Bottle collector Mike Leong has crawled through tunnels and dug deep in the ground in search of glass treasures.
During one dig in the Palama area about 20 years ago, he excavated an 18-foot-deep hole with some buddies. “We were at the site of a freshly knocked-down home. I was there for four days,” he said. “We dug up a bunch of interesting stuff. It really gave us a glimpse into the life of the old days.”
They pulled out about 125 bottles — a few hundred if counting the broken ones. “We kept about 30 to 40 bottles. We reburied the ones that we didn’t keep.”
For Leong, 47, bottle collecting is more about the Indiana Jones-style adventure than the dollar value of his finds. “It’s more about the quest and finding the one that is missing from your collection,” he said.
He first got the bug at age 22 when one of his uncles came back from a digging site. “I begged him to take me next time. He brought me and I was hooked,” he said.
The walls of the living room in Leong’s Wahiawa home are lined with 320 bottles of varying colors, and that’s not even his entire collection. His wife, Lori, and their five children have grown to accept his hobby, he said, noting that a couple of his sons have gone on digs with him.
The importing of glass bottles to Hawaii dates back to the mid-1800s, when German merchant Ulrich Alting shipped in the first known Hawaiian embossed soda bottles in 1851, according to Leong, who owns Kapili Roofing & Painting. He is fascinated by the various types of closure devices, such as lightning stoppers that leverage a rubber disk into the lip of the bottle to make a seal; internal screw stoppers; Hutchinson rubber stoppers with springs; and crimped metal crown tops with cork liners. More elaborate are Codd bottle stoppers that employ a glass marble and rubber washer at the lip. The bottles were filled upside down, with pressure from carbonated soda keeping the marble sealed against the washer. To open the bottle, the marble was pushed inside.
Soda bottles are the most common ones to have been produced in the islands, Leong said, with approximately 45 companies selling soda under different names. Leong also has a collection of seltzer bottles.
“The earliest documented seltzer was from Crystal Soda Works in 1885, but I know of one individual that has a specimen from J.A. Palmer & Co. that would have been earlier than that,” he said.
“Seltzers came in different styles with plain bases, footed bases, acid-etched labels or applied color labels. Colors varied from clear, amethyst, cobalt blue, light amber, emerald green and so on.”
Choosing favorites from among his collection is difficult, but Leong said one is an amber bottle from Hawaiian Soda Works. “Another one that I was stoked to find was a previously unlisted variation of a 1-pint milk bottle from the Pond Dairy Waikiki,” he said.
The challenges faced by bottle collectors include knowing where to dig and getting access to properties that hold the promise of finds. In addition to digging up glass bottles — milk, soda, whiskey, gin, beer, medicine and a Hollister and Co. baby bottle — at the Palama dig, Leong said they also unearthed marbles, horseshoes, dishes, ceramic shoyu jugs, bean pots, a ruby ring and a child’s jade bracelet.
“The best thing I took away from the dig was not any material thing. It was the experience itself — great memories with a great group of guys.”
The collector sometimes sells and trades his bottles but said he isn’t in it for the money. “I prefer the ones that I dig up, not the bottles based on value.”
Leong learned that lesson the hard way. He once paid about $7,500 for a bottle from another Hawaii collector, but when he got it home, he dropped it, causing the bottle to crack. That was his last purchase of an expensive bottle. “It was God’s way of telling me that I was spending too much on bottles. I paid a lot once but not again,” he said.
Since starting his roofing company about eight years ago, Leong hasn’t had as much time to dig for antique bottles, but admits he goes every chance he gets.
“The diggers are from all walks of life,” he said. “We have doctors, bankers, construction workers. It’s good fun.”
Contact Mike Leong via email at email@example.com. The Hawaii Historical Bottle Collectors Club meets 7 p.m. on the second Tuesday monthly. For more information, call Pake Zane at Antique Alley at 941-8551.
“Possessed” is an occasional series featuring Hawaii residents and their unique or facinating collections. Tell us about your collection by calling 529-4778 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org