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Put a Cork in Put: The History of the Cork

A bottle closure is, simply stated, the device that seals the contents inside of a bottle, protecting those contents from dust, spilling, evaporation, and/or from the atmosphere itself (Munsey 1970; Jones & Sullivan 1989). The finish and closure are interrelated entities of any bottle. The closure must conform to the finish in order to function, and vice versa. The invention of some closures correspond to certain finishes and a closure may be adapted to old finishes; or both the finish and closure are invented together (Berge 1980).

The most common closure during the mouth-blown bottle era was the simple and highly effective cork or cork stopper. All types or classes of bottles from the mouth-blown bottle era can be found with finishes that accepted some type of cork closure, so there is little information garnered regarding the temporal context for these objects. Cork comes from the bark of the cork oak tree (Quercus suber and Q. occidentalis) and functioned to keep moisture by the contents of the bottle would also stay plumper and maintain its seal over a long time. The properties of cork were perfect for the irregularly formed mouths of mouth-blown bottles which had finishes that were hand tooled with a commensurate lack of precision.

Corks were secured to the vessel with a number of techniques. The most common and easiest method was simply the compression induced friction of the cork against the inside of the bottle bore and sometimes upper neck. An additional sealing safeguard entailed the placement of a lead or foil wrapper over the upper neck, finish and cork much like champagne and some liquor bottles are sealed of present day. This foil covering held the cork fastened in place for most non-carbonated liquids and assisted in sealing the bottle.

With carbonated beverages, such soda, beer, champagne, the cork had to be secured even more so in order to inhibit the content pressure from loosening the cork and slowly leaking the carbonation or even dislodging prior to consumption of the contents. The upper, thicker wire looped over the top of the cork (which was pushed in level with the top of the bore) and was held tightly in place by the smaller wires tightly encircling the neck just below the lower portion of the finish (Graci 2003).

Besides the frequent inadequate sealing problems, cork had several other problems that gradually led to its widespread use. One was that it was often difficult to initially unseal the bottle with the cork intact and unbroken so that it could be used to reseal the partially utilized contents of the bottle. This is still a problem with wine bottles and has lead to numerous innovative and non-destructive cork removing tools in recent decades. Also, the process of bottling and sealing with a cork was slow and inefficient.

One of the most popular cork securing wire devices used for soda/mineral water bottles during from the 1860s through 1880s period was the Putnam cork retainer (patented 1859) as shown to the right in the open (right) and closed (left) positions - minus the cork (Graci 2003). Though cork was effective, most of the early closure efforts by inventers and bottlers were directed at finding a cork substitute (Graci 2003).

For more information, please visit the Society for Historical Archaeology Website (sha.org).

Reference Notes:

Beverage World 100 Year History 1882 – 1982 And Future Probe. East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania: Keller International Publishing Corp., 1982.
Blumenthal Bros. The Bottler's Helper - A Practical Encyclopaedia For The Bottler Of Soft Drinks. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1907.
Graci, David. Soda And Beer Bottle Closures 1850 – 1910. Privately published by the author, 2003.
Equipment & Supplies For Bottlers. Cleveland, Ohio: The Bishop-Babcock-Becker Co., April, 1917.
Fisher, George Wm., and Weinhardt, Donald. A Historical Guide To Long Island Soda, Beer & Mineral Water Bottles & Bottling Companies 1840 – 1970. Bayport, New York: Long Island Antique Bottle Association, 1999.