Gothic Pickle Bottle

Front and back of a cloudy, cracked, glass pickle bottle.
Cathedral bottle discovered by NPS archeologists (Fort Stanwix National Monument Museum Collection FOST 3011).

NPS Photo

A tale cloudy glass jar with embelishments etched on it.
The design on the molded cathedral bottle features arches that narrow toward the top and a small cross motif (Fort Stanwix National Monument Museum Collection FOST 3011).

NPS Photo

Whether they are cucumber pickles or other pickled vegetables, pickled foods have been popular for thousands of years. Some of the earliest evidence of the pickling of food was found by archeologists at a Mesopotamian site dating to around 2400 B.C. Furthermore, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt supposedly credited her health and beauty to her frequent consumption of pickles. America’s namesake, Amerigo Vespucci, gained the nickname “the Pickle-Dealer” during his time as a goods supplier for ships, prior to his career as an explorer.

At Fort Stanwix in the 18th century, pickles and other preserved food would have been vital in feeding the troops. Without modern refrigeration that we have today, food would either be eaten fresh or preserved by means of pickling, salting or drying in order to make it last. Late summer and fall vegetables were often preserved in bulb in order to last well into the winter.

Pictured here is a mid-19th century pickle bottle discovered during archeological excavations at the fort in the 1970s. Its side panels feature a gothic style “cathedral” design. Its top features a wide opening designed for retrieving its content with ease.

The mid to late 1800s saw booming new construction in a familiar style: high, arched windows, curvilinear details inspired by nature, religious symbols, and other motifs decorated everything from college campuses to wood frame homes (“Gothic Revival Style” 2015: 1). Cathedral spires soared over American cities as the antique forms, once thought too “papist” for Puritan America, now came to symbolize culture and heritage (Meyer 2013: 9). The Gothic Revival movement, as it became known, took off in the United States at a time when many Americans felt uneasy at the forward march of technological progress. In the face of modernization and mechanization, revival styles embraced nostalgia for “simpler” times. (Peck 2004: par. 1). In particular, the wealthy looked to design and style as a means of broadcasting their personal beliefs (Peck 2004: par. 2). Gothic Revival celebrated the architectural forms of Europe in the medieval period, while also glorifying individual claims to a supposedly distinguished European ancestry (Meyer 2013: 9).

Glassmakers developed Gothic bottles as a way of capitalizing on the stylistic craze and appealing to consumers. Gothic pickle bottles were one of the earliest distinctly American bottle designs (Lindsey 2017: 7). Bottles like these were sold as commercial food packaging from the mid 1840s through the early 20th century (Lindsey 2017: 24). Gothic bottles were popular during the Civil War era and beyond, and archaeologists have found them at many sites dating to that period, including shipwrecks and even sites associated with the famous Donner party in California (Dixon 2014: 119). The Fort Stanwix bottle, found in a 19th century privy during the excavation of the site, represents part of the history of Rome. St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, located in Rome adjacent to the Fort Stanwix National Monument property, was completed in 1897 in the Gothic Revival style, also known as Victorian Gothic (“History of Parishes” 2017: par. 2).

The decorative elements of this bottle identify it as an example of a cathedral or Gothic bottle. The embossed panels on each side mimic architectural features found in the homes, churches, and other buildings of the Gothic Revival style: triangular, peaked windows, a cross symbol, and ornate detailing. Though glassmakers at the time referred to this type of bottle as Gothic, we now also know it as a “cathedral” bottle, in reference to the many cathedrals that remain the most well-known examples of the Gothic Revival style (Lindsey 2017: 5).

The process of pickling to preserve foods in jars or bottles dates back thousands of years. It is one of various methods used to keep foods fresh without refrigeration. While many in the United States might first think of pickled cucumbers, a wide array of foods can be preserved using this method. Pickling immerses foods in a liquid: either a liquid sufficiently acidic to kill harmful bacteria, typically vinegar, or one chosen to encourage the growth of desirable bacteria, usually a salt brine (“What is Pickling” n.d.: pars. 3 &4). In the latter case, the desirable bacteria crowd out the harmful bacteria and prevent them from colonizing the food (“What is Pickling” n.d: par. 4).

This pickle bottle includes practical features designed to accommodate its intended purpose. The wide mouth leaves room for larger vegetables such as cucumbers. The glass material does not react to foods or impart any flavor or odor to its contents (Lindsey 2017: 23). Originally, this bottle would likely have included a cork stopper, perhaps sealed with wax and metal foil. One side of the bottle is un-decorated, leaving a large flat area that would have held a paper label advertising the bottle’s contents (Meyer 2012:7).
A close up of a cracked glass bottle with a chard missing.
The design on the molded cathedral bottle features arches that narrow toward the top and a small cross motif (Fort Stanwix National Monument Museum Collection FOST 3011).

NPS Photo

Works Cited:

Part of a series of articles titled Curious Collections of Fort Stanwix, The 19th & 20th Centuries.

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Fort Stanwix National Monument

Last updated: October 1, 2022