| Folk Art Home Page | S. D. Jones Home Page | Email me |

Mystery of Puzzle Bottles Goes Unsolved

by Barbara and Ken Beem
for Antique Week, Vol. 25, No. 48 (whole number 1249), Monday, March 1, 1993

Reprinted with permission of the authors and of ANTIQUE WEEK: this article originally appeared in AntiqueWeek newspaper on March 1, 1993, Vol. 25, No. 48 (whole number 1249). Any U.S. residents who would like to receive a complimentary copy of AntiqueWeek can e-mail their name and mailing address to: antiquewk@aol.com

The original article was accompanied by wonderful photographs and captions, but the publisher did not keep the pictures.

Some people put milk in a bottle. Some people put notes in a bottle. Some even put ships in a bottle. But there are those whose imaginations go even further.

These are the folk artists who put miniature furniture, puzzles, framed photographs and crucifixion scenes within glass walls. Welcome to the world of puzzle bottles.

To best appreciate puzzle bottles requires an understanding of wooden whimsies, in general. By definition, wooden whimsies are. small, hand-carved curiosities, sometimes whittled from a single block of wood. Often seen as balls in cages, wooden chains or wooden pliers, whimsies "evoke' the immediate reaction - how did they do that?

Puzzle bottles have the intrigue of wooden. whimsies, but. taken one step further: The whimsies are placed in bottles - bottles with small openings. Now the fascination is doubled: how did they carve that, and then how did they get it in a bottle?

As with many other pieces of folk art, the exact origin of puzzle bottles, as well as the people who made them, and when, is largely open to conjecture. These pieces appeal to a certain kind of collector; hunting down puzzle bottles and assembling a collection requires a certain temperament. This is not a field for seekers of instant gratification. It takes a good bit of diligence. It is becoming increasingly mean to the wallet. And it draws some quizzical stares and sometimes humorous remarks from shopkeepers and show exhibitors.

But collecting puzzle bottles is not without its rewards, maintains Mr. X [name withheld for privacy]. This man is one who has risen to the challenge, and has been rewarded some 50 times in the past five years in his quest to find something in a bottle, but not a ship. Mr. X is not new to the world of collecting. His past ventures have taken him from old valentines - his wife sold them all - to old toys, which proved too big and bulky to adequately display and enjoy. Then, one day, he visited a friend who was himself a puzzle bottle collector, and X was "hooked."

His first purchase was a straight-back chair in a bottle, which he picked up for $20. With each new "find," his fervor increased. Now, he plans vacations around likely spots for finding a new addition to his collection, and recently - and reluctantly - he turned down a puzzle bottle which a dealer offered to discount for the "bargain" price of $2,700.

That puzzle bottle was a particularly desirable one, X explains, for it included an actual Civil War-era playing card. It was this collectible card that inflated the price, an instance of a collectible appealing to collectors in several different fields. Generally, though, puzzle bottles can be found in the $100 to $250 range.

The contents of puzzle bottles - other than ships - can be broken into several categories. One type of puzzle bottle is a memorial; there are a number of ways to use a bottle to pay tribute to a lost loved one. There are bottles with photographs of the one so honored. One bottle in X's collection contains a photographic portrait encased by a heavy wooden frame. In another bottle, the picture is showcased by a scene constructed from bits of die cuts, or scraps of old German greeting cards, thread, and beads.

A more subtle version of a memorial puzzle bottle is that which contains an empty chair, such as the puzzle bottle that was X's first acquisition. Such a chair is often of a straight-back style, with women seat. Each chair fills the entire bottle. One of those in X's collection bears the inscription "In Memory of Jeff" and is dated Oct. 7, 1940.

Many of the bottles are religious in nature, and X's collection contains numerous crucifixion scenes. The cross in these is often decorated in a gaudy fashion: glitter is sometimes used to highlight the scene, and in one, carved figures on three crosses are seen covered in loincloths made of aluminum foil. The bottle crosses are generally surrounded by a number of symbolic carvings - that of a rooster, for instance. Other religious puzzle bottles contain dice in the foreground, while still others include skulls, ladders, spears, hammer, pliers, saws and lanterns.

Some puzzle bottles feature only carpenters' tools. Perhaps this is yet another form of a religious puzzle bottle, for Jesus was a carpenter by trade. This would explain the inclusion of the tools in the crucifixion scenes. Whether or not this symbolism was a deliberate statement of the folk artist is impossible to know for certain.

Man's vices are often depicted in the bottles. One previously cited example of this is the bottle that showcases the Civil War-era playing card. Another is a bottle with carved figures engaged in a card game, complete with small carved beer mugs. The details of these carvings are so intricate that they include the markings on the faces of the tiny cards themselves. Yet another bottle shows a carved and hinged devil, climbing a wooden ladder - trapped forever in a wine bottle.

Another category of bottles incorporates weaving implements. Yarn winders are recurrent figures, as are tassels of yarn hanging from wooden frames which fill the bottles. These are perhaps the most colorful of the puzzle bottles, as the bright threads of yarn interplay with the drab colors of the carved woods.

Finally, masonic orders and fraternal organizations are represented in puzzle bottles. The masonic compass, for instance, is seen within the confines of a puzzle bottle. Yet another design seen in puzzle bottles which seems to defy categorization is an intricate folding fan.

All of these designs show up in assorted shapes and sizes of bottles. Unlike contemporary ship-bottlers whose search for the perfect bottle is often as time-consuming as the carving itself, these earlier folk artists seemed to utilize whatever bottles were available. Consequently, elaborate wooden whimsies can find their way inside common wine bottles, medicine bottles, even salad dressing bottles. Bottles vary in size, from just over an inch high, to the more common size of 8 to 9 inches, to nearly 16 inches tall. The diameter of the opening of the bottle determines what can be slipped inside.

The way in which a bottle is sealed can vary, too. Some bottles are merely corked. Others employ a more elaborate carved plug which may be incorporated into the design of the whimsy itself. Those worked with the most careful craftsmanship have stoppers which are themselves carved in recognizable shapes. Among these shapes are balls, brooms and cones.

The type of wood used for the carvings varies according to what was available to the artisan. Although mahogany and rosewood are considered to be the most suitable for hand carving, folk artists were by no means limited to these more expensive woods. The author of a 1930 book on whittling suggested that old pieces of broken furniture be scrapped for hand carving: in X's collection is one bottle that is a miniature representation of an Eastlake-type washstand, complete with a towel on the towel rack. Perhaps old furniture deemed no longer useful was thus reduced in scale.

The unanswered questions of puzzle bottles are many. Even good sleuthing can lead to few answers. For instance, there is really no way to know when the practice of this hobby was begun. Some puzzles are dated. But a dated memorial bottle, for instance, could refer to either the date of the project, or a date related to the person honored. The bottles offer but one clue in the mystery of dating: The puzzle can be assumed to be no older than the bottle.

The identity of the artists themselves remains largely unknown. Aside from the examples which are signed and dated, there is really little way to know who did them. Puzzle bottles are thought to be the work of men and boys, not women. Some collectors have likened the handing-down of whittling skills from father to son to the handing-down of sewing techniques in their female counterparts.

Whoever whittled for a bottle certainly had enough time on his hands to pay such close attention to details. It has been suggested that sailors, tramps, prison inmates and patients in hospitals and institutions were among those filling bottles earlier in this century. But that is only conjecture.

For the collector, the condition of the puzzle bottle and the quality of the carving, as well as the intricacies of the puzzle, are all-important. Because the dating of puzzle bottles is so questionable, the age is not of great importance. Each puzzle bottle is unique - it is a piece of folk art - but certain puzzles are recurrent, and the similarities between the whimsies are sometimes so great that they appear to be the work of one man, or of a teacher and his student.

But puzzle bottles are unique, due to the fact that they are individually crafted, according to the whittler's skill and imagination. That's why it is difficult to pass up a puzzle bottle. And that is why pricing them is purely subjective. This is truly a field in which the price is reliant upon what the collector is willing to pay.

The other difficulty in collecting puzzle bottles is a problem of logistics. There is really no way that they can be safely shipped for sale. Even packing them for removal from a shop or show is potentially dangerous. Consequently, the purchase of a puzzle bottle is done on a one-by-one basis, and the new treasure must be carefully cradled until it arrives at its new home.

To display a puzzle bottle collection, X recommends a glass-covered case for protection from dust. The collection should be kept away from direct sunlight, which can dry and fade the wooden whimsies. Of course, they shouldn't get wet, because moisture inside the bottles could lead to irreparable damage.

So why collect puzzle bottles?

Practically speaking, they are displayable. They don't require a large space, and they can be set out and enjoyed. Because there are not a lot of collectors in this field, prices are not totally outrageous. Since there is not a glut of puzzle bottles on the market, they are challenging to collect. In the same light, there are few enough in existence that every outing does not require an expensive outlay: buying a puzzle bottle is not an everyday thing, even for the most avid hunter.

But there is something more to the "why" of collecting puzzle bottles. There is a romantic fascination that is associated with the bottles - the knowledge that puzzle bottles have no real purpose. They seem to have been created just for the fun of it. They evoke something of the person who fashioned them. And then there's the same old question: how did they do that? Did they saw off the bottom of the bottle and glue it back on? Did they blow the glass around it?

Note: for those readers who still believe in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy - stop reading here! But for those who wish to peek behind the wizard's curtain.....

The key to building in bottles in explained in a book entitled The Art of Whittling by Walter L. Faurot. Step one, according to the author, is to select a bottle of clear glass with a neck that is not too small. The subject to be placed in the bottle should fit the bottle's shape, and all component parts of the contents must fit into the bottle.

The artist begins his work by tracing the outline of a selected bottle upon a piece of paper. Then, an inner line is drawn, which allows for the thickness of the glass. A detailed sketch is then rendered of the desired subject. It is carved and temporarily assembled outside the bottle, once again making certain that each component of the design will slip through the opening of the bottle. Any painting that is to be done is completed before the puzzle is inserted into the bottle. Sometimes, depending on the puzzle, pieces are connected in such a manner that they fold up, only to be pulled into shape once inside the bottle.

At this point, the carving is dismantled, and then slipped into the bottle, piece by piece, beginning with the largest pieces first. Long strips of wire with hooked ends are used to prod the components into place. Items such as framed pictures are placed in bottles by first inserting the picture, rolled up, and then mounting it onto the sides of the frame once inside.

Similarly, the woven seats of the empty chairs are affixed onto the seat frame outside the bottle. The seat and side frames are then rolled up, slipped into the bottle, and then stretched open during the assembling of the remainder of the chair. As for the chair frame itself, glue is applied to the joints outside of the bottle, and then the pieces are stuck together shortly thereafter, once inside the bottle. Other puzzles and pieces of furniture are made in a similar fashion.

So, as it turns out, the big mystery - how did they do that? - is probably the easiest one to explain. Who did it, why, and when, are questions to which the answers are possibly lost forever. For people like Mr. X, it is these unanswerable questions that make puzzle bottles so appealing. No, these collectors are not trying to put time in a bottle (as shopkeepers musically suggest); they're just looking for things in bottles - but not ships.

For your information:

Due to the nature of these collectibles, the prices of puzzle bottles are purely subjective. Although aesthetic appeal is paramount in determining value, condition and intricacy are other important factors to be considered. Current prices range from $100 to $250 for typical pieces. Of course, there is the occasional bargain to be found.

The bottle should not be broken, and the whimsy inside should be structurally stable. It should be noted that close examination of a prospective purchse is necessary, but often a risky proposition in itself. X does not recommend speculating on a broken puzzle with the hope of finding a craftsman to make it whole.

Puzzle bottles can be found at flea markets and folk art shows. Contrary to expectations, there does not seem to be one part of the country more favorable than another for collecting them.

There is a temptation for puzzle bottle collectors to accumulate wooden whimsies in general. But X warns other collectors not to invest all of their money in a more common wooden whimsy when a rarer puzzle might be at the next booth.