By Mary Louise “Wiesy” Lauffer
Black glass case gin bottle bottom markings
European exploration. Colonization. Maritime trade. Pirates. Hurricanes. It is no surprise that the West Indies is a treasure trove for black glass!
When handblown onion bottle shards turn up, they could be from early Spanish exploration in the 1500s or British or Dutch ventures in the 1600s. The Spanish and French were also active in the area in the 1650s on, seizing islands, and the Danes soon entered the picture, establishing sugar plantations. 1700-1800 was a boom time for sugar cane production and, unfortunately, slave trading.
1799 Map of West Indies and Caribbean Sea
In the 1800s, the British had very active maritime trade, and Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, and Port Royal, Jamaica, became major shipping centers, distribution and trans-shipment points for the entire West Indies. It is no wonder that you can find black glass shards with bottom markings or embossing from Scotland, Spain, England, Germany, Holland, Denmark, and even America. Each island’s history of colonization would result in different sources of the bottle shards found.
Black glass sea bottles and shards
If you are lucky, you can find black glass shards from each era, from the earliest exploration up to 1900. You can date and find the source of many of your shards by pontil marks, bottom markings, lips, and embossing. My favorite source is the Historic Glass Bottle Identification and Information Website (sha.com). While the focus is on American made bottles, there is comprehensive information helping to date shards and bottles, on bases, pontil scar types, body and seams, finishes, and closures.
The dense color in most European black bottles, usually dark olive, but also amber, navy, teal, and amethyst (when held to light), is a result of the proportion of iron oxide used. The early onion bottles were difficult to ship, and the irregular shape was replaced by more uniform, packable ones. These new bottles were not only stronger for trans-Atlantic shipping, but the darker color was an asset to keep light from spoiling contents. The bottles shipped to the West Indies could contain ale, bitters, grog, wine, beer, and cider. Trade exports to Europe and America included cane sugar products, such as rum and molasses, cotton, and hardwoods. This healthy shipping trade is why there is such a bounty of black glass in the area.
Left to right: Iridescent black glass shards, embossing examples on the bottoms of 1800s bottles, black glass sheared, rolled, and applied bottle lips from the author’s collection
I have to thank my husband for getting me interested in black glass. For 20 years, I only collected blue sea glass, blue and white pottery, and blue and aqua bottles. Black glass seemed dull to me. When we married in 1986, his extensive black glass sea bottle collection inspired me to research their history. Ever since, I have been hooked on black glass. How many “black rocks” did I pass over, for years! I love to think of the history of each piece I find, wondering if a buccaneer tossed a grog bottle overboard, or a ship’s contents were lost in a hurricane. I especially enjoy matching whole bottles to bottoms or lips.
Some of my favorite shards are those which have become iridescent, due to contact with minerals in the soil, as well as the strong tropic sun. The colorization is quite amazing in the light, and some pieces have actually turned entirely golden. Other favorite collections are kick-ups, intact tops, bottoms, and embossed shards. I do use black glass in my jewelry making, stained glass, history boxes, and crafts, I have incorporated lots in walls and walkways, and I enjoy sharing my finds.
Illustration from A Boy’s Adventure in the West Indies, 1888
Where should you look for black glass in the West Indies? There are many old forts on Hispaniola (the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and Puerto Rico, and old plantation and settlement sites on all the larger islands. Find out where these ruins are, and look on the shoreline below. Protected lee-side harbors would be where captains would choose to anchor. Due to prevailing trade winds, these anchorages are generally on the southwestern coasts. For the same reason that these protected anchorages would have been popular during early exploration, colonization and trade, cruise ship docks and marinas have been built there.
Unfortunately for sea glassers, docks, bulkheads, roadways and commercial buildings set on filled land, have replaced most of the original harbor beaches. Tourism has replaced maritime trade. Luckily, much of my collecting predated this construction. I lament the loss of wonderful marine artifacts and sea glass, forever covered in concrete!
Black bottles from the 1800s
Remember, on some islands, like the British Virgin Islands, you may not take sea glass. Find out the regulations. In the US Virgin Islands you may not take anything from a park, and no organic matter at all. You might argue that shards are trash, but customs officials will disagree, considering them to be historic artifacts. Be respectful of the culture. Do not dig on beaches. You would not want your beach disturbed.
The natural beauty is what draws tourists and locals alike to the beaches. Also, since sea glass has become popular worldwide, many locals are collecting it to sell. You could be seen as unwanted competition. Be sensitive. Sandy beaches are also nesting sites for many types of sea turtles, so be wary of disturbing them. Enjoy your search, and soak in the beautiful warmth that the West Indian culture and climate offers.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2019 issue.