Photo and text by Jon Chase
The colors are subdued and earthy, but striking in their tonal range: amber, aqua, sea green, black, and ochre. Some are teal or milky. Less common are purple and cobalt blue. Red, the rarest of all, is a deep, wine-dark hue, like a garnet stone. It is made by adding copper or gold before the glass is blown.
The antique bottle collection of Vaughn Thibodeau, some 1,500 items, varies as much in function as in color. There are patent medicine bottles and cold concoctions, apothecary and liquor flasks, fruit jars, salt and pepper shakers, beer and soda bottles, oil and vinegar cruets. One amber piece made in Warren, Mass., is a turtle ink bottle – so-called because of its humped shape – and dates from the Civil War. Perhaps the collector’s favorite is a mossy-green hock wine bottle from the 1820s, hand blown without a mold, that lists precariously to one side.
Thibodeau, who orders supplies and retrieves books for customers at the Harvard Depository in Southborough, also maintains an eyeglass collection, which is on display by his desk at the front door. Unlike the bottles, the glasses are not antiques but date from the 1940s to the present. One garish pair has rhinestones set around racing flags; another has green shamrocks for lenses. Bright yellow, orange, shocking pink – there is nothing modest about these modern colors. But they are fun, delighting viewers in a more obvious way than the faded history evoked by the bottles.
What drives Thibodeau to collect? “It’s a passion,” he says. “It’s like a fever, and once you have it, you can’t stop.” He started at 15, inspired by a neighbor. He soon began to develop almost a sixth sense for finding old dumps where bottles were left. Sometimes a piece of glass glinting in the sun would catch his eye; other times, he would notice a slight mound in a yard, or perhaps spy a piece of metal lodged in the trunk of an old tree. “I’ve been known to dig for hours in a pouring November rain,” he says, “if I think I’m onto something. I’ve dug under water, even under ice.” Indeed, he carries a shovel, root cutters, and a 3-pronged clam rake in his car, always prepared to unearth a potential treasure trove.
“It’s history, a way to preserve the past,” he says. “And it’s drama, I never know what I’ll find: old coins, political pins, pottery, maps, dolls, toys. I can learn about a family’s health, their diet, a man’s vocation, all from the trash. I keep my findings organized by house lot, and eventually I’ll give everything to the town’s historical society.”
“I hope I’m doing this at 95. It’s exercise, fresh air, it brings people together. Kids who dig with me feel they’re looking at buried treasure, and they really are. To pique a child’s interest, to put a smile on someone’s face – if I can do that in this day and age, that’s a big part of the battle.”