The West’s First and Only Commemorative Bitters Bottle
In the world of antique bottle collecting most advanced western bottle collectors will include the Chalmer’s Catawba Wine Bitters as being up there with the best of the best. For those lucky enough to have one, the owners are well versed at the incredible bottle they proudly display on their shelves. While there are many reasons for that, we can’t think of a more deserving bottle to be our featured bottle this time around. An amazing addition to any collection east or west, these highly embossed western bitters bring both an aesthetic brilliance as well as a historically significant bonus to any advanced bottle collection.
Most if not all of the western bottle collectors display on their shelves are bottles made to hold a product to be consumed and then reused. Not unlike today’s whiskey, ketchup or soda bottle, western bottles are a myriad of different colors and shapes but almost all were made to be used once and refilled. With eastern bottles being much older and with so many more brands, bottles were made for consumers but they also produced bottles sold as a container for the buyer to put whatever they wanted in them. Some of the historical flasks produced could be bought empty and filled with whatever the owner liked. While spirits were a popular choice, we’ve seen various syrups, medicinal products and so on these many years later. Also, some of the bottles made in the east were so darn beautiful it almost seemed a shame to throw them away. Can you imagine getting rid of a green Plantation Bitters or bright yellow Indian Queen? The E.G. Booz along with other products of the Whitney Glass Works were just too gorgeous to discard, so some were undoubtedly kept around and either reused or displayed at home. That must be why they turn up occasionally in basements and attics, finding a Sachem’s Bitters with original label is a rare occurrence but not unheard of.
The few figurals we have in the west are confined to bottles like the Lacour’s or Cassin’s Bitters, the Bryant’s Bitters (kinda) as it wasn’t made here and the Wormser barrel. We have some beautiful ornate bottles in the Wonser’s USA Indian Root Bitters, the elusive Circassian Tonic, the V. Squarza and Fish’s Infallible, the AT& Co. and a lady’s leg in the Mill’s Bitters, and many more. But we mostly made a lot of utilitarian amber and green squares and whiskeys along with a plethora of aqua glass in the west. The one thing western glass has that you don’t really find in the east is the color of our aqua glass. Because of the purity of the sand out here along with the methods of making the color aqua, collectors know that it can be as beautiful as any color out there. Western aqua can be a deep bluish almost cornflower blue or a deeper than usual green. Which of course brings us to one of the most desirable aqua and western bottles ever made, the Chalmer’s Cawtaba Wine Bitters.
This bottle is not to be mistaken with the Catawba Grape Root Bitters, another bitters pursued by bottle collectors with the Catawba name. Unlike the Catawba Grape Root, the Chalmer’s is a bottle made in the west and with quite a storied history, too. Shaped like a whiskey bottle, the Chalmer’s were made for a very short period of time, just a couple or so years from 1872 on with around 10-15 examples know today in varying condition. It is a mystery why the Spruance Stanley Company decided on this shape and maybe even more puzzling, why aqua? Collectors are often of the opinion that by using a more translucent glass the contents could be easily seen and some of the contents included crude bits of herbs and other visible ingredients. Depending on the contents, the glass color helped thwart the rays of the sun from affecting the product. Notice that root beer bottles are often deep amber or early on deep blue? Apparently the bitters the Spruance Stanley Company produced had none of that and along with a fancy label who was looking at the contents?
According to Betty Zumwalt, Martin Alhoff planted 20 acres of Catawba grape vines near Coloma in northern California beginning in the 1850’s. Robert Chalmer bought the vineyard in 1867 but interestingly, the J&J Spruance Company had started in 1862 and included John and James Spruance, and C.C. Chapman, with John working out of Folsom, Ca. (not far from Sutter’s Mill) and the other two partners wholesaling their products out of San Francisco. During that time it seems that Stanley and Horace Webster produced a number of different wholesale liquor products including a Catawba wine product in unembossed bottles, presumably bitters. In or around 1872 James Spruance had his eye on producing other products using the Cawtaba vines for grafting. His thirst for viticulture took him out of the company and into the fields where he endeavored to grow different grapes using the Catawba stock. He left the firm and Samuel Stanley joined the remaining partners, son after deciding it was time to produce an embossed bottle with the product that they had up to now sold in label only bottles. It would be interesting to know what type of bottle they used. Anyone have an unembossed labeled example? The truth is they probably used the least expensive bottle they could afford and they had a glass works not too far away to make them.
Chalmer’s Catawba Bitters Timeline;
-1850’s Martin Alhoff planted 20 acres of Catawba grape vines near Coloma.
-Late 1850’s Well-established liquor producer J.C. Horan Co. accepted Robert Chalmer’s proposal to make a bitters from the Catawba wine grapes. They produce it later using unembossed bottles.
-1862 The J. & J. Spruance Company was established.
-1867- Robert Chalmer buys the Coloma Vineyard from Alhoff and expands it greatly, producing more varieties and in larger quantities. J.&J. Spruance become the successors to J.C. Horan, wholesaling wines and liquors.
-1872-James Spruance leaves the company to expand grape growing and pursue his career in viticulture. Chalmer’s decides to expand and Samuel Stanley buys in and the remaining partners have an embossed bottle created for their bitters, Calmer’s Catawba Wine Bitters.
The Chalmer’s story is not unlike many of the stories you read when people are discussing producers of bitters in the west. It was hardly glamorous and for every Dr. Hostetter out there, there were most likely a hundred other failures as competition was fierce and to have an embossed bottle made was financially out of reach for most of the want-to-be liquor wholesalers. The Chalmer’s Cawtaba Wine Bitters wasn’t the only bitters made with Catawba grapes. A sturdy growing varietal, the Catawba grape seemed a good fit for the hot summers in the Northern California growing seasons. The Catawba grape is one of the earliest Native American grapes used in wine production, but can also be eaten or made into grape juice, jam, or jelly. It is thought that it originally came to American in 1823 and is still grown heartily today. No coincidence, the Catawba Grape Root Bitters made out of Cincinnati, OH is one of the original areas the Catawba grape was grown. By having a vineyard to grown their own grapes, Spruance Stanley had the upper hand on other companies vying for the rapidly growing bitters market. While they sold other products including a very popular whiskey with a horseshoe embossed on it during the 1880’s and 90’s, along with their exclusive brand called Kentucky Favorite in 1885. Producing their own main ingredient was a godsend if you were in the business of making bitters. It was inevitable then that the Spruance Stanley would become a very successful company even producing another very popular African Stomach Bitters of which they undoubtedly made a lot more money off of than the Chalmer’s.
The Chalmer’s bottle itself can rightfully be considered a commemorative bottle. It was made at San Francisco Glass Works at King Street near 4th very close to where the Giants play baseball today. The artist’s rendering of Sutter’s Old Mill which on a western bottle seems comparable to embossing the Last Supper on a wine bottle from the east with their superior glass blowing capabilities well in hand by now. When the bottle was first made it didn’t have the Sutter’s Old Mill wording embossed around the center picture and we only know that because one popped up a number of years back and was sold in an American Bottle Auction. Other than that example, there is only one other shard to our knowledge that proves that the long lost variant exists. Amazingly, that variant is so rare that even the one that sold was not known to be the ultra-rare variant until the auction house examined it. No one really knew it existed!
The Chalmer’s Bitters have the revealing curved “R’s,” or, every embossed letter R on the bottle has the end curving up in a very distinct and well-known style seen expressly on bottles made in San Francisco from around the early 70’s into the mid 80’s. The Chalmer’s is undoubtedly one of the earliest curved R bottles made, and it also has nine of them, certainly up there for most curved R’s on one bottle. We suspect they made it without the Sutter’s Old Mill embossing and the company quickly realized that more than one person was wondering what the picture depicted. On their stationary the trade mark picture of the mill reads “Old Sutter’s Mill.” In addition, it is known that another shard was found in amber. We can only imagine what interest an amber example would bring but suffice to say it would be quite a find. Of the *10-15 examples known, they come in various shades of aqua and are seen both very plain and highly whittled and crude. The irony in the aqua whiskey shape is that normally collectors expect a whiskey shape to be amber, there are very few exceptions. Besides the Gold Dust, Chevalier’s spiral neck and a few other true oddballs like the aqua Teakettle, this shape in aqua is extremely rare. It is also odd that of the two aqua whiskey shaped bottles (and this bitters) all say “Sole Proprietors,” instead of “Sole Agents.” as most of the amber examples do. It’s also been pointed out that this bottle was made 25 years after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Old Mill, if that isn’t a commemorative what is? We’ve included some pictures of the bottle and tried to really show the embossed mill. We see some clouds, trees, a mountainous background, a river and what looks like some vineyards. How remarkable is it that of all the bottles made in the west this may be the only bottle we are aware of that exhibits a story or event. It commemorates the discovery of gold in America and the incredible impact it had in the world both then and today. It is said that the gold rush was the greatest impact event in the history of the world. Through all the years and different items that depict this astonishing event, we can’t think of a better way to remember it than to have a bottle made in 1872 in San Francisco, California showing the mill where gold was first discovered and the surrounding land which yielded the grapes to create their product.
Not enough to go around, the Chalmer’s are reserved for those who either find them or fork out a lot of money to buy one. Values have fluctuated but the $20,000+ figure today is pretty standard on a good example. Collectors are looking for a nice shade of aqua, usually found in these historic bottles. Condition is key and some crudity, whittle and bubbles are an added bonus. They are known to have shipped the brand to Nevada and Utah and are found only rarely in Northern California. A beautiful example was found by a diver in the Sacramento River, another near Quincy, another in Oakland. There are three that were supposedly found in Manhattan, NY. The only known example without the Sutter’s Mill came from Montana. It’s a wonder this bottle was even ever made. It’s an oddball to be sure as most rare and desirable western bitter bottles are. Since the Spruance Stanley Company was in pretty good shape during the early 1870’s, you wonder if this bottle was especially made as a commemorative to remember the Sutter’s Mill and the incredible story behind it. It certainly was an expensive bottle to produce and with the few existing examples left it’s hard to believe the product was meant to be a money maker when they had the formula and money to produce an African Stomach Bitters (1875-1887) that probably garnered 1,000 times the financial gain of the Chalmer’s. The Spruance Stanley Company survived until the San Francisco earthquake which ended the business in 1906.
*With many thanks to Betty Zumwalt, John Thomas, Rick Simi, Dale Mlasko and all the other great collectors and lovers of western bottles.