I’m not the first to say it, but archaeology is essentially the study of trash. It doesn’t matter what it was or how it got there, but what’s left behind after the people leave becomes the archaeological record.
Recently, when my wife and I kayaked out to a small island off the coast of Warwick, Rhode Island, it was in search of a really nifty shipwreck.
This particular wreck is called “Not the Gaspee” because so many locals wind up emailing the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project and asking them if it’s the wreck of the Gaspee. It’s not.
Right now, meaning for the purposes of this post, it doesn’t matter what it is. What I’m here to tell you about is this:
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Wait, what? You paddled out to a shipwreck and you’re excited about a jar?”
Well, hear me out. You know how I’m always saying that everything is anthropological? Everything you find has a story? Well, I meant it.
I picked up this jar and thought it was cool. And set it back down. Then a short while later our fascination with the wreck was interrupted by the tide coming in to steal our kayaks. Before we hastily got back in and paddled to a landmass that wasn’t going to be submerged in five minutes, I showed her the jar.
It’s a glass Noxzema jar. That stuff comes in plastic now. Julie thought it was worth taking. I thought it would make a cool memento, too.
It was filled with muck and kinda slimy inside so we rinsed it and ran it through the dishwasher. But it’s kinda cool.
I started looking into the manufacture of glass bottles and jars. I remembered from when I was younger that there are various telltale signs on glass that can be used to date it (my brother used to collect antique bottles, still has a pretty impressive collection as far as I know).
The embossed logo and other markings, the location of (and even existence of) the seams, any imperfections. All of these can be used to date, relatively speaking, the glass. Different techniques would be used for a range of years.
Clearly this jar has embossing. The Noxzema logo isn’t an accidental imperfection. This means that the jar has to have been made in a mold. All molded glass bottles and jars have to have a seam, because that’s how it works–the glass fills the mold and cools, the mold is two pieces so you can get the finished jar out.
The next thing to look at is the length of the seam. Does it go up all the way to the top, or does it fade away? Those that fade or are otherwise discontinuous are mouth blown/hand made. The vast majority of those that were made in America were made between 1820 (or even earlier) and 1915.
Ok. Now that we know it must have been made after about 1915 I can let you in on a secret that I knew before I typed all this but thought the bottle dating stuff was cool so I left it out: Noxzema started selling in 1914, being made in small batches in a coffee pot by Dr. George Bunting. There’s a bit of controversy here.
A similar product was developed by a man named Dr. Francis Townshend as a way to relieve sunburn pain. As the story goes, Townshend gave the formula to Bunting, who began marketing it as Noxzema after a customer reportedly told him, “You knocked out my eczema!” Knocks + Eczema = Noxzema.
So even though we know Noxzema could not have been sold before 1914, and also that it was around 1915 that jars similar to this began being produced, it’s still cool to see the dating methods corroborate the manufacturing history.
An early(ish) version of the product was packaged like this:
I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s identical, but it’s pretty damn close. Looking at some antique bottle enthusiast forums, it looks like this style, with the particular embossed logo on the base of mine, was produced in the 1930s-40s.
So that’s kind of awesome. But…that’s not it. It gets cooler.
Remember several hundred words ago when I mentioned where we found this jar? The old “mystery” shipwreck. Well, while the wreck is somewhat mysterious, it’s not completely unknown to many people who have lived in the area for a very long time.
While my own research suggests perhaps a slightly different origin of the boat, local resident and Historian for the City of Warwick Henry Brown has known about it for literally his entire life, and his personal research from 2010 suggested that it may very well have been a boat built in an attempt to rapidly build up the United States Navy toward the end of WWI. It turns out both of our initial attempts at researching were incorrect, but you’ll have to wait for my video to find out the rest.
One of two boats that were abandoned atop sandbars in the shallow waters of Narragansett Bay off Gaspee Point, this particular boat was home to drifters.
Guess what time period.
Mr. Brown recalls that late at night on July 3, 1937, the boat in question was torched in an impromptu Fourth of July Celebration. Another nearby was burned in 1941 in an act of vandalism, or potentially by local residents angry about the vagrants living in the abandoned boat (Henry thinks the latter is unlikely).
1935. That’s…that’s perfect.
This means that my wife and I found an old Noxzema jar eroding from the sand next to a ship that was occupied by homeless people up until it’s destruction by fire in 1935. This particular jar was made and sold from the 1930s through the 1940s.
Do you think this may have been owned and dropped by one of the residents? It kind of fits. And living on a boat stuck in the shoals of an island in the bay…you don’t exactly get much tree cover. A skin salve might be handy.
Now in reality I doubt the bottle was actually owned by someone who occupied that boat, but it’s impossible to prove a negative. I can’t go back in time and watch to see if it was discarded or if it was among the debris in the aftermath of the fire.
But that doesn’t matter. This little jar, not 3 inches tall, has such a cool story to tell. I’ll be saving the majority of it for my video on the ship itself as I don’t want to speculate and am not done researching it yet.
But it tells a story of a changing nation and a changing world. It’s a story of the modernization of manufacturing, of World War, and of grandiose celebrations at a time when the country needed it. And also maybe a little bit of intellectual property theft, violent evictions, and arson.
And now, that story is coming to an end as the bay is working to reclaim not just the remains of the boat, but also of Greene Island itself.
All of that from a little jar in the sand.