About Pontiled Sodas
The term "sodas" in the antique bottle collecting hobby has come to represent a wide variety of carbonated beverage bottle types from the 1830's to the 1940's including many post civil war bottle types. These include the Hutchinson, gravitating stopper, crown top, applied color label or "ACL" and so on. These are all descriptive terms that help identify the form, style and period of manufacture of the bottle.
In an effort to narrow an extremely wide range of soda "types", I will focus here on American pre-civil war sodas, most of which are pontiled.
"A Soda" by any other name . . .
Even if we narrow our discussion to pre-civil war sodas, we still have many descriptive terms to illustrate the style and form of different types of carbonated beverage bottles. In the column at right are a few examples of the actual embossing on various specimens describing their contents.
As you can see, the catch all term "soda" has come to represent natural and artificially carbonated waters, as well as a variety of alcoholic beverages whose carbonation results from fermentation. In recent years, collectors have begun to differentiate between "soda" and "beer" forms, but there are many subtypes beyond these.
The early soda bottle was designed to preserve carbonation and withstand the scalding hot waters used to sanitize returned bottles in preparation for re-use. So as forms and styles evolved, the two common characteristics among them were heavier, thick-walled glass (to prevent breakage) and large, heavy tops to hold the cork in firmly with thick, bail-wire enclosures.
The development of these closures illustrates the evolution of the tapered, and then "blob" top. Many collectors and historians believe that strong twine was used to tie the cork prior to the acceptance of thick metal wire closures as a standard. This supports the idea that the blob top with it's rounded bottom was designed to accept the heavy bail wire which would scrape and wear the edges of the earlier tapered tops. As soda forms evolved, the blob top and heavier glass became more prominent, as the transition from open to iron pontil, and then to the "snap case" progressed.
The various styles and shapes of bottles allowed manufacturers to associate different bottles with different products, so that patrons could distinguish a merchants "soda" from his "porter" output, for example.
Thus, we have come to identify many forms, styles and descriptive terms among pre-civil war pontiled sodas. A general naming convention has developed over the years, represented partly by the list at right.
Empontiling . . .
The use of the pontil rod during the manufacturing process is characteristic of the pre-civil war era. Once the molten glass was gathered and formed by the blower, it was blown into a mold, removed, and then sheared from the blowpipe so that the top could be applied. The pontil rod was affixed to the base of the unfinished bottle in order to hold it steady during the shearing process and application of the top. After the top was applied the bottle would be "snapped" off the rod, leaving a distinctive mark, or "scar".
Pontil rods were either solid bare iron, or hollow (a blow pipe). The type of mark left depended upon which was used. It is generally considered that the use of a bare iron pontil rod was an improvement over the use of a spare blowpipe, since it would be more efficient to keep all hollow rods in use for blowing and use cheaper solid rods for pontiling. It is also obvious that the use of bare iron rods eliminated the extra step of dipping the rod in molten glass first, while still allowing a good grip on the unfinished bottle. When a blowpipe was used, it was first dipped in molten glass so that it would adhere to the base of the bottle. When the bottle was broken away from the rod, a circular glass ring or "open pontil" scar would be made. When a solid rod was first dipped in glass, it would leave a scar type pontil of jagged glass. When a heated bare iron rod was applied to the bottom, iron oxides fused into the hot glass, leaving what is often called an iron pontil mark.
So the evolution of pontiling in the soda industry began with the open pontil and scar pontil, and then the bare iron pontil. Each method was slightly more efficient than the prior. After the civil war, the advent of the snap case saw the relative extinction of pontiling in the bottle manufacturing industry. A snap case is a sort of cradle / tong apparatus that served the same function as a pontil rod, but with less stress to the glass upon removal. It may also have been easier to use. So the snap case, another improvement in the manufacturing process, left no mark on the base of the bottle. These bottles are aptly termed "smooth based".
Another device, known as a "clamp" had been used for many years prior to the advent of the snap case to produce smooth-based round bottom or "egg" shaped minerals in both Europe and the U.S. But it was thought to be a cumbersome device that slowed down production.
In the competitive and secretive world of the early glass manufacturing industry in America there were many generalities and no absolutes. It is generally thought that during the Reconstruction period following the devastation of the civil war most glasshouses quickly adopted the snap case method. Just the same, there are certainly smooth base examples that pre-date the war and pontiled examples that post date the Reconstruction.
Thus, understanding and recognizing pontiling methods and the resultant marks is important in determining the age and rarity of the bottle. The soda industry really began its rise to prominence in America in the mid to late 1830's as cities like New York and Philadelphia began to grow, gave rise to industry, and interstate commerce began to take place. Back then, America did not have the advanced sewage and sanitation methods that we take for granted today, so a person who was born in New York City and lived there most of his life could travel to Savannah, Georgia, drink the local tap water there, and stand a good chance of dying from dysentery. The soda water and mineral water industry proliferated as a result. These waters were relatively pure and free from the bacteria that city dwellers were accustomed to in their home town, but was deadly to visitors. This was a big selling feature that bottlers capitalized on. Naturally, the upper class favored such waters in their own locale for obvious reasons.
So the soda industry began its prominence at just about the close of the open pontil era. By the time that soda and mineral waters were seeing widespread demand and popularity, the bare iron pontil was in widespread use. In fact, as necessity is the mother of invention, I believe that the demand for the product may have inspired the development of the more efficient iron pontil method. The point here is that open or scar pontil sodas are very rare and valuable due to their limited production period of around 1837 to 1844. Sodas manufactured during this period were often thinner-walled than later examples and sometimes have a distinctive "short tapered top" as well. It was quickly learned that thicker glass was needed to prevent breakage, and heavier tops were needed to support closures that would preserve carbonation.
The big upsurge in soda production was 1845 to 1860--the iron pontil era, and the golden age of sodas. Though iron pontiled sodas are not as prized as their open pontiled predecessors, they certainly outrank their smooth based successors, which were mass produced by comparison through the use of even more efficient manufacturing methods--to keep up with the growing American population.