Acquiring Antique Bottles From Excavators in Downtown Toronto Construction Sites – May 2011

The title says it all…

For many years I’ve heard about avaricious antiques collectors who stand at the fence out front of downtown Toronto excavation sites and arrange to buy found objects from the workers. The crafty collector infuses the excavators with a duty to save their Canadian heritage, just by talking about the old bottles passionately and teaching them some history. The friendly merchant who makes lunchtime visits to the dig site sets a policy and offers to buy everything found intact for $5 a bottle, and $10 for all pottery. This was a recipe for getting rich in the 1980s when bottle prices were high and the dumps were the oldest. But then a lot of tall buildings were built along the lake shore in the 1990s, and even more in the 2000s, and bottle prices plummeted with every excavation. Also, the site workers themselves got smarter, and now they’re bottle collectors too.

Here I am making ‘first contact’ with Shawn the Shovel Man at Cherry St. and Lakeshore.

The guys on the boring machines at Cherry and Lakeshore are finding some interesting things with every corkscrew down into the mud.

There’s a lot of development happening in the West Donlands. There are plenty of shovels in the ground and old Toronto bottles are popping up everywhere.

Let’s look at the future of this place. This is 2015



Athletes Village – Pan American Games Park – Lower Donlands. On November 6th 2009, it was announced that Toronto had won the 2015 Pan Am Games, on the first ballot.

Now journey back to 1793, to the shores of muddy york.

Archeologists are busy digging up the foundations of old buildings as they search for history ahead of steam shovels developing this quarter for the Pan Am games. Here’s a discussion on Urban Toronto asking and telling about archeologists in the Old City – the oldest part of Toronto. Click the map – the picture expands and you can see right where Toronto started. This is the 1793 Map of the Toronto Harbour made by Joseph Bouchette.

The Lower Donlands, just east of The Distillery District, is one of the oldest parts of Toronto. It’s been neglected for years and is only now undergoing some long overdue development.

Earlier this year, I posted about a lost creek that became a Toronto city dump in the late 1880s, at King and River Sts. Streetcar Developments condo buildings have some special engineering to suck up water at the base of the northwest wall and channel it through pipes to return it to the municipal sewer system drainage on the south side of the structure. They had to do this or the underground parking lot would flood because of a spring to the north that made the original lost creek which, previously, ran into the Don River. This natural water system was buried in garbage in the late 1880s. The excavation workers at that site carried away boxes full of early pottery and glass bottles while the machines were digging the riverbed. The one picture of 1870s era stoneware beers that I obtained for the blog was only a small portion of the hoard that sprung forth, only to be reburied in dump trucks or snatched away by staff.

Over the years the luckiest and friendliest excavation site workers have become well paid ‘inside men’, and profit by selling or trading what they find in the ground. Most just liquidate for cash, but some of these guys amass large collections of museum quality artifacts. At Cherry Street and Lakeshore the boys are keen to find things, but unfortunately there’s a lot of broken material due to the corkscrew boring mechanism…

Working right on top of the Martin Goodman bike path south of the railroad bridge, and in the shadow of the Gardiner Expressway overhead, these yellow clad men are the most unlikely time travelers you’ll ever meet, but with every corkscrew full of earth they dredge up from twenty feet down, they voyage back to the shoreline of the earliest British settlement.

On May 18th I was passing alongside the site and hoping to get somebody’s attention, because I smelled a good story. At that time, I just wanted to know if they were finding anything? And were they finding any old bottles and pottery? With just one quick scan of site and huge screw machine however I could see that the apparatus was not historical artifact friendly.

But there were bottles here. The two story tall drill came up out the ground and it was possible, just for moment, to see the industrial age dump on the blades. You could see historic rubbish being removed from the earth; century old garbage was staring at me right there on the blade. The crew is here boring down into the earth to make cylindrical holes in the ground and sink steel pipes that will soon be filled with concrete to anchor buildings. The ground is a century old city dump very near the original mouth of the Don River.

Then it happened again and this time right in front of my eyes. The giant auger came up out of the pipe, the huge corkscrew blade spun around and all the clumps of mud came flying off the blade. There was an unbroken Chas Wilson soda bottle that rolled off the clumps and a little blue Bromo Seltzer finger sized bottle was spotted in the mud beside it. They were retrieved and wiped clean.

Through the chain link fence around the construction site, further along at the base of ‘the piles’ I could see broken pot lids and broken stoneware. With my sharp eyes I spotted other small cylindrical pottery vessels covered in white furnace ash. And once again as the auger came up out of the pipe I saw a cross section of a decent little dump with multiple ‘goody veins’ right there on the blades. I should have taken a video of that moment, or a picture of the booty on that huge drill bit – but I was standing right beside Shawn the Shovelman and I couldn’t very well make media in such an overt manner at that particular time.

The excavators are curious about why some bottles are worth more than others? They always ask which bottles to look out for, and if you tell them a name, any name, they’ll squint their eyes and try for a moment to commit the words to memory. The older guys with good collections already know what to pick up – and it all happens so fast. The backhoe operator will pause the machine and give a nod to his shovel man when he sees something he wants. He’ll get out of the machine himself and get down and pick it up if he sees blue glass, or any unbroken pottery, or any torpedo shaped glass bottles – that’s money. If he gets out of the rig a lot it will annoy the site manager and the people watching the clock will soon make rules against the bottle collecting.

At Cherry St. I got the general impression that the guy running the biggest machine was in charge of the whole operation. When I handed my card to Shawn he removed his muddy gloves and carried the card with some care all the way over to the corkscrew operator. This bearded chap scrutinized my card from inside the cab of his two story drilling machine. He looked up at me in the gate. I waved. He nodded. Then I turned around and walked back to The Distillery…

At my office, I did some research on the area and found some great cartography. This very old area has changed considerably since the 1800s. This land was also the site of a large city dump – the Keating Channel is a relatively new development. Here’s a map of this area in the 1870s. On this date in history, the city of Toronto is ready to expand by dumping household garbage into the marshy lake shore. (Click these map pictures, they expand.)



Look at the little river channel through the marsh south of the Grand Trunk Railway. I put the X in the wrong spot – the railway tracks are still there. The diggers are actually digging in the original mouth of the Don River!

Now here is the same property in 1910. Notice there is no sign of the Don River here whatsoever. The mouth of the river has been buried using mostly household trash and wood ash. (Click these map pictures, they expand.)

Now here is the same property in 1941 – now there is a steel bridge over the Don River spillway, the Keating Channel (Click these map pictures, they expand.)

TWO DAYS LATER MY PHONE RANG

Two days later I got a phone call from the big screw driver and he asked me if I would like to come down to the site and have a peek at what he’s been picking up all week. He was pretty excited about some recently recovered bottles. He wanted to sell them. ‘Listen’ the voice says, ‘I’ve got six boxes in my garage, and my wife is clean freak. I’ve got to get rid of some.’ And soon enough he asks if perhaps I’d like to buy the whole lot? “Of course,” I reply, ‘bring everything.’

Of course I won’t buy the whole works – not unless I can see squat sodas and ginger beers in the boxes, but yes, I will come and look at them and cherry pick through the boxes looking for the best bottles to buy. I’ll make purchases, one at a time, haggling for the lowest possible price per item, while angling for freebies.

The following afternoon, Weds May 25th 2011 I had my first experience as a construction site bottle picker. I was there waiting at the gate at 12:00 noon sharp as per our earlier arrangement. For years I’ve heard about hoarders who’ve made fortunes buying and selling valuable glass vessels found in excavation sites. The pieces change hands three or fours times before the end up in the city’s best antique shops. But that was then, and this is now. Bottles and stoneware collectibles have plummeted in price. And the merchandise that was put on display that afternoon really wasn’t all that special.

The Excavation Site Bottle Show Started at Noon

Here’s a clear class Orange Crush, and below is a Bromo Seltzer.

Found a little Balsam Honey.

Some common Toronto patent medicines,

Some common early Toronto milk bottles

and at least one bottle I’d never seen before…

Stay tuned for more information and more pictures…

Big Money Bottles Sold On eBay, May 2011

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Hamilton’s Patent Stoneware – R. Johnson Greek St. London This pottery piece sold for: £6,310.99 (36 bids in total).
The bottle stands about 7” tall and it’s not a torpedo in the truest sense, it stands up on a level surface!
It’s thought to date from early to mid nineteenth century !
The bottle is glazed up to its shoulders; lip with some scratch marks and a bit of rust and dirt. The surface lettering reads: “Hamilton’s Patent R. Johnson, 15 Greek St. London”.

Royal Dalton Kingsware Whiskey Bottle – The Forty Thieves This is “The Forty Thieves” Kingsware pear shaped Whiskey Flask.
This very pretty whiskey bottle sold for: C $4,800.00 (20 bids in total)
The bottle stands about 8.5” tall and 4” in diameter
There is a small chip on the spout that must be mentioned.
But the paint and glaze are still in tip top condition.

H. Sproatt Toronto Torpedo Soda Bottle (Rare Teal)

This lovely old soda bottle just sold for: US $1,075.00 (17 bids in total)
It’s one of Canada’s earliest soda bottles, and was very likely made at Lockport Glassworks in New York, NY.
The piece dates from approximately the 1850s-1860s.
The glass is a rare teal colour which is odd because most Sproatt torpedoes are aqua.
The lightly polished glass is clean with very few, minor scratches on the surface.

Rare Lime Green Gurd’s Ginger Beer Bottle – Montreal, Canada

This lime green ginger beer bottle just sold for: US $1,175.00 (13 bids in total)
It stands approximately 9.25” tall
The potter mark reads as follows, “29 Buchan & Portobello Edinburgh” with two tiny iron pops
There’s a slight 1” line in the green on shoulder.
The product label reads: “Gurd’s Trademark Ginger Beer ‘The Perfect Drink’”
Hmmm I’d like to have one right now.