Dutch bottle tells story
April 21, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey
What's the significance of an old bottle that you find in the ground? Millions of glass bottles have been manufactured, used, broken and discarded in Alexandria since the 18th century. Beyond interesting curiosities for the mantle, how much can one bottle tell us about the past?
A bottle found in an African American archaeological site in Hayti, the neighborhood near the Wilkes Street Tunnel, is a good case study. When we study the bottle, its contents, and its route to Alexandria we learn a great deal about our community and how it fit into a wider trading network of the mid-19th century.
The City archaeologists and volunteers unearthed 40 fragments of dark yellow bottle with flat panel sides and round corners. Each of three panels contained one of these embossed words, "AROMATIC SCHNAPPS," "SCHIEDAM," and "UDOLPHO WOLFE." The artifacts were carefully excavated from a wide trash area containing many oyster shells and other artifacts that covered the floor joists of an outbuilding.
Udolpho Wolfe's Schnapps was a dry gin marketed in America between 1841 and 1871. While the bottles are found in working sites around the country, our best archaeological information comes from the steamer Bertrand which sank in the Missouri River at Portage La Force in April 1865. Along with many other cases of glass, the cargo included 48 Udolpho Wolfe bottles.
Thanks to the research of Ida Prosky, we know that Wolfe was a New York City importer of wines and liquors on Beaver Street, just south of Wall Street. While the architectural features of the historic buildings can still be noted at their roof lines, today`s small restaurants and electronic store do not give a clue to Wolfe's busy importing business. Gin generally came from Rotterdam near Schiedam on steamers to New York, and then Wolfe distributed his Schnapps by steamer and rail around America.
Schnapps was a gin invented in Schiedam by a Dutch professor seeking a diuretic to help kidney functioning. It was originally sold as medicine in apothecaries, and then English soldiers brought it back to England where it became a favorite of the working class. It may have been the first distilled liquor affordable by all.
Wolfe wrote pamphlets about his Schnapps which tell us the chemical composition and price. Wolfe's Schnapps was not a sweet drink, but a very strong alcoholic beverage. He sent out shipments at "$5 a dozen for quarts, $2.50 a dozen for pints, discounts for the wholesale purchaser." He wrote that intoxication only occurred when a person drank American diluted liquor. His own genuine imported liquor did not cause this problem, he stated. Wolfe's advertising brochures and newspaper ads, which appeared in the Alexandria Gazette, made claims for his products' medicinal value and gave scary stories about the noxious ingredients in his competitor's products.
In the mid 1800s, Udolpho Wolfe's Schnapps may have been the cheapest distilled liquor that you could buy in Alexandria. It undoubtedly relieved momentarily the aches associated with manual labor, whether you were hauling goods on Alexandria's wharves, building a railroad in the Canal Zone, or panning for gold in California.
The Wolfe bottle and other artifacts can be seen at the Alexandria Black History Museum, 638 North Alfred. Call 703-838-4356 for information.
Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.
Udolpho Wolfe Schnapps bottles have been unearthed by archaeologists from a steamer under the Missouri River, a Chinese store in a California gold mining camp, and a working class home in Alexandria. Photo credit: Bertrand Bottles, National Park Service, 1974 by Ronald R. Switzer.