An Introduction to Serving Bottles and Decanters
1730 - 1830
There’s nothing quite like antique glass. It combines craftsmanship, elegance and warmth. There is pleasure in decanting a bottle of wine into a decanter, which could be over two hundred years old and wondering who may have used it in the past. Not only do decanters have sculptural appeal they are also eminently useful. Add to this their sustainability and it’s easy to see why antique decanters are back in fashion.
The word decanter, from the verb to decant, originates from the early 17th century when it was defined as to "pour off gently the clear liquid from a solution by tipping the vessel," originally an alchemical term, from French décanter, perhaps from Medieval Latin decanthare "to pour from the edge of a vessel.
The history of decanters goes back to the late 17th century when their original purpose was to serve wine at the table having decanted from the bottle or barrel. Decanting the wine into the bottle made it easier to serve and separated the wine from the dregs.
These early decanters were often clear glass versions of the squat onion or shaft and globe bottles but with longer narrower necks and occasionally had a loop handle attached. However, late 17th century serving bottles are rare and few survive outside museums. fig 1 shows an English squat onion wine bottle C1700/10.
Fig 2. shows a plain shaft and globe serving bottle, which is slightly later and dates to around 1750. Note the high kick and pontil scar to the base of fig 3. The pontil scar is the rough surface on the base of a glass object where the pontil iron was attached, which was often pushed upward making a kick, in order to stop the scar from scratching a polished surface.
The style of these serving bottles evolved into the octagonal and various forms of cruciform bottles which were popular at the time.
Fig 4 shows an English octagonal bottle or straight sided mallet decanter which dates from around C1730. This is a large bottle with 6 sides and a long neck with a single string rim. Prior to the development of corking machines or fitted glass stoppers, early bottles had a string rim which is a trail of glass which forms a ring around the neck of a wine bottle or decanter to enable a muslin cloth or cork to be fastened by wire or string.
The bottle would have been made by blowing molten glass into an iron mould. Occasionally these bottles are found with an applied handle and pouring lip, however, they are rare and command a high premium if they appear on the market.
From around 1730 to 1750, a new shape of serving bottle made its appearance, the cruciform, named because of its cross sectional appearance which when viewed from underneath appears as a cross see fig 5.
There are many variations of this form, the earlier ones being the true cruciform, the slightly later versions are more box sectional straight sided bottles with vertical grooves and have a string rim made up of several trails of glass. Two examples are shown in fig. 6 & 7. Note both have single blade string rims and the cruciform in fig. 6 has several concentric rings to the top of the neck as does the shaft and globe serving bottle. The body of the bottle in fig 7 is slightly flattened thus less of a cruciform shape. However, it is a very appealing bottle with a single blade neck rim and probably dates from around 1740/50.
It is thought by some, that the cruciform cross sectional form evolved in order to provide a larger surface area thus rapidly increasing the cooling effect when placed in wine coolers.
It is important to note that these bottles were not stoppered. However, many plain ball stoppers, some with either one or more air tears, survive from the mid 18th century see fig 8. These have not been ground to fit (if they are ground, this would probably have been done at a later date) it is likely that they were used as an alternative to muslin or cork as loose fitting temporary stoppers. The string rim then becomes more of a decorative feature and provides a useful grip when holding the bottle.
It was not until the 1760’s, that stoppered bottles appeared which we now term as decanters. These decanters were not only used to serve wine or spirits but also for storage. The late eighteen and early 19th centuries saw a progression in styles of decanter from the shouldered decanter with spire stoppers around 1760, the mallet or sugar loaf decanter normally with a clipped disc stopper C1770 and taper decanters with a facet cut disc stopper C1780 - 1800. The early 19th century saw the introduction of the classic decanter with three neck rings (neck rings being trails of glass applied around the neck of the bottle in order to assist a firm grip) with either a bullseye or mushroom stopper which we are more familiar with today.
Fig 9 shows two English shouldered decanters with faceted spire stoppers and date from 1760. It was the custom at the time to engrave the name of the intended contents on a faux label on the the body of the decanter. Names commonly found are Claret, Lisbon, White Wine, Port and Madeira. Rarer examples include Beer, Mountain, Calcavella, Ale and Cyder (sic) to name a few. Rarer examples can be found with facet cutting all over. These early decanters are quite sought after by today’s collectors and also rare labels and fine facet cut examples command quite high prices.
Figure10 shows a mallet decanter with faceted cut disc stopper, the body with cut and engraved decoration which dates from around 1770. The facet cutting to the neck is a decorative feature, however, it also provides the user with a better grip, compared to the slender neck of the shouldered decanter. Coloured decanters are also found in this form usually in blue and green, however, green examples are quite rare. It is around this period that we see the introduction of a pouring lip which becomes more pronounced as we move into the early 19th century. By the end of the18th century, the decanter became lighter and more elegant with a cylindrical tapered body. These tapered decanters came in a variety of colours such as blue, green and amethyst, however, plain flint was the most common. Some are highly decorated with cutting and engraving whilst others are just plain simple bottles with little or no decoration. The shape of stoppers varies considerably. The most common are the faceted discs or lozenge stoppers. Note in fig 12, both decanters have cut decoration around the neck and engraving to the body. The decanter on the left has a more pronounced pouring rim.
Small coloured decanters were popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and vast numbers of these were produced. These small club shaped decanters are found mostly in blue glass see fig 13, although, green and amethyst examples can sometimes be found. They are usually decorated with gilded faux labels for Brandy, Hollands (Dutch gin) and Rum amongst others. They usually came in sets of three or four and stood in either leather covered metal or a papier-mache frame. They are not as popular with collectors due to their small size and also they don’t take a full bottle of wine. However, they are over 200 years old, pleasing to look at and would make a nice collection of various labels, colours and shapes. Furthermore, they can often be found reasonably priced.
Care of Decanters
The 1820’s and 1830’s saw the introduction of the classic shape decanter with three neck rings. They came in two main forms, firstly and slightly earlier is the plain bulbous bottle with three neck rings and fitted with a bullseye stopper. They are quite sought after today, as they show wine to good effect. Secondly, is the slightly later version of similar shape but cut with narrow basal flutes and wide shoulder flutes also with three neck rings and a fitted cut mushroom stopper. Coloured decanters of this form were made but in much less numbers, hence they are rarer and harder to find.
These are the two basic forms, however, there is a wide range of of similar shaped decanters with various numbers of neck rings and an endless variety of cut decoration. As the fashion for decanters is constantly changing, heavily cut examples can be purchased quite reasonably.
Staining in decanters is a problem. If the staining occurs from previously dried up contents, they can be cleaned with warm water and washing up liquid. It is alway wise to allow them to dry out thoroughly before replacing the stopper. I dry my decanters whilst they are still warm and use either kitchen paper or a cotton cloth worked inside with a thin bamboo stick. However, if the decanter has white cloudy deposits on the inside, it will have to be professionally cleaned.
Decanters are popular today, both as collectors’ items and usable objects. There is pleasure in decanting a bottle of wine into a decanter which could be over two hundred years old and wondering who may have used it in the past. Over the years all of these decanters have been copied and reproduced, not necessarily to deceive, but as the styles come in and out of fashion. Therefore, one should buy from a reputable dealer, who will discuss the item with you, answer any questions and give you a detailed receipt.