Friday, December 28, 2007

Canada's Least Valuable Patent Medicine Bottle

Dr. S.N. Thomas Eclectric Oil
This bottle is worthless!

Experienced collectors recognize this bottle as Canada's most common antique patent medicine. It was mass produced.

There are millions of these empty vessels all over Canada and the United States. Consequently, I can assure you, this particular proprietary medicine bottle is absolutely worthless. Oh you don’t believe me? Here’s a recent listing on eBay. And here it is again on e-pier - proof positive that this piece isn’t worth postage.
And yet every time I hold this bottle in my hand I marvel at the heavily embossed slug plates, and the writing all over its surface. INTERNAL and EXTERNAL imagine that; this is snake oil you can swallow. It has a nice cork top and good thick glass - it survives where most other bottles perish because the glass is so thick, and the shape so durable, it takes a lot of concentrated energy to break this bottle.

What exactly is Eclectric Oil?
Dr. Thomas' Eclectric Oil was a common proprietary medicine in the late 1800's. The substance became a household name due to rise of print media and the mutually advantageous relationship between medicine and Farmer's almanacs. A trade card for Dr. Thomas' Eclectric Oil stated "it will positively cure toothaches in five minutes, earaches in two minutes and deafness in two days". It could also be used externally, it was certainly not natural skin care, but the ingredients were natural enough...

Originally formulated by Dr. S.N. Thomas of Phelps, New York in the late 1840s, Eclectric / Eclectic Oil contained "Spirits of Turpentine, Camphor, Oil of Tar, Red Thyme and Fish Oil specially processed." This from Joe Nickell, an expert that's published a lot of research on the subject of snake oil.

Dr. Thomas first introduced his homemade Eclectric Oil in the town of Phelps, in NY state in the early 1850’s. It was a smashing success and he grew his business on the product. The good doctor sold the name and formula to the Excelsior Botanical Company in the 1880s, and for a while the product appears in some Farmer’s Almanacs as Excelsior Eclectric Oil, but when Foster, Milburn & Co., Buffalo acquired the property a few years later, the substance was again marketed as Dr. S.N. Thomas' Eclectic Oil. And it was very successful, with a huge domestic and international market.

Northrop & Lyman was a very successful Canadian pharmaceutical firm established in 1854 in Newcastle, Ontario which moved to Toronto in the mid 1870's. They licensed the rights in Canada from the Foster, Milburn & Co., Buffalo, NY.

Northrop & Lyman of Toronto, Ontario sold literally millions of bottles of Eclectric Oil until the Proprietary or Patent Medicine Act was passed in Canada in 1908. But that law didn't stop the sale of Eclectric Oil as it did so many other patent medicines! This mixture was sold right up until the end of World War II in screw top bottles with paper labels.

Unlike the many million clear glass cork top bottles bottles, the Dr. Thomas Eclectric Oil trade cards are actually worth something – here is a trade card currently at auction and it will be interesting to see how much it fetches...
Last but not least there are many collectors and experts with amazing knowledge to share on the subject of Dr Thomas Eclectric Oil on this antique bottles forum.

And here's a comprehensive list of all the Farmer’s Almanacs in the National Library of Medicine.

Advertisements for Dr. Thomas Eclectric Oil can be found in virtually all family health periodicals of the late 1800s.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Antiques Collecting

Dumpdiggers are the most passionate antiques collectors.

Dumpdiggers are experts that research, locate and excavate the precious objects that would otherwise remain lost. This begins the 'life-cycle of patronage' that every found item endures as it appreciates in value on its path to the museum - which is every true historic artifact's ultimate accommodation.

It's common for prolific diggers to unload their relics in bulk at pawn shops, Saturday markets and bottle shows. Antique pickers scour junk shops and flea markets to bring these objects to more knowledgeable dealers. Upscale customers buy these objects in high end antiques stores to add to their collections at home - where do true antiquities go next?

Here's a fine assembly of ornate 'oiling' cans. When I peruse this collection I'm left thinking about the genius mechanics, or the eccentric inventor who tinkers over his contraptions. What will happen to these items when their collector leaves this world? Will they be sold off individually? Or will the entire hoard be donated to a museum for a tax receipt against the capital gains accrued by the inheritance (in some States). The latter scenario has become quite common in Canada, and there are many small museums that now have huge collections - sometime their historic inventory is three or four times larger than the building's capacity for display (and it makes me wonder if sometimes whole rooms full of historic items sometimes get lost out the back door?).

Passionate collectors can spend hours online following their hunger for history and researching their own pieces. Unfortunate most other antiques and collectibles blogs are huge photo collections with very little descriptive text. The shutter happy bloggers in this case don't spend any time describing the object's history, and if they write any text at all, its usually just to detail the condition of the item.

Dumpdiggers is always eager to add other like-minded sites to the blog roll, but very few domains exist that would benefit the Digger's Alliance. Just today however, I added Antiques Collecting to the list because I like the style and presentation of this blog's information. It could benefit from a few more pictures actually, but I like how it appears on the same template as Dumpdiggers and it shares a similar perspective on some subjects. Check it out!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Broke tokens from 1814, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Dumpdiggers with metal detectors sometimes find small coins in strange places. This copper token was unearthed behind a church in Uxbridge Ontario.

The artifact is identified as Broke, Halifax, Nova Scotia 'Halfpenny' 1814. Bust of Capt Broke /Britannia seated

Over 193 years old, this copper token precedes almost all other formal currencies in the Dominion of Canada. Indeed it was minted in response to a critical lack of species in the Atlantic region. It's interesting to note that this relic was not issued by a reigning monarch, or by the British Navy, but rather a consortium of enterprising merchants who hoped to increase commerce in the Port of Halifax. Dry goods importers, leather harness makers, clothiers and ironmongeries all had a vested interest in the local economy, and the largest of these enterprises may have combined forces to commission, distribute and honour the tokens.

When the HMS Shannon sailed into Halifax harbour on June 6th 1813 with the 38 gun warship USS Chesapeake in tow, it was a proud moment for every sailor in the British Navy. History records that this American prize was sold in Halifax in 1814 to agents of the Royal Navy, and Captain Broke and his crew received handsome bonuses.

Broke copper tokens appeared later that summer at the behest of unknown merchants. The designers chose to remember proud Captain Broke on the front of the token, and used Britannia to remind every colonist of the might of the British Empire. Minted in Nova Scotia in 1814, the token had little value by 1820, and was completely worthless by 1825.

Well not completely worthless... Why do you think this token was found in a church yard? The reverend Minister himself no doubt cleaned the collection plate of all such tokens and copper halfpennies as he walked from the back door of the church toward his manor house. Broke tokens were especially worthless in Upper Canada, miles from their point of origin - their only value was to make a loud splash in the pie dish as it passed the pew.

Sir Philip Bowes Vere Broke was born on the 9th of September, 1776 at Broke Hall, Nacton, near Ipswich, England. He enjoyed a privileged childhood as the eldest son of Philip Bowes Broke, a wealthy man from an old family with lots of good fertile land on the Suffolk coast below the River Orwell. Born in the starch of the Napoleonic age, and raised in what would soon be considered fine Victorian tradition, all sons of Phillip Bowes Broke were enrolled in military careers and groomed for greatness at an early age.

Our man Philip chose the navy, and was placed in the Royal Naval Academy in Portsmith Dockyard in 1788, at age twelve. In 1792 when Philip was sixteen, he ventured out aboard the HMS Southampton as a midshipman. This was the second ship with that name in the history of the British Navy; it seems this particular 32 gun frigate was launched in 1757 and would have been a slow leaky vessel in the year 1797 when Philip distinguished himself as a Third Lieutenant in the Battle of Cape St Vincent. The twenty two year old midshipman maintained order and ship’s discipline during the dogged actions of the day – and after superior officers boarded one French warship with a prize crew. Philip was commended for how efficiently he oversaw the repairs to the Southhampton, and how well he satisfied the many requirements of the ship’s surgeon.

Philip Bowes Vere Broke was promoted to Commander in 1799, and became a Captain in 1801; but he didn’t get his own ship until 1806 - that was the year Broke took command of the HMS Shannon, a 38 gun frigate.

Six years later, Captain Broke was stationed in Halifax when war erupted between England and the American States. Broke sailed south and blockaded Boston, wherein he could see the larger USS Chesapeake.

After issuing the captain of the American warship a formal challenge (which arrived too late), the two ships engaged in single combat. The result was spectacular - Captain Broke of the HMS Shannon captured the USS Chesapeake after less than twenty minutes of naval combat. The American frigate was struck by 362 shots, while the HMS Shannon received only 258 hits. Chesapeake suffered early in the exchange of broadsides, having its wheel shot away. Without any maneuverability the more powerful American warship was helpless to resist Captain Broke's final assault.

It was a brilliant action - single ship combats are the stuff of legends. Bad news for Captain Broke however, he was seriously injured in the battle. He received a nasty head wound while commanding the boarding party in a head on assault of the Chesapeake's forecastle- some folks say he was never the same after the engagement. His career was set however and he sailed to prominence as a rear admiral without ever setting foot on ship again.

WHAT'S IT WORTH? In today's relatively healthy collectible coin market, a Broke 1814 halfpenny in absolute mint condition might fetch $25 bucks.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Relics of the Fur Trade #2

This blog series imagines Chester Huff's crew of Dumpdiggers working in secrecy somewhere on the north shore of Lake of the Woods (near Bigsby's original Rat Portage).

If Dumpdiggers unearthed a forgotten fur trading post, what kind of relics could they expect to find?

The second artifact in this series was selected because of its value in today’s marketplace. If Dumpdiggers were lucky enough to find just one of these items, it would indeed confirm their location as a genuine Hudson’s Bay Company fur trading post (and should probably be reported to qualified archeologists as soon as possible, Chester).

The first Europeans to trade with Native Canadians must have realized immediately that their gold and silver coins were worthless to First Nations and Inuit people. The indigenous people wanted blankets, copper kettles, and exotic colored glass beads. Above all else they traded for metal goods such as knives and axes. Prior to European trade they had only sharpened stone and sea-shell blades - these utensils did not last as long and could not be easily sharpened.

Eventually the beaver pelt itself became currency, and the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) established a system that calculated how much one "made" beaver pelt was worth compared to other furs and goods so that HBC traders and aboriginal hunters and trappers would not try to get more than the standard allowed.

Relics of the Fur Trade #2

Extremely collectible, this token is part of the National Currency Collection, Bank of Canada.

Hudson’s Bay Company
‘One Made Beaver’ Trade Token

There are many different types of Hudson's Bay Company trade tokens, but the most coveted are the "East Main" brass tokens issued in 1857 under Chief Factor George Simpson McTavish for the East Main District (South and East of the Hudson’s Bay). This metal 1 Made Beaver token was widely circulated the 1860s and 1870s and would certainly have been used in and around Lake of the Woods.

In addition to providing more incentive to trappers to trade with HBC year after year, the distribution of uniform coinage with the company crest enhanced the Hudson's Bay Company's fiscal reputation. More importantly, the metal coinage provided HBC with a method of structuring trade at their posts; the ½ and 1/8 made beaver tokens streamlined the process by which fur traders could give accurate change to fur trappers.

The token is made of brass and stamped with the letters HB (Hudson’s Bay Company), EM (East Main District) and MB (Made Beaver) and the denomination. In fact, instead of MB the letters NB were stamped in this particular coin series due to a die-cutter’s error. This is another reason why this relic is prized above all others.

Before metal tokens came into use, locally produced tokens of ivory, stone, bone and wood were used at some Hudson's Bay Company posts. There is some dispute about when these brass token were first issued; the experts at the National Currency Collection believe this particular coin was struck in 1857.

I'm told however that Larry Gingras of the Royal Numismatic and Canadian Numismatic Research Societies,who published Medals, Tokens and Paper Money of the Hudson's Bay Company, in 1975, lists another date of origin for the brass HBC 'East Main' 1 Made Beaver token.

What's a relic like this worth today? Let’s have a look at a recent eBay auction of an HBC 1 Made Beaver coin. Don't feel like clicking away to eBay, well the auction closed at $600.00 US.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Relics of the Fur Trade #1

If Dumpdiggers unearthed a forgotten fur trading post from the mid 1700's, what kind of relics could they expect to find?

This is a good question that was put to me recently by a Kenora Ontario digger with a bad reputation.

Chester Huff claims to know a secret spot on the Lake of the Woods, some distance from the original 'Rat Portage' (referencing the 1821 sketch by James Bigsby), and boasts that he's now excavating the remains of the area's first fur trading post!

But Chester is a big talker (no offense Chester, you know you are) and I'm extra skeptical... yet even the possibility HOWEVER makes me contemplate this delicious subject in extra detail, and institute this blog's first serial post, RELICS OF THE FUR TRADE.

Hudson Bay Trade Axe

Trade axes are the most essential Fur Trade relic, and that's because the axe is such a versatile tool.

Native Americans used the artifact everyday for all manner of chopping tasks. And they had ceremonial applications, and could also be used as weapons. In the 1600s - 1750s these iron axes were imported from England and France by the boatload for trade in the colonies - later, cruder version were forged inside the blacksmiths shops associated with colonial forts and armouries. These relics are more primitive because they were hand forged; they were often made from a single piece of iron, heated and folded over a mandrel to make an opening for the handle, then forge welded together - this closure was sometimes referred to as a lap-weld.

Early "eyes" were round holes. Later the eyes became oval shaped, or tear-dropped and later still rectangular. Handles or helves were made by the natives, but there are first hand accounts of the Voyageurs or courier du bois relaxing against beached 42 foot Montrealers, whittling small hardwood limbs into handles by the campfire at night. Many axe heads bear their parent metalworkers marks - these are commonly referred to as "touch marks".

Touch marks are made by touching the axe head when it's red hot, and leaving a mark on the metal. Cast or factory made axe heads with makers' marks are often referred to as guild marks. The most commonly found style of axe heads known are the Biscay style, since they were manufactured in the Biscay region of France.

Many different sizes and shapes of trade axes were found in the underwater search conducted at Double Rapids on the French River out of Lake Nipissing in 1961, and are dated late 1600's to mid 1700's. One hundred and twenty some axe heads were found in crates in a sunken long boat by amateur divers. These finds were donated to the Royal Ontario Museum in August, 1964.

How much is a genuine 1700's trade ax worth these days? Well let’s investigate that... The very best way to track an authentic trade ax's value would be to find a genuine 1700's trace axe on eBay, and wait to see who pays what, (and where they live.) *Question for the comments: Would you sell a Hudson's Bay Trade Axe, found in Canada, across the border?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Wise Old Man

While excavating old dumps, Diggers will sometimes pray to God for luck.

Not all Dumpdiggers are Christians, but in my experience, veteran diggers all believe in some sort of supreme deity. Passionate historians recognize and honor divine mechanisms that help them make sense of the stories in which they traffic.

Dumpdiggers love contests and especially online web challenges. You will find an interactive photo challenge on and links to All Canada Contests in the friends and alliances section of that website. This is because that website is the best in Canada at collecting and connecting our people with contest opportunities.

In the United States, men and women with metal detectors on the forgotten battlefields of the American Civil War carefully follow the footsteps of men with rifles one hundred years ago. Adventurers with shovels and brooms sweep away a century old debris to discover the remains of the Gold Rush.
Privydiggers honeydip the latrines of their ancestors. Antiques & Collectibles bargain hunters are also historians and often quite religious.

As mentors go, this Dumpdigger holds in high regard the old man.

HOW TO FIND A LOST DIAMOND The old man once found a diamond that had slipped from an engagement ring and disappeared into the cracks of an old kitchen floor. He re purposed the bride's nylon stocking over the end of a vacuum hose nozzle and vacuumed the entire room. The diamond appeared in the lint trapped in the stocking.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Mystery of the Brass Pet Collar

The Relic:
This antique brass pet collar once identified John Clegg's property.

The Mystery: Who was John Clegg? When did he live in Toronto? What did he do for a living? and what happened to GENNIE?

Brief: Twenty years ago, while digging in the bottom of the Hotel Novotel construction site in Toronto, (on south side of Esplanade east of Yonge St) Timbits found a brass collar marked "GENNIE" /John Clegg, Owner / 79 Edward St. / Toronto.

Tim states that he found the object twenty feet down below the sidewalks in the mud at the bottom of the piers of the old 1890s Toronto waterfront. When I asked him the age of the piece, he only shrugged and remarked that it came out of the bottom of the site and therefore had to be over one hundred and twenty years old.

My Research: Inside the digitally archived pages of the 1893 Ontario Gazetteer, I found a grocer named Clegg with a partner named James Bamford that sold vegetables at 19 St Lawrence Street. Check the left margin twenty names down. This directory lists Clegg's business as 'produce', and so I assume that means he was a grocer who sold farm fresh vegetables to urban consumers.

This 1895 Map of Toronto shows Esplanade as a busy harbour through way, and perhaps the source of much of Clegg and Bamford's produce. In the 1890s, Toronto's City Hall was the present day St Lawrence Market and you can see on the map that it enjoyed prominence in Toronto's harbour.

My Hunch: The Clegg family gave their pets ostentatious collars to draw attention to their legitimate existence in the busy street, and narrow lane, in front of and behind their produce shop . I also believe that poor Gennie suffered a tragic death late one night on the waterfront. She must have. A collar like that wouldn't be discarded in the lake. If Gennie had died of natural causes, or even if she had died of foul play, and her body was recovered, the collar would have been buried with the body in a proper grave on land.

Your Input:
This case will be reviewed later and all reader's input will be tabulated in the next report. Hopefully we can together solve the mystery of John Clegg and his brass pet collar.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

A Robertson gingerbeer from Mount Forest

This is a close-up look at the 'branding' or 'the transfer' by which I mean the stenciled on impression on face of this 100 year old gingerbeer bottle that the Ace of Spades, Jason Hayder, found in the Meaford Dump.

Of the four examples of A Robertson gingerbeer bottle labels Tim provided in a later email, I like this transfer the best - the rabbit is the star of the label here, and it looks as though he can easily outwit the crossed rifles - indeed it looks as if this bottle represents the adventures of that rabbit escaping those crossed rifles...

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Dragoon of Cookstown

Earlier this fall, Dumpdiggers met knowledgeable historian Steve Graham, the proprietor of The Dragoon, a toy soldier shop at 8-02 Queen Street, the main street of Cookstown, Ontario.

The walls of Steve’s amazingly well organized military toy store are lined with autographed 8x11 photos of movie stars, underneath snapshots of these same famous actors as soldiers on period piece film sets where Steve worked as a historical consultant. Mr. Graham is a good talker and his best stories are peppered with anecdotes about British military history, and the realities of fighting and winning battles in the Age of Imperialism. He's a real treasure, and his passion is 100% genuine.

Steve Graham S.C.,C.D is a world class military toy soldier collector and dealer – his toy store in Cookstown is filled with thousands of little metal soldiers, all wearing the brightly coloured uniforms of the greatest nations in the greatest battles throughout history. He has models of historic British ships of the line, great American warplanes and famous German WWII tanks. One entire wall dedicated to all manner of military books and magazines. But best of all, Steve also collects and sells dug relics!

Steve has a large display case full of civil war bayonets, belt buckles and buttons that must have been sprung from some metal detectorists somewhere in his travels.

When asked to name his greatest prize, Steve turned and used a small key to unlock the top drawer of a desk at the back of his shop.

‘Do you know what this is?' he asked me, a sly smile growing under his mustache as he held out a horse’s hoof, complete with a metal shoe, and a brass plate nailed to the top on which there was a skull and crossbones inscription bearing the words ‘5th Dragoons'

What is it?

This is how a British mounted officer honoured and remember his dead horse. ‘His best friend no doubt’ said Steve as he pointed to a map of the eastern Mediterranean on which the great land and sea battles of the Crimean War were properly outlined.

The horse’s hoof is an equestrian military relic evidencing a code that once existed between a man and his horse - its testament to the close personal relationship between European cavalry officers and their mounts in the 1800s.

‘Was it customary for Dragoons to enshrine the hoofs of their animals killed in battle?’ I asked, and Steve shrugged ‘I don’t suppose it was customary mate, otherwise there’d be a whole lot more of them.’

What’s it worth?

When I asked Steve that unfortunate but essential question he said ‘Oh maybe a thousand dollars, but it’s not something I’d ever sell.' Steve's passion for history and military honour has affixed itself to this object; his honour keeps him bound to the relic as its sole preservationist.

The Charge of the Light Brigade - Steve Graham reckons its very possible the animal enshrined in this 153 year old British Military relic died in the disastrous cavalry charge led by Lord Cardigan during the Battle of Balaclava on 25 October 1854 in the Crimean War. It's best remembered as the subject of a famous poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose lines immortalize the action as a symbol of warfare at both its most courageous, and its most tragic.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Bottle Rush in Meaford - Part Three

On Sunday November 18th, Roberrific and Timbits shared a hole with the Ace of Spades in his secret spot in the swamp south of Meaford, Ontario. Together, the treasure hunting trio traveled back in time to the early nineteen hundreds when the town was young and important. Less than fifty years old in 1919, Meaford was already the second most valuable steamer port on Georgian Bay. It had hotels and liveries, and five huge lumber mills. The town's population in 1919 was already 3,100 people, and it’s not much bigger today.

Our gang worked tirelessly all morning and afternoon, digging through ten feet of dump that was approximately seven feet deep with a clay bottom. We hit the bottom early on, as is the practice of the Dumpdiggers to dig as deep as hole as possible, and then fork your way up in one direction. The cardinal rule is to pick one path and stick to it – never move the dump twice.

The bottom three feet of our seven foot hole was absolutely stuffed with as many as five different layers of dump. One particular strata of brown ash yielded the best and most expensive household relics. This is where a local embossed amber medicine was found.

Finding the distinctive brown ash on your shovel was cause for cheer – it came to signify the imminent discovery of a rich goody vein filled with all manner of assorted 1920’s hackers – and this is the layer in which we hoped to find a bumpy cobalt blue ‘Not To Be Taken’ coffin poison bottles, or perhaps a Shuttleworth poison? Or maybe even a skull and crossbones Iodine, or even an amber Hertz with a heart in the glass? No. Instead we found…

A POCKET FULL OF HACKERS suddenly appeared in the bottom third of the dump. Hackers? You know what I mean - there were lots of square amber whiskey flasks with amber glass stoppers, and clear glass or aqua columned medicines, always blank. There were a dozen cork top Listerine, Castoria, and Certo bottles, and two screw top cobalt blue Milk of Magnesia in the quart size, and at least seven green wine bottles, two champagne beer bottles, and a funky shaped green mineral water, all without embossing. Sealer jars – three of them, two Crown and one Gem which I kept.

Ace’s antique bottle mine has lots of rusty iron relics too, like saw blades, square rusty railroad spikes, spools, broken metal files, hinges and hooks. A sifter might have yielded many more interesting smaller prizes. But the ground was clumpy, and would have demanded a dedicated ‘sifter station’.

Timbits forked out a hand blown antique light bulb and checked it for Thomas Edison’s early brand signature which he says appears on the company’s early light bulbs. This bulb was as big as his hand, and black on the open end where the base had corroded away and discolored the glass.

LIKE BURROWING RODENTS we tunneled for treasure. Perhaps I should explain to anyone that’s never harvested a dump, or seen a documentary on television, or read a really good blog, just exactly how bottle diggers move through a site. There’s a method in their madness, and it’s their determination to get to the very bottom of the deposit as quickly as possible that helps preserve their prizes… let me explain.

Inside the digging process there are three sub-processes; 1 sinking the shaft, 2 forking the sides, 3 cleaning the hole. In this manner the Dumpdiggers are not really diggers at all – they are burrowers. The burrowing described above continues with bottles and relics being found in all stages, but the bulk of the booty is discovered inside the forking portion of the cycle.

Personally, I don’t like forking the hole. I don’t care for the shoulder strain of the exercise, nor do I like the responsibility of being the first to spot and successfully ‘fork out’ valuable glass bottles without breaking them.

After a while my mind aches from repeatedly puzzling over so many promising shards. The shoulders and spouts of so many worthless specimens demand dumpdiggers’ discipline and commitment; only after each piece has been removed and examined can the senior Dumpdigger dismiss it as junk.

As diggers exercise their bodies physically, they are also at the same time bending their eyes and ears and ‘listening with their shovels’ to find clues that could lead to collectibles. The best diggers don’t break anything.

Usually rather quiet and reserved when digging, Tim was suddenly vocal and cried out ‘Whoa!’ when he saw it – an orange glass marble rolled down across his shovel and disappeared back into the darkness. Tim scooped away the soil looking for the sphere. He knew if he didn’t secure it now, he might never see it again and it was two or three small scoops down and running fast when Tim trapped it on his shovel. But of course it too was an absolute hacker. Made around 1912, it was fashioned from clear glass and was in very rough shape – the surface looked corroded as if the glass itself has been eaten away by acid.

Tim held up the marble to look for its seams, which were hard to find. ‘To bad its junk’ he declared as he threw it up to me. The marble was indeed in terrible condition – it was so badly hacked up the seam was invisible. Was it damaged before or after it was discarded? Its very presence here made me wonder about its origins and method of manufacture? Was this marble a ‘Queenie’ or a ‘knuckler’ in some child’s game in Meaford 1919?

As Timbits and the Ace of Spades discussed their favourite species of collectible marbles, their conversation listed green and black clambroth, rainbow colored onion skin, ribbon core, swirl and divided swirl as being the most coveted glass pieces. Tim seeks suphides in which statues of elephants, horses and Trojan warriors sometimes appear, right inside the glass sphere. According to Tim, the oldest marbles ever found were round semi-precious stones that were buried with an Egyptian child at Nagada in approx 3000 BC.

Most of the marbles used by children in late medieval times were made of fired clay. By 1600AD some water-powered stone mills in Germany were producing small polished spheres made from the local marble and alabaster that was quarried nearby. The regions near Coburg and Oberstein gave birth to the word ‘marble’ which is derived from the German term "for the rock" and has come to mean any small, round sphere of rock.

Germany was the center of marble production for three centuries. In the 18th century their mills could grind agate, limestone, brass, and gemstone, at a rate of 800 marbles an hour. Glass marbles, the most common version of the object today, came into existence only recently in the history of the toy. It’s debatable whether they originated in Venice, where glassblowing was a well-developed industry, or in the mills of Germany.

Historians point to an 1846 invention known as a marbelschere (marble scissors) by a glass factory employee in Germany that evidences their skill in making glass objects. This tool resembles a pair of tongs with a small cup on one end, and a slicing device on the other. A molten glass rod would be forcefully inserted into the cup, and the worker would then twist the cup, which would help form the sphere of the marble.

Squeezing the tongs shut would slice off the rest of the glass. Such marbles can be identified by their pontil marks, the two tiny tags at each end of the sphere where the cooling glass was severed from the rest of the rod. The objects were further cooled inside a wooden barrel and then taken up with an iron spoon and inserted into an annealing oven, a process which yielded a tougher piece of glass not likely to break or become brittle.

North American glasshouses didn’t make marbles until much later in the 19th century, and there was no mass production of these objects until the 1920s. Marble production in North America started when Martin Frederick Christensen successfully patented a machine to manufacture near-perfect spheres of steel ball bearings. He set up a factory in his barn in Ohio and was producing 10,000 (steel?) marbles a day with 33 employees in 1910, but his company’s dependence on natural gas forced him out of business during WW I.

Akro Agate Company, founded in 1911 and originally based in Akron, Ohio, became the biggest marble manufacturer in America after the first world war. Once they had streamlined production and perfected their marble-making machinery in the 1920s, they dominated the American toy market right up until the popularity of marbles declined in the 1940s and 50’s.

The Meaford Stash – Pic of the Picks. It was getting on past three o’clock and I was admiring the way the light shone through our stash as I lined the bottles up atop our tallest dirt pile. It was a 'best of the hackers collection' featuring local milks, sodas, and a cobalt blue bromo bottle, two Brovils, a tall early WISERS whisky, a couple weird liniments, one from Montreal and one from from Kingston, an amber medicine, hmm what else was there? It doesn’t matter – it was all completely worthless.

Tim had just forked the hole and this time he looked different. He set his fork down and picked up his shovel and then he set that down too. He looked up at the stash of hackers I was photographing and stepped up out of the hole. Jason jumped in and started the cycle over again, but Tim was tired and every time he looked at my pile of worthless hackers he grew more tired - we still had a two hour drive home ahead of us.

And of course Jason didn’t want to stop digging yet. He shoveled more energetically as he watched Tim drink from his auxiliary water supply (Tim's first blimp was buried in a collapse two hours ago). Jay said things like ‘its going to get real old here soon’ and ‘you know I think we’re down to 1908 right here’ as he flushed out some ginger beer coloured pottery shards. Jason kept shoveling to preserve the excitement of the dig, and I joined in for a spell - but my muscles and my mind were aching, and I was ready to quit.

As if sensing the moment had come, Tim snatched up his water and the hand blown antique glass light bulb, and that antique glass marble. He put his keepsakes inside his duffel bag along with his dirty dump pants and was fixing to leave... I followed his cue and gathered my belongings. I was busy wrapping up six or eight hackers to keep as mementos, when I heard Jason cry out in the rapture of discovery…

‘I’ve got a gingerbeer’ the Ace of Spades cried out from the bottom of the hole. ‘Tim, Rob! Hold up there may be more!’

Tim looked at me and smiled. He was simply waiting for Jay to finish using his fork. I don’t think either Tim or I believed that Jason was about to find anything valuable. The fact that he chose to identify his quarry as a gingerbeer was itself rather optimistic, as only the very bottom of the pottery was visible.

Timbits and I watched in envious amazement however as Jason successfully removed a medium sized, A. ROBERTSON / Mt. Forest Ontario gingerbeer bottle in good condition. For once, Tim was impressed. ‘That’s a pretty good piece’ he was heard to remark. It must have broke his heart to realize he had quit the hole too soon, and now had no claim what-so-ever to this discovery.

ALEX ROBERTSON & CO was a soda water manufacturer in the once booming and now ghostly Mount Forest, Ontario which can still be found at the major intersection of Hwy 6 and Hwy 89 (Queen Street) in nearby the township of Wellington north, in Wellington county.

When pressed, Tim yielded more information on Alex Robertson – the company is listed in some early industry index he has as ALEX ROBERTSON - MANUFACTURER OF SODA WATER AERATED WATERS AND POP 1893-1919.

Tim sent me a photo of all four known Alex Robertson gingerbeers. Starting from left to right they are valued at approximately $900, $750, $500 and $150 respectively. Jason Hayder had found #3 in this series and his prize, slightly blemished, will probably fetch between three fifty to four hundred dollars on eBay.

‘Come on guys?’ Jason was giddy as he picked up his shovel and tried to rally us again for one last push into the breach… But Tim shook his head no and turned away. Then Jason stubbornly started shoveling again and refused to climb out of the hole; he urged us to stay and watch him complete one more cycle. But we were spent. Laughing at the cruelty of Meaford dump, and the insanity of Ace’s obsession, Tim and I walked away. My duffel bag tinkled with hackers as we tripped back to his truck.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Bottle Rush in Meaford - Part Two

Working a productive claim in a secret 'antique bottle mine' just outside of Meaford Ontario, Timbits and Roberrific spent an exciting morning, and an absolutely thrilling afternoon with the Ace of Spades, Jason Hayder.

If anyone else had ventured down into the swamps south of Meaford that day, like Jason Hayder did in May 2007 (or Llewellyn Moss in the movie No Country for Old Men), they would have seen a ring of diggers hiding in the rhubarb taking turns with a shovel in a fresh hole – our excavation quickly leveled the ridge, and then went down five feet through the ages into the industrial origins of this historic place. And all while Jason way saying things like ‘Here she comes. Look there, the bottles are running that way’ as if we were hunting live game.

Jason is a real discovery. When this lanky guy gets into the hole he attacks the dump like a school kid in a fight at recess in front of his friends; Jason Hayder transforms into the Ace of Spades and becomes a veritable shovel flurry, moving the earth in an almost steady stream. And it’s hard to turn the machine off… When Jay spots the neck of a jug, or the base of something that might provoke caution in a more sensible digger, he speeds up on a rush of adrenaline and digs faster, smelling an imminent discovery.

In the year 1837 the scattered inhabitants of St. Vincent Township petitioned the government of Upper Canada and requested that town site at the mouth of the Bighead River be reserved as a landing place for supplies and building materials. Accordingly, later that very year, a parcel of land was set aside, and therein a town was laid out in 1845 wherein two dozen lots were subsequently offered for sale.

By 1841, a sawmill and a grist-mill had been built on adjoining lands and new roads had been constructed to the landing spot; a post office called "St. Vincent" was established.

In 1865 this post office, and I suppose the entire surrounding village was re-named Meaford. It was right around this time that a young fellow named John Muir worked for the Trout family at their rake factory in nearby Trout Hollow. Between 1864 and 1866, John Muir, whose writings and philosophy strongly influenced the formation of the modern environmental movement, spent two years in Meaford Canada. John probably spent his time on a watermill powered wood lathe turning short slender hardwood rails into rake handles. He had a love of nature even then, as his writings evidence.

While digging I kept wondering, ‘is it possible we could find something here from John Muir? Could we perhaps be so fortunate as to find a well preserved iron rake? That would make a really spectacular story! By 1870 the town of Meaford had become a flourishing community; connected by steamer and road with the railhead at Collingwood, Meaford grew steadily and was incorporated as a town in 1874.

CLANG! Jason struck the base of a soda bottle, and his shovel sounded out another CLANG. I looked up from my camera and notes to catch Tim shaking his head in disapproval. He could see a pocket of 1920’s soda bottles on the edge of the excavation and I was surprised when Jason CLANGED the mass of glass again. This provoked a reaction from Tim, ‘Easy Ace. Slow down to half speed.’

‘Jason do you want the fork?” I reached for the implement, but Jay cried out, ‘Oh don’t give me a fork I’ll break ‘em for sure with a fork.’

Tim laughed ‘You need a rubber shovel. Then you can just beat them out of the ground.’

The pocket yielded two 1920’s coke bottles (junk, according to Timbits who seeks only pre 1919 coke bottles with a few notable exceptions – something about a Christmas edition?) and two bottles labeled Whistle that are slender in the center and reflect the passion and style of soda pop in the 1920s. The rest of the bottles were amber and embossed CERTO.

‘Arrgh. Certo bottles! Sometimes all I find are Certo bottles. I hate them.’ Jason spat as he stepped out of the hole.

I picked up a light brown amber bottle and studied its ugly screw top composition and surprisingly modern shape – it has a measuring index on the sides and the word CERTO in the glass. It was real ugly. ‘Tim what was Certo?’

‘It’s junk.’ He answers automatically, then details an encyclopedic knowledge of pioneer fruit preservers; ‘Pectin is a white to light brown powder that occurs in nature and Certo is a man made liquid form. It’s a water thickener. Pectin is in the orange peel, or the lemon peel that your sister squeezed in your eye... I'm sure it was first isolated by Henri Braconnot in 1825. It’s mainly used in food as a gelling agent in jams and jellies.’

‘Are you sure?’ Jason chuckled at his own joke and then scanned the dump as Tim moved more and more earth to get down into the exciting 'forking portion' of the dumpdigging discovery cycle again. The freshly liberated earth TINKLED with glass as Tim dug himself a perch from which he could comfortably fork the dump wall.

An unusually clear glass whiskey bottle was unearthed next, and I watched as Jay put it in with the stash despite Tim’s objections and subsequent de-valuation as 'junk'.

‘So what are you looking for Tim?’

‘Poisons.’ Tim reasoned, ‘Some good cobalt blue coffin poisons is about all we can expect to find in a dump this age. It just doest get any older than the nineteen twenties here.’ Tim was forking the dump wall and kneeling on the grey sand of the original landscape, approximately seven feet below the lay of the land.

‘Maybe if we trench down the hill?’ I suggested.

'Tim looked at the sand under his knees and the sand at the bottom of the stratigraphy of the dump wall... It was flat. The hill and gully visible today didn't exist in 1920. "No we should go this way towards the road. That’s our best angle’ Tim thought about it and then turned to work that dimension of the excavation. He looked at me and said ‘You can make yourself busy taking off the top,’ and he pointed with his hands to illustrate the path of the topsoil.

Around noon the sun came out and each of us shed a sweater. Jason ate a corn beef sandwiches for lunch and in between bites gave a lengthy dissertation on Canadian army food rations of the 1980s and 90s; he described the strangest concoctions that army soldiers would create from their box rations. I found the whole subject strangely unappetizing, and Tim kept digging – Tim never eats when he digs.

While Jason and I lunched, Tim found two hand-blown ‘bowling pin’ style milk bottles that were blanks (unembossed), and two machine made milk bottles with nice embossing, one was from Owen Sound Dairy and one Port Elgin Dairy which Tim thinks might be rare. We found some amber medicines from a nearby town druggist (unfortunately I’m forbidden to list the names on the slug plates at this time.) and so digging went on in cycles of excitement as we all took turns burrowing further into the knoll and deeper into the fabric of time… trying to go deeper … deeper in to the local pottery of the 1890s, and deeper still to the very dirty birth of Meaford in the 1860s.

When Confederation happened in 1867, Upper Canada was a dirty smoky 'progressive' place as thousands of Europe's immigrant settlers cleared land and established farming settlements. Fuel Ghoul describes Tiverton and the potash trade where it was said that pioneers never made as much money in their whole lives as farmers as they did clearing their hundred acre plots in the 1860’s and 1870s - the potash, soda and pearl ash trade was booming – Potassium carbonate, sodium phosphates, sodium carbonate were extracted from the ashes of hardwood trees that settlers burned in separate piles; the ashes were sifted and bagged or sold by the wagon load for immediate monetary reward. There was also a market for creosote and pine tar. It’s been said that when John Muir was a young man, he lived in the very center of this land-clearing activity. When placed in the historical context of a growing community, there is no doubt that John Muir must have witnessed clear cutting, forest fires, and poverty set against the serene world of Trout Hollow, the wild arbour vitae swamps where he found his beloved "Calypso", and the awaking of a spirit of true friendship in a community that encouraged inquiry and exploration. According to the Friends of John Muir in Canada, this experience was important to the evolution of John Muir's notions about Man, Nature and The Creator. The Canadian Friends of John Muir can be found here

This is John Muir on an American stamp, which is of course very collectible, and I believe this is properly identified as John Muir ‘USA, 32 cents, issued 9-Apr-1964’ but its very hard for me to validate that and I welcome feedback from philatelists on this tiny matter.

OK, so it was getting on past 2 pm and Tim was wrenching and prying on something down at the very bottom of the hole...

WHEN the ENTIRE NORTH WALL COLLAPSED but it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as that... The dump wall being so fragile and perforated with pottery shards and junk it had been crumbling and falling for some time, and as Tim wedged out a big metal pail with his shovel blade the wall collapsed. Poor Jason scrambled to get back in time and Tim lost his water bottle which was on top of the wall. Tim easily avoided the deadly weight of the collapsing wall by turning to one side and letting it pass - Jason’s retreat was more active. Before either Timbits or Jason Hayder could conceive any jocularity or amusement at the new development, their eagle eyes each spotted separate prizes in the newly exposed dump wall at the bottom of the hole. Tim found what turned out to be the bottom of a broken stoneware ginger beer, and Jason plucked out two amber Brovil bottles like berries on a bush….

Stay tuned for Bottle Rush in Meaford - Part Three where there’s a hole lot more digging and joking around and then suddenly it’s all worth something! Yes that's right there's a big twist at the end, but I won’t spoil it here.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Bottle Rush in Meaford - Part One

At six thirty am on Sunday November 18th 2007 the St Lawrence Market in downtown Toronto was bustling with activity. Over the antiques tables there was a buzz in the air; the pickers listened to the dealers describe the flood of stoneware coming out of the Bruce Peninsula… Somebody was digging. Gradually the story was distilled down to the very essence of the secret. ‘A bottle digger named Ace of Spades has found the oldest dump in Meaford.
The gossip spread among Toronto’s pottery pickers like fresh pine tar on new pants. It left people wondering… who the heck is the Ace of Spades? And where the heck is Meaford?
Well of course Timbitz, who knows everyone, knows Ace personally and he knows just where all the dumps are in just about all of the historic towns in Southern Ontario… On Sunday November eighteenth Timbitz and I visited one of the oldest ports in Upper Canada. I suppose it’s fair to say we were caught up in a bottle rush and I was proud to be November digger along for the thrill of the last autumn safari. I feel privileged to be able to offer up this story as Bottle Rush in Meaford Ontario, Part One. It’s a three part adventure series that begins with a broken shovel.
Our route tripped through the very heart of Grey County, which is apple orchard country and where up to twenty five percent of Ontario's apples are produced. November is past the peak of the harvest, but even still I could see tractors with wagons stacked high with crates full of red and yellow delicious apples, and the narrow gravel lots beside the highway markets bustled with Sunday shoppers.
In the town of Meaford, Tim stopped to buy a new shovel and I had some time to look around. On the corner of the hardware store I saw a signs for something called a Scarecrow Invasion, which is a weeklong event that precedes the Apple Craft Show and Quilt Auction in late September. I remember reading about that bizarre municipal marketing event in a Toronto Star article last year - those darn scarecrows were everywhere; on mailboxes, front porches, balconies and storefronts – the whole town went scarecrow crazy.
Before the village incorporated into the town of Meaford in 1874 it was called Peggy's Landing in honour of a particularly charismatic pioneer. I would be interested to know if Peggy was a man or a woman. I suspect she was a man.
Situated on Georgian Bay, Meaford’s harbour was the center of industry and commerce, with its earliest saw mills and later factories being built close to water transport - a one day’s wagon ride south to the area’s largest markets.
An active trade developed around Georgian Bay after 1850 with fishing settlements along the shore. By 1855 a small set of locks was constructed at Sault Ste. Marie opening Lake Superior to small craft. In addition to steamers, there were dozens of schooners and small sailboats on the lakes. There were four famous steam ships in Meaford’s golden age; the names Algoma, Clifton, Ploughboy, Kaloola sound off in many local stories.
BRIEFING: In the truck Tim spelled out the particulars of the scenario. We were on our way to meet this self professed ‘Ace of Spades’, who came to Tim’s attention earlier in the summer when he sold two big crocks on eBay. Since then Tim has watched him like a hawk and even swooped down on a few superb Ontario ginger beers. Ace of Spades has been selling stoneware from all across the top of southern Ontario and recently vended a rare Thompson gingerbeer from as far away as Kingston.
But who is the Ace of Spades? I ask, unable to take the suspense any longer….
The Ace of Spades is an ex Canadian infantry soldier named Jason Hayder; he’s a full time dumpdigger with two kids in a nearby small town. His wife teaches at a nearby beauty school. Like any lucky strike he wasn’t looking for it – he was just walking his dog along the wetland trails outside of Meaford when he spotted a cork top cobalt blue milk of magnesia bottle in the mud. That was six months ago. Jason started digging full time in the summer and struck a serious goody vein in August - he sold some spectacular stuff on eBay just last Saturday night.
Jason Hayder is a remarkable fellow and I liked him the first moment I laid eyes on him. He’s a digger with a heart of gold and his passion is as wide as his eyes and he digs too fast when he gets excited.
The three of us piled into Tim’s truck and the tour continued through the industrial backside of Meaford. We were off the beaten track
‘Okay park here’ Jason said. ‘Don’t worry. You won’t get a ticket here’. Tim looked at me and laughed. There was no doubt about that – we were in the middle of nowhere with no buildings in sight.
Each of us shouldering gym bags full of fresh clothing, lunch, and two large blimps full of water – and on top of that load we each carried at least one digging implement. With Jason in the lead we hiked for about a quarter mile through scrub brush and cow pasture on the edge of town to approach the site from the west, through one fence and over another older barricade.
In a jungle of wild rhubarb, not far from a babbling brook and within sight of Georgian Bay we came upon the secret spot that Jason Hayder had found six months earlier. His digging had now pockmarked the terrain with craters lined with broken glass bottles and pottery fragments. As we walked he remembered his pontiled prizes and pointed to the places where he had found them. ‘I forked out two blue Underwood inks there, and I got some milks and a nice amber pumpkinseed whiskey under that tree… etc’
‘Where do you reckon we should dig today Jason?’ Tim strolled about looking for angles into fresh dump and I marveled at the quality of some of the hackers lying forlorn on the sides of the dirt piles.
‘I’ve been working up this end’ Jason said as he disappeared behind a wall of wild rhubarb and only after I followed did I see the knoll that was to be the day’s dig zone. It was already partially excavated and Jason was quick to describe the fruit sealer jar inscribed The Rose that he had found in this very cavity.
Tim interrupted and took command of the situation when he stepped into the hole. He immediately began picking away at the top crust of the existing hole to widen the working area. After scraping off the grass and six inches of topsoil, and then smashing down the hard gravel strewn crust below that, the brown loam of the dump appeared on all of our shovels.
“Oh its close boys’ Jason said gleefully as he attacked the ground with his long handled shovel. ‘I sometimes find medicines and amber pill jars right below this black ash so keep an eye out.’
On November 18th 2007, while digging the oldest dump in Meaford Ontario with the Ace of Spades and Timbits, Roberrific found several 1920’s relics in the first ten minutes of the excavation, and some serious prizes four feet below, in the 1880's Meaford dump.