Most familiar in the form of a ship-in-a-bottle, whimsey bottles were actually created in a variety of motifs, created mostly by those in isolated, confined or alienated situations, like sailors, farmers, prisoners or lumbermen. Because they required so much time and focus, whimsey bottles were usually made to help pass the time or allay loneliness, or to distract the mind. They offered demonstrations of skill and tokens of affection for those returning home.
Alcoholics and the chronically ill also created those whimseys which were almost always made from liquor or over-the-counter medicine bottles. The original contents killed pain, loneliness or time, the creation of what replaced the liquids may have served the same function. Sometimes after the constructions were finished the bottles were refilled with water to simulate alcohol.
Created with patience and skill, the bottles themselves were never altered. What was wider than the mouth of the bottle had to be folded outside the bottle and opened inside, or glued, hinged or assembled once inside, using tweezers, scalpels, pliers and probes. Except for the bottle-in-a-ship whimsies, these bottles stand upright.
One very common image is the religious cross, usually accompanied by elements of the Crucifixion (ladder, lance, nails, crown of thorns) and carpenter tools, such as hammers, saws, axes and picks. Sometimes the crosses are adorned with ribbon or string.
A variation on the cross is the niddy-noddy, or skein winders. Here the cross is “domesticated” with string, yarn or ribbon. Other domestic motifs are chairs, furniture, and flowers. One bottle whimsy we had included a three tiered loom with porcelain doll weavers, and another had a dedication dated 1849 and a woman churning butter.
A frequent motif is the fan, which often looks like a stylized plant, tree or the sun’s rays. The fan motif seems to have its origin in Scandinavia. The fans were carved from a single piece of wood.
Bibliography “The Message in the Bottle” by B.H. Friedman, Art in America, March, 1981
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