It’s the little things

By Jane Eastman

colorful antique poison and medicine bottles

It always surprises me how small bottles can survive for decades, even centuries, in these fast flowing streams. Treasure hunting can feel more like a rescue mission, a battle against the current to save antique glass from imminent disaster! However, it is perhaps the diminutive dimensions that help smaller finds to survive against the odds, when the larger bottles meet their demise as tumbled shards of glass strewn across the riverbed.

vintage miniature bottles found in english stream

Here, tiny phials, inks, and perfumes can shelter in a nook under a fallen tree, under a large stone, or in a patch of soft silt where they languish quietly over time. They’re easy to miss too, even in the crystal clear waters of the chalk streams—finds are easily lost in the reflections and blur of moving water. The glass-bottom bucket is the key accessory, and if you don’t have that window, you might just miss them.

antique bottles found in river in england

So why are there so many tiny bottles?

Tiny means portable, and there were plenty of bottled products that you needed to have with you, on the go, back in the 19th and early 20th century. If you wanted to write a letter or postcard while traveling, you would need ink, as well as a pen. If you wanted to glue your postage stamp to an envelope, you’d need your little bottle of mucilage gum too. Then there were free sample bottles, some conveniently picnic-sized for everyday consumables, such as table sauces, marmalades, and bouillon.

tiny antique bottles found on beach in england

I always like to imagine waterside picnics when I find a small antique meat paste jar or salad cream bottle near a beautiful spot. I also imagine that all those vintage spirit flasks found under road bridges were tossed in by “bright young things” whizzing past in their sports cars during the now bygone era of “one for the road.” 

miniature sample size jars of marmalade from english stream

Other small finds include specialist bottles, like the tiny jewel hued poisons, whose color and form advertise to the unwary their once lethal contents (e.g., arsenic) purchased and stored, by the drop. 

Lubricants, such as clock or sewing machine oils ensured smooth running of the new domestic machines of the industrial age. These were expensive products, often found in tiny embossed phials, you would only need a drop or two to do the job.

Then there are the small perfume bottles, a fascinating category in miniatures, perhaps with the widest collecting area of them all.

antique english ink bottlesInks

Quills reigned for a thousand years as the vehicle of choice for putting pen to parchment, and then later, to paper. It was only around the 1820s that the quill was bettered by the metal nibbed pen, and this still required constant dipping, as well as a regular supply of ink.

It was not until the end of the 19th century that fountain pens were reliable enough to go into mass production. Whatever your pen of choice, you still had to fill them and this required a constant supply of ink, wherever you needed to write. It was not until after the Second World War that the biro (ballpoint) pen, famously patented by Hungarian, Laszlo Biro, ended the problem of having to manage and fill one’s own pen with ink! 

Some of the tiniest squat little bottles were for ink, housed within travel sets made for the purpose of writing on the go. 

small clear antique perfume bottles from english stream


Exotic perfumes have been captured in tiny vessels since ancient times. More recently (from the early 1700s) the “vinaigrette” and perfume “etuis” are considered to be the modern ancestors of portable fragrance in miniature form. 

elaborate decorative carved perfume sample bottles

A vinaigrette held a concentrated perfume diluted in vinegar and was designed to be used to mask odor and ward off germs. These little glass bottles were worn on a chatelaine, along with other necessary items, attached to the lady’s belt. The etui was a little bottle of high quality scent held within a beautifully ornate case. These delightful objects and the exotic scents contained within them were luxury items, very much the preserve of the affluent, but through the Victorian era and into the 20th century this changed, as perfume became mass produced and eventually accessible to all. By the 1930s, the purse-sized scent bottle had become a mainstay of the “clutch” bag, it was unthinkable to leave home without a small bottle of one’s favorite scent. Today there is a seemingly endless array of delightful small bottles to collect!

mini food bottles from english stream

Miniature food bottles

Product samples have long been used as a way of marketing and popularizing a brand. Many of the household products of our recent ancestors came in small sample sizes, to “try before you buy.”

miniature english meat paste sample bottlesThe famous beef extract companies such as Oxo, Bovril, and Borthwick’s Bouillon all produced tiny jars of their product, encouraging consumers to taste test in the hope of winning brand loyalty in an increasingly competitive market.

The famous table sauces, coffee essences, and pepper sauces all came in miniature and smaller sizes. It was customary for brands to offer an entire suite of product sizes to cater for every household and budget. For example, Bovril could be purchased in five sizes, from 1 to 16 ounces, and the tiny half-ounce size was a free sample.

tiny bottles and phials found in english river


 A tiny glass test tube with delicate pouring lip is perhaps my most surprising survivor in adversity, the wafer-thin glass rolled out of a 1930s bottle dump in perfect condition.

miniature antique glass bottle collection

Mini Miscellanea

There are many small bottles where we can only really guess at what they might once have contained. From the late-19th century, “burst-lip” bottles were the cheapest of all bottles to produce. They were handmade in a simple two-part mold, blown with little care for quality control, and simply burst off of the blow pipe. The bottles were filled with the liquid or oil, then the jagged glass lip was simply corked, and sealed with wax, for sale. These plain but beautifully bubbly and flawed aqua glass bottles may have held specialist oils, sauces, medicines, or any liquid supplied in small quantities; but without an embossing or label, the original contents remain a mystery!

Learn more about bottles

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Learn more about identifying bottles by shape and color, the history of bottle manufacturing, stoppers, marbles, and more. Articles ›

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine July/August 2022 issue.

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