PIECES OF THE PAST: Local collector shares bottle collection at Brown Library

Published 7:03 pm Wednesday, September 5, 2018

When Rick Gagliano was 18 years old, he made a discovery while diving off the coast of Miami that would become significant to his life. Sifting through the sands beneath the waves, he surfaced with a treasure — a cobalt medicine bottle with markings indicating it had originally been manufactured for John Wyeth and Brother Pharmacy in Pennsylvania.

PRIZED PIECE: For Gagliano, a lifetime of bottle collecting began with this blue cobalt bottle, marked “John Wyeth and Bro.” He discovered the piece while scuba diving off the Florida coast near Miami. (Matt Debnam/Daily News)

This find marked the beginning of a lifelong passion — collecting old bottles that had been lost to the tides or discarded in trash pits behind old homes. Fifty-three years later, Gagliano has amassed a menagerie of antique bottles from throughout the ages, and during the month of September, visitors to Brown Library can browse a number of pieces from his collection that have been placed on exhibit in the library’s entryway.

“Most of my bottles are from the river here and the Philadelphia River in New Jersey,” Gagliano said. “Every time we had a nor’easter, it would blow 30 feet of sand to the other side of the island, so everything was exposed, and everybody would get out and pick things. I started getting myself involved in the bottle collecting.”

Living in Washington for the past 15 years, Gagliano has found many bottles while scuba diving on the river or walking the shored during especially low tides.

While the Pamlico and Philadelphia both yielded treasures for the aspiring bottle hunter, Gagliano says that many of his finds actually came from old pits behind abandoned homes where families used to dispose of their refuse.

“A lot of these old homes in North Carolina and New Jersey, when you go 30-50 feet behind the home, that’s where they had their garbage dumps,” Gagliano said. “We take steel rods that were about 15 feet, and when you hit something solid, we would dig it up.”

While it is sometimes difficult to determine the exact origin of an old bottle, Gagliano says that examining each can give clues to how it was manufactured. While some are hand blown, as indicated by a number of impurities in the glass, others were manufactured in die casts, leaving a ridge along the edge of the bottle.

ALL SIZES: Large and small, each of the bottles in Gagliano’s collection tell a story. (Matt Debnam/Daily News)

In researching his collection, Gagliano estimates that some of his the bottles may be as old as 200 years. From sarsaparilla bottles discarded by sailors on the Pamlico to turn-of-the-century elixir bottles that might have once contained cocaine- or opium-based remedies, each bottle tells a story.

“A lot of the bottles have writing on them or dates like 1877 or 1776 or things like that. I used to be a mentor in the school system, and I would take my bottles and put them on tables in the libraries of the high schools. The kids were fascinated over them and would ask where they came from. I would make up stories, cause they don’t come with backgrounds,” Gagliano laughed.

 To see pieces from Gagliano’s collection, visit Brown Library during business hours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays. The bottles will be on display through the month of September.