The modern glass bottle was created in 1630 – thanks to a Gloucestershire visionary. By Stephen Skelton
Bottles have been made ever since man first discovered how to create glass and blow it into different shapes.
Early glassmakers soon found that you could fashion glass into a container that held a liquid. That container could be seen through and could be fashioned so that the neck narrowed and the mouth of the bottle could be sealed with a plug of some sort: a bottle!
The beauty of glass is that it is made from simple, easily-found materials – sand, lime and ashes from certain plants – and with the use of a heat source such as dry timber. Glass can be shaped into useful objects, containers of one sort or another, that are completely watertight and can be seen through. Also, glass is inert and, because it has been heated to at least 1,000°C, is not affected by most corrosive liquids; more importantly, it doesn’t taint or affect the liquids it holds.
Early glass, which dates back to 4,000 BC, was seldom clear and was often coloured and formed into small, decorative beads used in jewellery.
Glassmakers realised that if a blob of glass was gathered onto the end of a hollow iron rod – called a pontil or punty iron (from which we get the term ‘punt’) – and blown into ‘holloware’, its uses multiplied.
Early bottles were mainly for holding precious oils, unguents, holy water and – surprisingly – urine. Early physicians set much store by the colour of urine. So ‘urinals’ – clear glass bottles into which the patient could urinate so the contents could be inspected – were one of the first practical and widespread uses for glass.
For those who wanted to move liquids from one place to another, the vessels of choice were, at first, amphorae or wooden barrels. Amphorae were in use for many centuries to transport liquids such as olive oil, fish sauce and especially wine.
They came in all shapes and sizes, often with pointed bases, which made standing them up in the sand easier. Also, they could be stacked up to five high in the hold of a ship.
Wooden barrels, which appear in Egyptian tomb paintings made over 5,000 years ago, were also used to transport and store a wide variety of products, both liquids and solids, but especially wine.
Until the end of the 16th century, wine was transported in barrels from the winemaker’s cellar and sold via a vintner to inns and taverns, where it would be drawn off into pottery jugs for pouring into customers’ tankards and mugs.
The houses and palaces of the wealthy could afford to employ a bouteiller (from which we get the word butler), in charge of running the household and bottling the wine. Bottles at this time were more like decanters – used for taking wine from a barrel and serving it at the table.
In the later-16th century, glassmaking started to change, thanks to the English navy. Many industrious Huguenots, escaping religious persecution, were leaving France and Holland and setting up home in the Weald of Kent and Sussex. Here they made traditional waldglas (forest glass); with its light green colour, it was suitable for rustic windows and glassware for the table.
However, with the demands for timber from both glassmakers and iron-smelters increasing, the Crown realised it had to legislate to protect precious timber needed for both ships and buildings. Between 1585 and 1615, acts were passed that at first tried to restrict the use of timber for smelting and heating furnaces and eventually banned it altogether.
This almost immediately led to the adoption of coal as the source of heat in furnaces for both glass and iron. Furnaces therefore moved from the middle of the forests to sites accessible from the sea to which colliers (ships) brought their fuel, or to places well served by rivers (and later canals).
This move meant that furnaces became bigger and better – brick-built with tall chimneys, providing much-needed draught to increase temperatures around the crucibles, and removing sulphurous coal fumes from the working area.
In short, glassmaking went from a semi-rural craft to a proper industry – the start of the Industrial Revolution.
For bottles, the change from wood to glass was hugely significant. With hotter furnaces, more consistent heat and better lehrs – the annealing ovens which temper glass as it cools down, the main method of making sure glass is strong and sound – glass bottles strong enough to be used for both transporting and storage of wine started to become a reality.
Admiral Sir Robert Mansell, the man who took charge of most of the glassmaking in England in 1615, and licensed others to run glassworks, was behind many of the developments in glass at this time.
At his glassworks, by the river at Newnham on Severn, Gloucesteshire, Sir Kenelm Digby (1603-65), a man with fingers in many pies, both intellectual and scientific, is said to have ‘invented’ the modern glass bottle in around 1630-32.
This claim was made before the Attorney-General in 1662 by four of Digby’s glassworkers, contesting the claim of another glassmaker attempting to secure a patent for bottle-making.
Digby’s bottles, the so-called ‘shaft and globe’ bottles, were dark green, almost black, with a deeply punted base, thick walls and a ‘string rim’ around the top which enabled a cork or other stopper to be securely tied down. These ‘modern’ bottles, made in hot, coal-fired furnaces and properly annealed to give them strength, were robust enough to take the pressure of a light secondary fermentation.
Not long after the Attorney-General had conducted his ‘long and serious consideration and examination’ into bottle-making, several very significant papers were read to the recently formed Royal Society.
Papers written by three different members all discussed the addition of sugar to bottled wine and cider to make it ‘brisk and sparkling’. This was the first mention of a way to make an alcoholic drink sparkling by adding sugar to the bottle – today called the ‘traditional method’ (or méthode champenoise).
This was several years before Dom Pérignon, often (falsely) credited with inventing sparkling wine, took up his post as cellérier at the Abbey of Hautvillers.
So Sir Kenelm Digby is today credited as the man who gave the world a proper sparkling-wine bottle. He is ‘the knight who invented champagne’.
Today, glass bottles are still by far the most common container for selling alcoholic drinks. While plastics, aluminium cans and bottles, bag-in-box, bag-without-box, lined paper cartons of various shapes and even ‘bottles’ made of cardboard (flat enough to fit through a letter box) can be found, glass accounts for 90 per cent of all wine and spirits sales. Its original virtues are powerful: glass is inert, doesn’t taint the contents, is sterile and needs only a quick rinse before being filled; and it can be fashioned into myriad shapes, colours, sizes and designs. It can also be recycled – although it isn’t as much as it could be.
Some products almost define themselves by the shape and design of the bottle. Think of Coca-Cola, Orangina, Glenfiddich, Mateus Rosé and Dom Pérignon champagne – all characterised by their bottle shape. Cheers!
Stephen Skelton is the author of The Knight Who Invented Champagne