By Nicole Lind
Back in January 2016, when the winter tides were particularly high and rough, I went sea glassing at my favorite beach beyond the 13th century castle ruin in St. Andrews, Scotland, and I could not believe the number of black bottle stoppers I found. Six in one day! A new record for me…but where do they come from and what are they made of?
The black bottle stoppers are made from a material called Ebonite. It was invented by Charles Goodyear in 1844 and replaced widely-used wooden bottle stoppers, which tended to soak up liquids and caused many bottles to explode.
The process is referred to as vulcanization, and the material was previously known as Vulcanite for that reason. Made from a mixture of natural rubber, linseed oil, and sulfur, Ebonite was initially invented to look like ebony wood.
In the mid– and late-19th century, the hard substance called Ebonite was often used to imitate coral, tortoiseshell, and jet—especially the latter, as dark pieces became more popular. Other uses for Ebonite included bowling balls, fountain pens, decorative items, and mourning jewelry. Mourning jewelry came into fashion in the late 1880s after Queen Victoria’s husband Albert died, and Victoria went into mourning for the rest of her life. Mourning jewelry was quite expensive to make and the use of a relatively inexpensive material made it possible for a lot of people at the time to purchase a piece or two made out of Vulcanite or Ebonite.
Many different types of stoppers including glass, wood, and ceramic stoppers were used for bottles of soda, ginger beer, mineral water, and other liquids. Ebonite and Vulcanite are natural and food-safe, and stoppers could be produced in a mere couple of days. These stoppers could be embossed with company logos and shaped to fit any bottle, so they became a very popular way to seal bottles.
Many of the bottle stoppers I find on the beach are so worn that company logos are no longer visible, but I found one with all the details still intact and another still inside the neck of a bottle. Near the beach where I collect my stoppers, breweries were abundant until the 1920s so, chances are, I will find more of these beauties in the future.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine January/February 2019 issue.