New Zealand’s early settlement, when there were few or no shops or stores, settlers would have brought with them as much as they could, including food, beverages and medications stored in jars and bottles – useful then and collectible now.

In addition to historical interest, it was initially the creative manufacturing skills and the interesting shapes of bottles and jars that attracted Ian’s attention.

Collectible glass bottles tended to be colour coded: dark ‘cobalt’ blue for medications, which also signified danger or poison; or brown; and a variety of other colours for general wares. Early settlers adopted the skills required to manufacture glass and stoneware storage jars for themselves, creating a multitude of unique New Zealand bottles and storage jars.

Although glass containers are taken for granted today, historically, the manufacture of glass bottles involved specific skills and knowledge. The process often involved creating separate glass pieces in wooden moulds, then skilfully joining the pieces together and, when necessary, embossing the manufacturer’s name onto the side. This skill and the sturdiness of these wares have stood the test of time and are a reason why they are admired and collected today.

By the end of the 1800s, innovation played a fundamental role in the early design and structure of glass bottles to contain, retain and market carbonated, or fizzy, drinks. Also known as ‘Codd-neck’ bottles, they are named after Hiram Codd, a British soft-drink maker. In 1872 he designed and patented a thick glass bottle able to withstand internal pressure which, when filled upside down, pushed a glass marble against a rubber washer in the neck, sealing in the contents. The bottle has a pinched top, which provides a chamber for the glass marble to be pushed into to open it, allowing the drink to be poured. Unfortunately, glass marbles were equally collectible for recreational games, and many bottles were destroyed in the process of obtaining the marble; hence the rarity of ‘Codd-neck’ bottles in original condition.

As seasoned wine drinkers are aware, cork has been used for centuries to retain goodness and flavour. Likewise, from around the 1850s, New Zealand bottle manufacturers deliberately designed cork-topped bottles to be torpedo-shaped. This meant they could only be stored on their side and not stand upright, enabling the cork to retain moisture.

Most collectors have a favourite historical era to collect. For Ian, the 1830s Coromandel Gold Rush is the most fascinating due to the wealth of collectibles that the gold prospectors left behind; some even left ornate salad oil bottles, signifying successful speculation.

Chinese gold prospectors brought stoneware containers for their whisky, ginger and soya bean oil and are the oldest objects in this collection. After a hard day in the gold fields, opium contained in tiny glass phials aided rest and recuperation, explaining how some early settlers and prospectors passed away their time, sometimes literally!

This collection came together for purely historical reasons, revealing the progressive changes to the design and structure of bottles and storage jars over a long period of time, making history come alive again. Content with his collection, Ian has said that he would not be tempted to obtain any more collectibles – but all collectors say that, don’t they?

bottom of page