Bottles in the shape of animals, objects, and people have been popular glass vessels since ancient times. One of the earliest known figural vessels was created in the shape of a fish, dating to the 18th Dynasty in Egypt about 1352 to 1336 BC. The multicolored fish, probably used to hold scented oil, was fabricated before the invention of the blowpipe in the core-formed method of wrapping threads of glass around a clay body. Other fashionable sculptural containers, made in the same manner and dating from the same time period, were produced in the shape of an architectural column and used by Egyptians for eye paint. During the Roman Empire, after the invention of the blowpipe, bird-shaped flasks used for cosmetics or perfumes were blown in Northern Italy about 50-100 AD. With the advent of mold-blowing about 25-50 AD, small flasks were blown in the shape of shells, grapes and dates.
Figural bottles retained their popularity in the centuries that followed and were one of the earliest forms of American-made glassware.
Whimsical animal bottles, blown by glassmakers on their own time, were probably the first figural bottles created in America. Dog-shaped bottles, called “schnappshunde,” were favorites of German glassblowers in the 17th and 18th centuries. The German immigrant glassblowers who worked at the first successful glass factory in America, the Wistarburgh Glass Works of Alloway, New Jersey, between 1739 and 1780, have been credited with making dog-shaped bottles. In later years, glassblowers at other early American glass factories fashioned whimsical bottles in figural shapes, such as bellows and birds, that were reminiscent of Germanic-style sugar bowl cover finials.
The first commercial figural bottles sold in the United States were probably small twisted smelling or pungent bottles. Today, collectors call these tiny vessels “seahorse bottles” due to their shape. In 1826, the New England Glass Company of Cambridge, Massachusetts, advertised “Dolphin pungents” at $1.20 a dozen. These bottles were small so that they could easily fit into a fashionable lady’s purse.
With improvements in mold technology, glassblowers in the 1820s were able to produce small thin-walled decorative cologne bottles. The Kensington Glass Works, operated by the famous Dr. Thomas W. Dyott of Philadelphia, was selling small figural cologne bottles as early as 1831. In his 1835 advertisement, Dyott listed fancy colognes in the shape of cathedrals, barrels, acorns and more. The Williamstown Glass Works, of Williamstown, New Jersey, listed fancy colognes in 1853, which included basket-shaped bottles.
Probably one of the most famous figural bottles is the amber “E.G. Booz Old Cabin Whiskey” bottle in the shape of a cabin. The bottle was made by the Whitney Glass Works of Glassboro, New Jersey, between 1860 and 1870. The Whitney firm produced some of the finest figural bottles ever manufactured during the 1860s through the 1880s. The majority of Whitney figural bottles were blown in a rich deep amber color. Four of the figural molds utilized at Whitney have survived and are in the collection of The Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Mass production of figural bottles took place during the mid-19th century through the early 20th century. The majority of these bottles were made for liquor products, including the alcohol-based medicinal bitters. These alcohol containers ranged in size from large decanters to small pocket-sized flasks. Milk glass, a popular color at the time, was utilized to make some of the most sophisticated designs.
Many liquor figurals were promotional give-aways by companies for their best customers on holidays or other occasions.
The shape or design of a figural usually related to an individual product or the name of a company. For instance, Carlton H. Lee of Boston, Massachusetts, in 1894, patented the design for a skull-shaped bottle in which to sell poison. A flask in the shape of an eye was designed to market the product “Eye Opener.” The James Robertson firm, known as “The Paint Makers,” had a paintbrush-shaped bottle made to sell liquid filler. A souvenir bottle in the shape of a frying pan was sold at the Pan-American Exposition.
Metal closures and attachments were frequently employed to enhance the overall design. Full-size metal sculptures, such as the Statue of Liberty and Christopher Columbus complemented their architecturally detailed milk glass bases.
Metal was also utilized as the framework to support a small bottle, at the same time being part of the finished design. Two popular examples of the style, the Street Lamp and the Man on a Tricycle, were marketed by the Herman Tappan Perfume Company of New York in 1892.
Figural perfume bottles became fashionable during the late 19th century. The containers were relatively small but came in all shapes and colors. Many were painted or were decorated with paper labels. The most elegant were sold with their own ornamental boxes. An excellent example was the superbly molded violin which came in its own velvet case.
Cartoon characters, political figures and well-known individuals were also made into figural vessels. These character bottles have become some of the most collectible of all figurals.
Sculptural bottles continued to maintain their popularity. Unique whimsey figural bottles were made by glassblowers on their own time by blowing an unusual color into an original mold. This technique is illustrated by an opal pig with colorful spatters created in a pig-shaped mold for “Old Kentucky Whiskey”. The original bottle was produced in amber glass.
With the automation of the glass industry in the early 20th century, the shape of bottles became standardized and the number of figural bottles dwindled. Perfume bottles continued to be made in recognizable shapes. During the 1960s, the Avon Company sold its perfume and cologne in figural bottles and decanters. The variety of Avon bottles seemed endless. Instead of metal attachments, the perfume firm incorporated plastic parts to complete the sculpture. The bottles became popular collectibles with collector groups across the country but were discontinued during the 1980s.
One of the few contemporary food storage containers in figural form is the Mrs. Butterworth’s Syrup bottle. It has become familiar through commercial animation. Today, perfume manufacturers create unique figural packaging for their scents, continuing the tradition established by the first American glass companies almost two hundred years ago. Contemporary glass artists also have discovered the visual appeal of figural shapes and frequently incorporate them into their designs.