Messages from the bottles

Today’s blog is the last in our series on the St Asaph Street aerated water factory site (the first and second blogs in the series are available here and here). It comes as no surprise that we found a large amount of bottle glass at our aerated water factory site, along with plenty of other artefacts of course. In total we recovered 3653 fragments (NISP), which represented a minimum of 1206 artefacts (MNI/MNE), half of which were glass. Clara waded through this large assemblage and worked her usual magic to make some very cool interpretations. In this blog we will look at our commercial features and focus on what we can interpret from all that bottle glass. But first, let’s start off by looking at some attractive archaeology from the site.

Some good-looking rubbish pits!

Look at those layers! Anyone else craving tiramisu?

Soggy but still good.

A very cute pit with some complete black beer bottles at the base.

This pit had a curvaceous base. A good reminder that pits come in all shapes and sizes.

Look at all that bottle glass!

Two of our pits, which contained artefacts that were clearly connected with the commercial activities of the aerated water factory, contained artefacts that were manufactured in the 1860s or earlier, indicating these pits related to the earliest phase of the aerated water factory. Three pits were identified as relating to the operation of the soda water factory from the 1870s up to 1884, meaning they related to the operations of J. Milsom, R. and J. Milsom, J. Milsom and Co., and H. J. Milsom. Surprisingly, none of the pits related to the later phase of the aerated water factory when it was under the operation of Henry Mace. Much to my disappointment, we didn’t find even one bottle with Mace’s iconic dog head logo!

All of the aerated water bottles found in our commercial pits were broken. Based on the overall ratio of finishes to bases, it appears that bottles were thrown away already broken, rather than being complete but getting broken as they were thrown away. This isn’t particularly surprising as it would be poor management by the Milsoms if complete bottles, which could be cleaned, refilled, and sold again, were instead thrown out, especially when the only replacements had to be ordered and shipped from England.

Just a few of the many many broken torpedo bottle tops found at the site.

Torpedo bottles were the most common bottle that we found. Given that two of our pits dated to the 1860s, and the other three to the 1870s to early 1880s, this was expected, as the torpedo bottle was the main soda water bottle that was in use during that time. Lamont and Langely bottles, which are bottle styles that were patented in the latter half of the 1870s, appear in our later pits, indicating that the Milsom factory was keeping up to date with developments in the English bottle industry and was ordering in new bottle styles when they became available.

And now for the bases. Some of our torpedo bottles were very close to being complete, but there were also lots that were much more fragmentary than these.

Of the 439 non-alcoholic beverage bottles found at the site, 320 or 73% were not embossed, suggesting that the Milsom factory was mainly purchasing blank bottles and attaching paper labels. This was likely a cheaper and easier option than buying embossed bottles. Looking at the remaining glass soda water bottles that were embossed, some interesting patterns become apparent. Firstly, there are a range of different Milsom family soda water bottles across our pits, including bottles from G. P. Milsom, who was based in Kaiapoi, and R. Milsom, who was based in Lyttelton. It is possible that these bottles were accidentally returned to the wrong factory. Alternatively, it could be that these operations lent the St Asaph Street factory spare bottles when needed, or collected and reused any Milsom bottle, given the family connection. Somewhat surprisingly though, Milsom family bottles only made up a quarter of the embossed glass soda water bottles, despite the factory being owned and run by the Milsoms.

This table summarises the different aerated water manufacturers that were represented in our commercial pits, and how many times we found them.

A selection of J. Milsom and Co. Lamont patent bottles.

The only non-Milsom bottles that were from a Christchurch aerated water factory were two R. McPherson bottles. Robert McPherson ran an aerated water and cordial business on the corner of Cambridge Terrace between c. 1872 and 1887 (Christchurch Antique Bottle and Collectables Club Inc, 2022: 124). Both these bottles were located in the same pit. Interestingly, in the same pit we found 24 bottles from the Otago based Thomson and Co. factory. It was both illegal and frowned upon for aerated water factories to use another company’s trademarked bottles, although from newspaper articles we know that it did happen. If we assume that the Milsom bottles from the Lyttelton and Kaiapoi factories were probably used with the permission of those factories, given the family connection, then for the most part J. Milsom and Co. appear to have been very good at ensuring that they weren’t stealing another factory’s bottles. That the McPherson and Thomson bottles were all located within the one pit suggests that this use of other New Zealand factory’s bottles was restricted to a certain point of time, possibly a period when the Milsom factory were short on bottles. The pit that these bottles were in was filled sometime between 1878 and 1884, which is around the time that Henry J. Milsom took over the factory from his uncle. Could it be that Henry was not as ethical as his uncle, and was fine with grabbing some bottles from another factory, particularly if that factory was in a different city and thus probably less likely to be aware that their bottles had been stolen?

Just when you thought that you’d gotten away with a crime, some pesky archaeologist comes along and digs up the evidence some 140 years later.

In addition to the already described bottles, a range of British, and one Australian, soda water bottles were found in the commercial pits. Of these, Schweppes and Pitts bottles were the most common. This isn’t surprising as both these companies manufactured for the export market and their soda water was advertised as being available for purchase in New Zealand newspapers (New Zealand Herald, 22/11/1866: 2). Pitts and Schweppes likely exported their soda water on the assumption that the bottles would never be returned to them, given the physical and time constraints of doing so. Therefore, it makes sense that New Zealand aerated water factories would re-purpose their bottles meaning that the presence of these bottles at the site shouldn’t be viewed as the deliberate theft of another company’s bottles (unlike the McPherson and Thompson and Co. bottles). The Schweppes and Pitts bottles made up just under half of all of the embossed bottles, indicating that both companies were exporting to New Zealand in quite large quantities.

A few of the many Schweppes bottles from the site. And yes, if you were wondering if Schweppes was the same Schweppes that you can find on the supermarket shelves then it sure is- Schweppes basically pioneered the aerated water industry.

The remaining 7% of embossed bottles relate to five different soda water manufacturers. These were the Australian firm, W. G. Henfrey, and the British firms, Webbs, Norths, Street and Co., and R. Johnston. For the most part these companies didn’t advertise in New Zealand newspapers, suggesting that they weren’t really manufacturing for the export market. While these bottles show up occasionally on New Zealand archaeological sites, they’re not very common, which is to be expected if the companies weren’t typically targeting the New Zealand market. What is particularly interesting is that all of these bottles were found in the same pit at the site. This pit dated to the early 1860s, around the time that aerated water factory was established. It was the only pit that didn’t contain any Milsom bottles, and most of the Schweppes and Pitts bottles were found in this rubbish pit. The early date of this pit makes us think that it was probably created prior to Joseph Milsom ordering and receiving his own branded bottles. Jospeh Milsom’s factory was established at a time where there was only one other aerated water factory in Central Christchurch, meaning that there is unlikely to have been large supplies of surplus aerated water bottles in the city. It is possible that Milsom purchased his bottles when he first established his factory from a third-party bottle merchant that’s business model revolved around purchasing empty bottles from consumers, washing them, and selling them back to bottling factories.

We said that there’d be pictures of bottles, we didn’t promise that they’d be pretty pictures. These are the bottles used by British and Australian soda water manufacturers.

It would be reasonable to expect that a bottle-merchant operating in 1860s Christchurch would have amassed a collection of various bottles, particularly if they were purchasing empty bottles from ships coming into Lyttelton. Based on our research, the R. Johnston bottle found in the pit was manufactured at least 15 years prior to Milsom establishing his aerated water factory, indicating that the bottle had probably been in circulation for some time before it was purchased by Milsom. This gives further weight to our interpretation that the reason why all of these foreign bottles were in this one pit is that they’re just what Milsom had available to him when he started his factory. The fact that they don’t appear in the later pits and instead we start to see Milsom branded bottles shows that once Milsom had his own supply of embossed bottles, he mostly stuck to using either those or plain ones with labels.

Of course, another possibility was that Milsom intentionally imported a range of different soda waters into Christchurch as part of market research for developing his own product. Milsom might have deliberately ordered a range of British and Australian sodas to taste test, using the results to develop his own flavours. While we think that the former is probably the likely explanation, it’s always important to always be considering multiple interpretations (and of course the truth could be something that we haven’t even thought of).

In addition to considering the range of bottles identified, it is also worth considering what was missing from our site. Before we started our dig at the site, we thought that there was a high chance that we would find a large dump of Milsom branded bottles dating to when Henry Mace took over the factory. The Milsom bottles would have been surplus to Mace’s requirements, given that Mace both had his own branded bottles and, as we’ve already mentioned, it was illegal to use another business’s trade marked item. We thought that Mace probably would have dug a big pit and thrown out all of the Milsom bottles into it and that we’d get a heap of beautiful complete bottles. But no, he didn’t.  Instead, it seems likely that Mace paid for a dustman to remove the bottles, which were no doubt numerous due to the success of the Milsom factory. It also seems likely that Mace utilised a dustman regularly, as no bottles relating to his business were identified on site, and analysis of the domestic features suggest they all to relate to the Milsom era, rather than Mace.

Overall, our St Asaph Street aerated water factory site is of pretty high archaeological significance and the artefact assemblage includes some pretty rare pieces. While it is a bit disappointing that we didn’t get any complete bottles, this site shows we can pull just as much information from the fragments – Broken is still good!

Alana Kelly and Clara Watson


Christchurch Antique Bottle and Collectables Club Inc, 2022. Unearthed: Bottles of the Christchurch & District Soft Drink Industry 1860-1980. Christchurch Antique Bottle and Collectables Club Inc, Christchurch

2 thoughts on “Messages from the bottles

  1. I have very much enjoyed your blogs and have passed them onto my colleagues. They are really good and interesting.

  2. The curvaceous base pits remind me of a early Christchurch dump at Kearneys Road Linwood, now the site of the Linwood Rugby club. The dump filled in and followed the shapes of the sand dunes.

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