Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Books and Bottles in Ballston Spa

Message in a Bottle or the Study of Something

Pairing books with places is like pairing cheese with wine: there are plenty of varieties of books and innumerable locations to find books. The difference is that not every wine goes well with every cheese. But pretty much any book can be found anywhere, and fit to a greater or lesser degree. Okay, admittedly, this is not the best analogy, but like the pairing of the sommelier or affineur, the task of finding the curiosities of our societies and locating the books in them can and will heighten the experience one has, and bring out a flavor in each particular object, just like the heightened flavor of a bodied wine with birch and blueberries or the textured smoothness of a camembert acting off that intrusive Shiraz. And so, yet another intriguing trip has brought me to the likes of this fine establishment: the National Bottle Museum.

I am one to think and believe that books are, effectively, everywhere. From libraries to dumpsters and every place in between. And so, when I come upon a place that is a designated library, museum, or all-out oddity, I am inclined to think that they must have a vested interest in the specialization of that place and, therefore books about that specialization. Now, the National Bottle Museum has been on my radar for some time, but I had never had the chance to actually go and check the place out. But this summer, I did, and I was pleasantly delighted in its exposition of the historical, the unique, the quaint, and the bizarre. It is, in fact, a great example of how the study of one subject or topic, like glass, can really tell a full bodied story of cultural and social history. I have yet to discover what the technical name of "the study of glass" is--glassology sounds too rudimentary, too...English; gualogy, potairology, ualogy, katoptology, and phakology, all made up words of my doing, come from one root or another from Greek words relating to glass; but my preferred is likely "vetriology," from the Italian word for glass. It just seems to flow quite nicely, and of course has that believability factor that you might want to pass off at the occasional cocktail or holiday party: "oh, yes, I study vetriology...have you heard of it?" Wink, wink.

Of course, though, I made the assumption that all bottles were glass, and made that lovely quantum leap! As you can see from these photos, clearly, that assumption just might be true. So, our search would then be for a study of "bottles" instead of "glass." And in that case, I would vote for returning to the Greeks and concocting (if it hasn't brewed in some ancient's or early modern's mind) the term "vialology," as in the study of vials or bottles. This mustn't be confused at all with "viatology," which is the study of roads. That's a nice word to know too. The study of "ologies" or "Ologyology" (another of my ludicrous neologisms) is less a study than a curiosity and odd interest that I have. It is rather exciting on a certain level to recognize that almost everything has a descriptive term attached to it, and by learning what the study of something is, it helps you to recognize not just an object's latinized roots, but how it relates to other objects in the cosmos. Vexillology anyone? (The study of flags).

Now take this display: artistically, it holds one place in our minds and in value; historically, yet another. And it is this historical aspect that grants the study of bottles in outhouses a very special place in historiographic narratives: so do not ever dismiss the next Vetriprivyologist that comes knocking at your door! In all seriousness, though, despite whatever these glass archeologists are called, they do play an important role in helping us understand our own cultural and social histories. At this point, I ought to recommend (indeed, highly) the main journal for glass studies, aptly called "Journal of Glass Studies," which is published by the Corning Museum of Glass annually. It is a serious and very detailed journal dealing with all (or at least most) aspects of "glassery," its history, sociology, and design, among other things. Here is a link to their website:


Surely, before I continue, I ought to send you the link to this interesting museum itself, in the event that any one of you out there is interested in visiting this illustrious place.


One of the most charming aspects of the Bottle Museum is that it is housed in an old storefront in a little town in upstate New York. It has the flavor of old industrial country, with a twist of 19th century apothecary and 1920s soda shop, all whipped into one. But the addition of such magnificent and quirky bottles, such as this collection of "George Washingtoniana," makes one gawk in surprise, delight, or amazement.

Other intrigues include these glassware objects, which I'm not quite sure qualify as "bottles," but are pieces of glass made for more decorative purposes. They look like pipes, but I don't believe that was their use (I don't think chemistry allows for pipes made of glass! But I could be wrong). In fact, I must admit, I don't recall what the well-informed and highly knowledgeable guide told me, as he was speaking much too fast for me to follow. But he knew his glass! Below are bottles in the shape of violins and other stringed instruments.

Now the books! The key pieces in this collection, which were on display were an old pharmaceutical ledger book and a medical text.

Above is a display of medical and other style bottles. And below is the very thing I came to find: the library! It continues to amaze me that there are such fabulous micro-libraries in these specialty museums. But perhaps it should rather fascinate me, since it is only sensible that there would be some sort of informational center or reference collection associated with one's passion, whether maritime or "bottlesque."

The two images below are displays on the historical aspects of "the bottle" in the United States, including not just the bottles themselves, but the tools that were used to make the bottles.

Returning to the micro-library, we find several magazines about bottles and glass, as well as the illustrious reference collection.

Now for those of you who suspect the bottle industry to have been a dull pursuit, something not worth your time to explore, read about, or even blink at, consider the oddities and curiosities of the 19th century, which populate this fine museum. There is some fugitive connection between bottles and the medical arts of that epoch: perhaps the symbol of the local apothecary or sorcerer of alchemical arts. Let's take this thanatological image of skulls and bottles, embodied in some page of an old book, settled neatly behind the ceramic bust of a phrenological sphere. It does not get any more folk-remedyish than this, and yet there are those who still ply its wares and fall into the extracts of garden variety herbals--maybe thinking that parsley can cure migraines ("rub here, left side, above ear...three times a day, when cloudy").

But, let us be clear: stay far away from anything that shares a resemblance with "Aunt Hannah's Liquid Death." You see, no matter how hard we try to establish some sense of composure and professionalism, no matter how hard we try to maintain a website that hopes to introduce readers to the wide world of bibliotourism and biblioflaneury, there is no doubt that we will come into the realm of not just the "curious," the "comical," and the "odd," but the all-out bizarre and heretical.

So here is to that poor, long-expired and withered soul, whose name was used to sell "Liquid Death." Even if it were for bugs, poor dear old Aunt Hannah's mellifluous liquid of doom (sold by most grocers and druggists!) is a gruesome sign of a past: one that doesn't seem to be found in either book or bottle today.