Vintage Glass Bottle Collector Ned Clarke Shares How his Peculiar Passion Became a Long-Term Pursuit

Vintage bottles

My name is Ned and I collect old garbage. I don’t know how my obsession with trash began, but I do remember being five years old, walking on the shoreline in front of Blackie’s Pasture in Tiburon, when a sandblasted E&J Brandy bottle washed up right in front of me. I remember unscrewing the metal top to smell the stale booze inside and fantasizing about who drank out of it. I imagined it was a homeless person, because that would have been a more interesting story than some smiling, Polo shirt-wearing guy tossing it off a boat. 

The brandy bottle wasn’t even that old — maybe a couple years — but it still had a tale to tell. That’s the lesson I learned that day. And I’ve been obsessed with garbage ever since; noticing it wherever I go, picking it up, examining it, listening to it. 

Ned Clarke

Here is one of my favorite tales a piece of garbage has ever told me, which now of course, is part of a larger story that I’m now a character within. 

Several years ago I was walking around San Francisco and passed by a construction site on the corner of Fulton and Gough, where a trench was being dug by workers. As I’ve learned through the years, when looking for cool, old garbage, dirt is a great place to start. So naturally, when I saw the fresh brown piles of excavated dirt on the sides of the trench, I stopped cold on the sidewalk, pressing my face up against the cyclone fence so I could get a good look at anything that might be getting tossed up. Sure enough, minutes later I spotted a shiny, dark cobalt object in a shovel load of sandy soil — it was an ancient-looking glass bottle. I recognized it instantly.

The worker who dug it up didn’t seem to notice or think much of it, letting it tumble down the backside of the sand pile and land dangerously-close to a heavy-looking brick. So there I was, just staring at it, this fragile piece of irreplaceable history. And that’s when I realized that something would have to be done about this. I posted up against that fence and waited. A solid hour passed before things started to slow down on the jobsite for the afternoon, and I knew this was my chance.

I walked in through the front gate of the site. By now the trench diggers were sitting on buckets taking a break, and I walked up and asked them if I could take the bottle from the dirt pile because I collected things like that. Two of the guys didn’t even look at me, the other one gave me a brief glance of “are you crazy?” and then cracked a smile and nodded. I felt like I was going to explode from the inside out but kept it cool, strolling over to the pile and grabbing the bottle with one hand like it wasn’t a big deal. I glanced at it — it was.

I was holding a dark cobalt blue 1860s French hair restorer flask. It was one of the most beautiful bottles I had ever seen. I recognized the shape from other similar bottles that contained a hair product I had seen in books and could read the embossing on the glass, saying that it was from a pharmacy in Paris. Back in those days, as well as today, people would buy bottles of quack medicine claiming to cure illnesses of all kinds and yes, even restore hair to a balding head. As I walked back to my car holding the treasure, I couldn’t help but wonder who made use of this thing over 150 years ago. Maybe I’d meet them when I die. 

Turns out I didn’t have to wait that long. 

Flash forward a decade to a night of internet scrolling. Behind me sat my curio shelf, overstuffed with an assortment of both weird but often-mundane pieces of garbage I had found over the years. I’m a member of a popular San Francisco history group on Facebook and was checking out the page for new posts. There was just one that night; a post by a guy named Mark who was talking about his ancestor who lived in San Francisco in the 1860s. He had done a lot of research into his family history and found a story about his great-great-grandfather — a wealthy man living in a mansion in a suburban area of the city.

He had everything a man at that time could want; a wife, a successful business, and a big house with fancy furnishings and its own private livery. He had everything, that is, but one thing — a full head of hair. And he was so self-conscious about going bald that he tried everything to hide it. He had three different toupees from the fanciest wig store in town. One cut short, a medium length one, and a long one to give the impression that his hair was naturally growing out, until he “cut” it again. The story went on to say that the man had even tried the very best imported hair tonics to get his hair to grow back.

When I read that part, I thought of my 1860s hair restorer bottle, which still held a place of honor on my shelf. The final portion of the story mentioned the man’s address, and you guessed it, it was the corner of Fulton and Gough. I immediately messaged the guy, and he responded, confirming his ancestor lived on the exact corner property where that construction site had been. A surreal moment for multiple reasons, one of which being that I had never before met someone with a connection to any of my trash treasures. Someone whose ancestor had such a personal connection with what sits whimsically on my shelf.

This was a few days before Christmas and now I’m coordinating with Mark about meeting up with him after the new year so I can place the bottle in his hands.

I have to admit I’m a little nervous and I don’t know why. To be clear, I don’t think I’m going to activate some 170 year old mystical family curse as soon as I place the lost object in Mark’s hands. It’s just that whenever I look at that French hair restorer flask now, I see the face of Mark’s ancestor from a faded daguerreotype picture he sent me, staring back. I’m no longer just a collector of imagined stories; this is a real one. And I’m now a part of it. Which has made me think about this whole thing in a bigger way.

I was looking at my shelf the other day, drinking juice out of one of those sleek, ultramodern plastic bottles, imagining a person living 170 years in the future, looking at a similar shelf. And there, perched on the highest level, a prized possession; my juice bottle. The plastic is warped and faded yellow, with a thick coat of brown dust along the shoulder. And they’re staring at the relic, trying to imagine the life of the ancient person who drank from it.

Whatever story they come up with, I just hope it’s a good one.

Follow Ned’s adventures on YouTube as he searches for stories in old garbage — his channel is called “Digging the Old West with BottleNed.”