Wisconsin antique bottle and advertising club

When You Least Expect It…… A Union Grove Flea Market Find

(A Recipe for a Home Brewed Beer) by Henry Hecker

About 20 years ago, I was lamenting the time I had spent driving to a small, start up flea market on the Union Grove fair grounds on a nice early Sunday morning. After skimming past rows and rows of tables covered with dumpster fodder, I was startled to find a dealer putting out beer flats filled with hundreds of small old bottles of every description. Inks, perfumes, medicines, doll nursers, you name it. My arrival to this table was perfect as the boxes were just coming out of the trunk. A guy was selling a long time accumulation of small bottles, none more than 4 inches high, that had caught someone’s fancy for eye appeal, interesting labelling, with a few modern bottles mixed in.  A nice little collection that took up little space and was easy on the budget.  “$3 a piece!,” said the dealer. At that exorbitant price, I would have to choose carefully, but since I seemed to have a monopoly as a customer, I could take my time in making my selections.

Soon I had a flint glass pontiled medicine with a bulbous dose section in the neck. Then a pontiled umbrella ink, an amethyst cologne with polished pontil, as I greedily filled one beer flat with my selections. Then! What is this?! Another guy starts horning in! He came out of nowhere and while I did not recognize him, he seemed to know what he was doing and less inhibited by the price. Using my old box out skills from years of intramural basketball, I was able to block him from three quarters of the table and eventually filled a couple of flats and asked for a bundle discount….which the dealer responded with a profanity that would today be more fitting at a Trump rally. So begrudgingly I paid his price and ran to the car with my finds clinking all the way.

So with that long winded background story, exceeded only in a Peter Maas presentation, my focus today is on one bottle from that cache that I retained as a go-with to my beer collection. I decided to do a little research on it. It is a pontiled aqua rectangular medicine type that is labelled only, “COMPOUND EXTRACT OF ROOTS FOR MAKING BEER, POTTER & CHAMPLIN, PRACTICAL CHEMISTS, WESTERLY R.I. It has a inner rolled lip and I surmised was 1850ish in age. As is typical of the time, the front la
bel includes slick marketing as to its properties and the price of 25 cents which was expensive for the time.
What is more fascinating however is the “Directions for Use” on the back, “To ten gallons of blood-warm (not hot) Water add one gallon of good Molasses, or ten pounds of sugar, the contents of one bottle of the Extract (well shaken) and one pint of good Baker’s Yeast or half a pint of Brewer’s Yeast, and stir together; let it stand in a warm place, undisturbed ten hours, or until fermentation commences, scum and bottle, or put into a tight cask, and it will be ready for use after standing ten or twelve hours. Smaller quantities can be made by using the above ingredients in proportion.” That has to be the fastest recipe for home brew known, but alas (!) the bottle retains none of its contents today.

A quick Google search did result in some hits on the Potter & Champlin concern in Westerly, R.I.:

1. Joseph H. Potter- Joseph H. Potter (1828-1909?) was born in 1823 in Westerly, RI. After participating in a number of trades, he entered the drug business in 1850. He bought half the interest of Henry W. Stillman’s business and by 1854 owned the entire business. He partnered with E.G. Champlin in 1855, and at the same time built his own drug store on Main St. He sold the remaining shares of his business to Mr. Champlin in 1864, but remained in the company. Potter formed a partnership with J. Denison Spicer, with which he opened a store in Mystic, CT under the name Potter & Spicer. He opened a new store in Stonington, CT shortly after partnering with B.F. Palmer. The company was now known as J.H. Potter & Co. Feeling too far-stretched, he sold his Mystic store in 1866 and the Stonington store in 1867. Potter & Co. were listed as beer manufacturers in 1875. He sold his drug and clothing business to H.L. Miner in 1883.  (Source: tmacsribottleinfo.blogspot.com/2014/08/medicine-companies-c-3.html)

I could not find any reference to this bottle and it is possible that my labelled bottle is the only one that has survived. However, Potter & Champlin also concocted ink as this little gem was found on another website:

This umbrella ink is also pontiled and was offered on eBay for $500 but did not sell.

So on any given day of hunting (and what keeps us hunting,) it is possible to find something unique that tells a story long forgotten. On that early morning in Union Grove, the find was a 165 year old bottle from Rhode Island that had contained a root flavoring to make beer. The roots had likely been collected and ground by Messr’s Potter & Champlin locally. The bottle had found its way to Wisconsin either in its day or much later as treasured bric a brac. How had the label survived? In an attic, trapped in a wall? We will never know for sure.

Author: Henry Hecker
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