Vintage bottlesThe light of day has long faded, and the downtown Honolulu lot where an old building was razed and the rubble cleared just that afternoon appears empty. To the businessman who just finished burning the midnight oil, it may even sound empty as he quickly passes by on the way to the adjacent parking structure for his car.
bring diggers delight
Collecting old glassware is part
hobby, part treasure hunt
By Brandon Lee
A closer look and listen reveal something going on beneath the lot. Nothing moves on the surface, but an occasional flicker of light appears at the rear makai corner near a fresh pile of dirt. The outline of a large hole is visible at the foot of the pile.
Suddenly audible is the swishing of a shovel slicing loose earth and the grunting of someone hard at labor, though the construction workers are all in bed for the night. Then the swishing stops just as suddenly, replaced by clinking, the sound of a metal probe lightly tapping on glass.
And then comes the scream -- not one of terror, but of hushed excitement. Of victory. The big score.
A man covered head to toe in dirt emerges from the hole. The headlamp he wears lights both his smile and the similarly soot-covered object in his gloved hand. He removes the glove to wipe away some of the dirt, and it suddenly gleams back at him.
The man stares down at the treasure he spent the last two hours sweating for, neither lost gold nor precious gem, but a handblown soda bottle, circa early 1900s, with boldly embossed lettering, bubbled imperfections and brilliant aqua coloring.
This antique bottle will be meticulously cleaned, then added to the display shelf in the man's home.
A bottle collector is part treasure hunter, part local historian, part hobbyist. And the collective thrills typically keep a collector going back for more.
"It's kind of like gold fever: Once you're hooked, that's it," said Steve Gould, who has dug for and collected bottles in Hawaii for 36 years. Gould is a former curator at the Hawaii Maritime Center and currently serves in the same capacity at the North Shore Surf and Cultural Museum. Together with Rex Elliott, Gould authored "Hawaiian Bottles of Long Ago," the authoritative text on local bottles for over a decade now.
"The lure of what you might find in the next scoop of dirt from your shovel ... it never gets old," Gould said. "It's probably similar to the thrill of victory from anything that people achieve after hard work, like catching a big fish or bowling a perfect game. You never get used to it."
Paul Kanehiro is also an experienced "digger" and has served as president of the Hawaii Historical Bottle Collectors Club for the last six years. Founded in 1970, the club meets on the second Tuesday of each month at the Susannah Wesley Community Center in Kalihi. There, local collectors discuss current issues and trends, recent sites and finds, and trade and sell some of their bottles.
Once a year, the club also puts on a show and sale to inform the general public about the hobby and attract new collectors. The 29th Annual Bottle & Collectibles Show & Sale is set for this Saturday and Sunday at McKinley High School's cafeteria.
Displays and sale items include "go-with" collectibles such as pottery, old toys and jewelry that may have been found on a dig, incidental to the sought-out bottles. Some booths will also have modern-day collectibles such as Pokemon cards for sale.
Kanehiro got hooked on bottle collecting when he happened upon a smaller show at Kapalama Elementary School more than 30 years ago, before the club was started. While he agrees that the "'Raiders of the Lost Ark' adventure" of hunting for bottles never gets old, he says that the biggest thrill for him now comes from sharing his knowledge and love for the hobby at the annual show.
"I always make a good friend each year at the show," Kanehiro said. "A lot of novices, like how it happened for me, they learn and get hooked at the show. I see kids, businessmen, construction workers. My goal is to educate the public because so much of (collecting bottles) is about our history."
Besides educating new collectors on the different types of bottles -- from handblown and painted-label sodas, to whiskeys and gins, medicines and milk bottles -- Kanehiro also takes the time to explain digging protocol. He may even share the location of a digging site or two if you are lucky, though he is very selective about whom he digs with.
Kanehiro stresses that he always tells club members and new collectors to ask permission from landowners before digging. Though it wasn't the case as much when he first started digging, some landowners now have liability concerns that make them wary of diggers.
After receiving permission, Kanehiro said diggers should establish a system for how the bottles or other finds will be divided among crew, and that diggers should always refill their holes when they are done.
Make no mistake, digging for bottles can be very hard work.
"If a bottle ever came between my friend and me, I give it to my friend," Kanehiro said. "And whoever dug, they can go home to get some sleep if they want, but they gotta be back to bury the hole. There are still about 10 percent of the diggers out there who are outright vandals. They don't ask permission, don't bury their holes and destroy property. They are all non-club members, and they give us a bad name."
Some diggers do extensive research of old books and maps to locate potential sites. Old fire insurance maps typically mark former outhouse sites; trash pits are usually located near the outhouses, and these are the hot spots bottle collectors seek when digging in low-lying urban areas like downtown Honolulu, where dense populations lead to more trash and, therefore, the possibility of uncovering more treasure.
Collectors also sometimes comb the mountainside near old roads and hiking trails such as those around Tantalus near Manoa. Finds in these areas tend to be more isolated, unlike the trash pits in low-lying areas.
For various reasons, some collectors prefer to confine their hunting to what they can trade for or purchase from other people's collections, bottle shows, antique shops or flea markets.
"I started collecting late," said club treasurer and retiree Pat Lum, a collector for the last 20 years. "I used to go on digs, but I've slowed down some because of my age."
"It's easier to get what you want by trading," fellow club member Mel Tanaka said. "A lot of times, you don't get what you want from digging, and sometimes you come back completely empty-handed. The thrill for me is getting something I don't have for my collection."
Diggers and traders, experts and novices, even complete strangers to bottle collecting will all be at the show this weekend. Some will be able to score that one bottle that they've been wanting to add to their collection, while others will just hang out to chat about dig sites. And there may be a young kid, a comic books- or sports cards-only collector, who will fall in love with the beauty and history of old glass. Maybe this person will turn out to be the one lured out into the night, into 20-, 30-, sometimes 40-foot-deep holes, searching for buried treasure.
"Once a collector, always a collector," Tanaka said. "It's in the blood to collect something."
Place: McKinley High School cafeteria
Bottle & Collectibles Show & Sale
Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Sunday
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