A Rainbow of Bottle Colors

By Bill Lindsey

colorful old bottles

Although color is one of the more obvious and relatively easy-to-describe attributes of a historic bottle, it is unfortunately of limited utility in classifying a bottle as to age or type. Color is still an important descriptive element for the recordation and classification of bottles. Bottle colors also warrant coverage here simply because they are of fascinating interest to people.

Green Glass Bottles

There are probably more different shades of green to be found in bottles than any other color. The different greens were formed by a myriad of different coloring agents, impurities, and/or glass making processes. Iron, chromium, and copper all produce different green glass. Chromium oxide will produce yellowish green under oxidizing conditions and emerald green under reducing conditions in the glass furnace. Just as there were many ways to produce different green glasses, there are endless naming variations for the green colors, e.g., blue-green, clear green, peacock green, jade green, apple-green, emerald green, grass green, citron, etc. 

green antique bottles

Left to right: Early American flask with an eagle motif on one side and a Masonic emblem on the reverse, ca. 1815-1825. Congress & Empire Springs mineral water bottle, ca. 1880-1885. Medium density “7-up®” green Owens-Illinois Co. jar, 1940. Figured or pictorial Washington-Taylor quart flask, ca. 1850s to early 1860. Cottle, Post & Co. soda bottle, ca. 1878-1880.

Aqua (Aquamarine) Glass Bottles

Aqua glass is a “natural” result of the iron impurities found in most sands. It is very rare (maybe unknown) that sand does not contain some traces of iron. Just about any category of bottles could be produced from aqua glass although medicine and bitters bottles, soda/mineral water bottles, ink bottles, and fruit jars are among the most common. Aqua bottles became uncommon after the 1920s when colorless glass largely replaced aqua. One significant exception to this is soda bottles, e.g., the distinctive greenish aqua of Coca-Cola bottles known as “Coca-Cola green.” Another notable exception is that many fruit jars were also made well into the 1930s in aqua.

antique blue bottles

Above, left to right: Ball’s very popular Perfect Mason fruit jar. The “gothic” or “cathedral” style pickle bottle, ca. 1870-1880.

Colorless and White Glass Bottles

Colorless glass was a goal of glass manufacturers for centuries and was difficult to produce because it required the use of virtually impurity-free materials. Improved chemistry and glassmaking methods of the late 19th and early 20th century made colorless glass easier and cheaper to produce using various additives in the glass mixture. Common decolorizing agents were manganese dioxide, selenium dioxide, antimony, and arsenious oxide. Upon exposure to sunlight, manganese dioxide glass will turn a light pink or lavender to moderately dark amethyst or even a deep purple depending on the amount of manganese in the glass mix and amount of ultraviolet (UV) light. 

Opaque white glass—commonly called milk glass but sometimes called opal or white glass—was typically produced by the addition of tin or zinc oxide, fluorides (fluorspar), and phosphates. It was also created by adding calcium and phosphate rich animal horns, bones, and even “bat guano” to the glass batch. An interesting feature of most milk glass is that very thin milk glass (i.e., fragment edge) has an orange-ish opalescence when held up to bright light. 

clear milk and manganese lavender old bottles

Above, left to right: Colorless glass with a very faint tint of pink or “amethystine.” Johnson’s Chill and Fever Tonic, ca. 1900-1915. Owl Drug Company lotion bottle, ca. 1895-1910. 

Olive Green Glass Bottles

Usually the olive greens and the related green colors were unavoidable or “natural” colors induced in the glass batch by variable levels of iron oxide naturally found in the sand. Generally speaking, olive green and particularly olive amber are colors that  were much more commonly used in the 19th century. After 1900, olive amber is primarily found in wine/champagne and beer/ale bottles, particularly those made in Europe.

olive green historic bottle

Keene-Marlboro Street Glass Works sunburst flask, ca. 1822–1830.

“True” Blue Glass Bottles

These variably moderate to intense blue colors are usually produced with the addition of the strong coloring agent cobalt oxide to the glass batch. Copper could also produce types of blue glass depending on the batch ingredients and melting pot environment. The various blue color shades and densities give rise to a wide assortment of names, with cobalt blue and sapphire blue being the most common. Though not a common color when compared to aqua, amber, and the greens, cobalt and sapphire blue can be found to some degree in virtually any type of bottle from inks to figured flasks to beer bottles to even occasional food bottles.

True blue antique bottles

Above, left to right: Owl Drug Company bottle, ca. 1895–1915. Crystal Soda Water Co. bottle, ca. 1873–1886.

Amber Glass Bottles

Bottles in various shades of amber glass were very common during the late 18th through mid-20th centuries. Amber colors were produced from the natural impurities in glass (i.e., iron & manganese) as well as from color additives such as nickel, sulfur, black lead, and in particular carbon, which was added to the glass batch in the form of coal, charcoal, or even wood chips. Amber was and still is the most common color for beer bottles as it provides the best protection from light that causes beer to become “light struck,” giving the beer a distinctive “skunky” off-flavor. 

historical amber and brown bottle colors

Above, left to right: Reddish amber Wharton’s Whiskey bottle with an applied handle, ca. 1860. Light yellow amber Globe fruit jar, first patented in May of 1886 and manufactured into the early 1900s.

Purple/Amethyst/Red Glass Bottles

Purple, amethyst, and red are uncommon colors in bottles. This group of purple to reddish colors were usually a result of glass that was colorized with nickel or manganese oxides and sometimes selenium, with true red usually a result of the use of oxide of gold. There are numerous names for subtle differences in this color theme, including claret, burgundy, red wine, or puce. These true purple/reddish/amethyst colors in bottles are primarily found in the era between the 1840s and early 1880s; they are rarely noted in bottles that date before or after that date range.

purple amethyst historical antique bottle colors

Above, left to right: Mrs. S. A. Allen’s World’s Hair Restorer, ca. 1870s. Old Sachem Bitters and Wigwam Tonic, ca. 1860-1870. Ruby red Schlitz quart stubbie style beer bottle, 1949.

Black Glass Bottles

This strong and resilient glass color offered the most protection to the contents from the effects of direct light. Most black glass bottles are actually a very dark olive green or olive amber. These types of black glass were the result of high iron concentrations but also other substances including carbon, copper with iron, and magnesia. Occasionally, black glass can be very dark amber (“black amber”) or very dark reddish purple (“black amethyst”). Black glass is one of the oldest bottle colors going back to at least the early 17th century in Europe. American made, mouth-blown black glass bottles of any type were uncommon after about 1880. The majority of black glass bottles made during the 19th century were for liquor, wine, and ale for which protection from the light was considered important. This color is also found in pre-1870s ink bottles (ink bottles, ink wells, and bulk inks), mineral waters (particularly the “Saratoga” types), snuff bottles, and some earlier medicinals and rarely for food bottles.

antique black glass bottle

Dark forest green Dr. J. Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters, ca. late 1850s–mid-1860s.

For more information on dating a bottle, determining what it was likely used for, and learning about the fascinating world of historic American and Canadian bottles from the late 18th through mid-20th centuries, visit the Bureau of Land Management/Society for Historical Archaeology Historic Glass Bottle Identification & Information Website at sha.org/bottle

collection of antique american glass bottles

All antique bottle photos courtesy of Bill Lindsey.

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine July/August 2020 issue.


Read more about antique and vintage bottles and how you can identify your beach glass bottle shards:

Learn how to identify your antique glass bottles


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