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Granite City collector boasts 40 years of bottle-hunting finds

Granite City collector boasts 40 years of bottle-hunting finds


Once, bottles weren't just for storing liquids. They commemorated elections, the Union and our nation's first president.

Men concealed bottles of whiskey in outhouses to hide them from their wives, then tossed them in the hole when they were done. Women eased their "stomach problems" by drinking bottles of "medicinal" bitters, which were mostly alcohol.

James Steel knows plenty about bottles. The 71-year-old Granite City retiree started digging for old bottles in the early 1970s. He switched to getting them at shows, auctions and yard sales about 15 years ago after he had back and hip surgery.

"A great deal of our history was encapsulated in bottles," Steel said, as he looked through old flasks, bitters bottles, medicine bottles and poison bottles stored in his bedroom.

"Glass blowers used to be considered an extremely honored and professional craft," he said. 

Now he's decided it's time to put the hobby behind and sell part of his collection. His son and his daughter have no interest in the hobby, and he said he fears if they're responsible to sell the items, they may not get the full value for them.

He's gotten the word out at shows and places where bottle collectors gather. If possible, he'd like to sell his collection as a whole and not break it up.

He estimates he has about 2,000 bottles up for sale. Some are about 200 years old. He values those bottles at $40,000 to $50,000, but that's just an estimate. 

"There are bottles out there that go into the tens of thousands (in worth)," said Steel, who ran a McDonalds Restaurant in Pittsfield, Ill., before he retired.

Steel's father started his interest in bottles. In the early 1970s, Steel's father moved from Granite City to Utah. A rock collector, he would go into the desert to look for rocks and in one mining camp, found a treasure trove of bottles instead.

"He gave me a a box, and that started it all," Steel said. 

Soon, Steel was out digging at favorite sites where bottles were buried. For safety reasons, he always searched for bottles with a friend. That way, in case the hole caved in on him, the friend could dig him out. 

On Thanksgiving Day 1988, he missed Thanksgiving dinner after his digging partner called about a construction site where there might be a cache of bottles.

Another time, he parked his car next to a road and went off bottle hunting. A police officer drove by, looked at the empty car and suspected the worst. From the license plate number, the police officer tracked down Steel's phone number and called Steel's wife. 

Jessica Steel wasn't worried. "You'll probably find him with a shovel looking for bottles," she recalled telling the police officer.

The collection includes whiskey flasks, which bartenders filled over and over at taverns. Steel also has wide mouth pickle jars from the 1870s and 1880s.

He bought a medicine bottle at an auction for $10 and sold it to a Civil War historian in Virginia for $100. It sounds like a good deal, except the bottle was actually worth $400.

A number of the larger bottles Steel has contained crystal-clear spring water, at a premium in a time when clean water was hard to get. 

One group of bottles he won't sell consists of several hundred painted soda bottles he keeps in a garage. They're going to his granddaughter, Vanessa Ortmann, who is 22.

Actually, Steel would have one more bottle if it hadn't been for his granddaughter. When she was two, she broke one of his historical bottles which was valued at $400. Being a good granddad, he just sighed. 

"I started saving bottles for her so she could could break her own," he said.

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