This article about antique and vintage battery jars is being written in an attempt to demystify an obscure corner of the antique glass world. Battery jars had numerous applications. Especially the vintage and antique jars.
Research online uncovered several misconceptions in one definition alone. Dictionary.com defines “Battery Jar” as: “A rather large cylindrical container of heavy glass with an open top, used in laboratories”. I count five misleading generalizations in that one definition.
By no means were the majority of jars large, cylindrical, made of “heavy” glass, open on the top or used exclusively in laboratories.
Perhaps all jars are indeed “open” on the top, but this is not exactly true either. Battery jars themselves are open on the top when manufactured, but were nearly always covered with a lid that housed terminals and rods. The cylindrical shape is true enough for early telecommunication applications and for most scientific jars; new or old. Most modern glass battery jars are used for educational purposes. Not all of the jars are “large or “heavy” by any means; however, these parameters may be used to describe the large, early automobile and farm batteries. Of course; battery jars have always been used in laboratories, but such jars represent a smaller segment of all glass battery jars.
Canning jar collectors are often the first to come across these time capsules of early American electrification. We are including several photographs of the different styles, colors, ages and sizes from our own collection and a few from other collections. An antique or vintage glass battery jar most is closely related, functionally, to today’s wet-cell automotive, marine or tractor battery. Most of the old glass batteries we will be discussing were used for telegraph sets, early telephones and numerous other things that will be covered in this article. Earliest uses of the glass battery may surprise or even shock you.
Oddly enough; or maybe not so, is the fact that most battery jars have traditionally become available in the “Antique Bottle” category of collecting and rarely seen outside that forum. Batteries aren’t ordinarily what one thinks of when imagining an antique bottle, but there they are, at every antique bottle show. Sometimes one may find several of these at a single antique bottle show and often their original function is unknown even to the seller. One of the more difficult to identify battery jars is the F.G. OTTO & SONS NEW YORK:
It took years of collecting these odd pieces before I sat down and actually examined the details of the jars from an objective and informed standpoint. They just plain looked cool, came in great colors, were usually very crude & bubbly and rarely cost more than a few bucks. Before I knew it, I was surrounded by the infernal things and had run out of room for them!
The F.G. Otto Jar, like the one pictured here, was often mistaken for a mucilage or ink bottle by some or a blacking bottle by others; but it turns out that the Otto, which comes in several sizes, is designed specifically for the electronic quack medical device shown next to it in the image below. I tried to buy this particular device from a seller in Australia, but the shipping would have been more costly than the item. The seller and I also jokingly worried about how a customs X-ray of this weird device would be perceived while in transit!
This quack medical device used the Otto batteries to create a shock for the patient. Otto was just one producer of such devices. Others were known as Faradic batteries etc. These evil contraptions proliferated in the mid to late 1800s as electrical “cure” devices. By running the low current from the battery through a capacitor, the attending “physician” would administer a frightening shock to the patient, which the patient believed to have magical curative powers. Poorly understood in the mid 1800s; electricity was eventually put to much more useful pursuits such as furnishing power for telegraph, telephone, machinery, incandescent light and trolley cars.
We are just scratching the surface here and will continue this article as time permits. You may find a listing for one of our battery jars right here at Aspetuck Antiques…Click on the toolbar near the top for “Items Currently for Sale”.