Interns create new bottle seal catalogue

Nigel Jeffries
21.03.2015

Working with two masters students, Nicholas Major and Elizabeth Adams, we have been creating a catalogue of glass bottle seals dated to the mid- 17th 19th-century using the collection curated by the Museum of London Archaeological Archive. The results of our work can be explored on the Culture Embossed website.

From hundreds of boxes of material spanning 40 years of excavations, we have ‘rediscovered’ 82 seals. We think this is the largest archaeological collection in the UK.

English glasshouses have been making bottles since the mid-17th century (for example the distinctive ‘shaft and globe’ bottle), these containers provided a perfect surface for individuals to commission their own specially designed seals. This practice continued well into the mid-to-late 19th century. But who are the names behind them? And why were they made? 

If you were a landlord or landlady during this period it would have been important to have your glass bottles marked to prove ownership. Adding a seal to a bottle provided one such mechanism, and so they would always be marked with the sign of the premises and (usually) a name.

Today, the drinks we buy to take home usually come from a shop or off license. But a few hundred years ago this service was only offered by inns, taverns, and alehouses. Court records have shown that customers would bring their own empty bottles to be filled with ale, beer or wine. Otherwise, the licensee would give you a bottle from their own stock, perhaps in return for a small deposit.

Of the 82 glass seals we found, nearly half were from London’s lost drinking establishments. The seals identify some premises, with names like the Green Dragon or Dragon’s Head, the King’s Arms, the Feathers, Three Tuns, the Rose and the Ship, to name but a few.

We even found seals from more well-known establishments like the Fleece of Covent Garden and the Mitre of Wood Street, recorded by Samuel Pepys in his famous diaries.

Otherwise the names and designs of the seals are not always clear. But when they can be identified, museum curators, archaeologists and collectors have been able to split them into three distinct groups. In addition to owners of taverns and alehouses, individuals wanting to display their names, initials, or even coat of arms formed the second group, and merchants principally involved in the wine trade the third.

Although this is a significant collection, a visit to any museum will reveal similar examples, indicating that manufacture was commonplace. What we don’t know, and what we’re hoping our project will shed some light on, is just how many seal-stamped bottles there were compared to their plain bottle counterparts.

A more detailed study of the material will be published in issue 49:1 of Post-Medieval Archaeology later in the year.

Nigel Jeffries is one of MOLA’s Find Specialist and an expert in medieval and later ceramics, glass and clay tobacco pipes.

Nicholas Major is undertaking an MA in Nineteenth-Century Studies at King’s College London and Elizabeth Adams is studying MA History of Design at V&A/RCA.

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