Today we have two bottle cappers for your enjoyment. They are of similar vintage, but were used in the county at different times.
Bottle cappers are tidy little machines that use leverage to force a metal bottle cap onto the mouth of a glass bottle, thus sealing in the liquid contents. Similar items are made today for use in home beer brewing, and indeed the vintage versions are often associated with the Prohibition era, at least in the popular imagination. A patent search for “bottle capper” shows that these types of tools started popping up in the late 1910s – perhaps in anticipation of the Volstead Act? And while I did not find anything along these lines in 1890s-1900s household catalogs, a bottle capper was available from Montgomery Ward in 1922, and the 1927 Sears catalog (image below) offered several “bottling goods,” including two capper options. Though hardly definitive, these few sources would seem to indicate that bottle cappers did become more, ah, useful to the average consumer once commercial liquor was unavailable. Keep reading for more on the liquor angle, at the end of this post.
From our collections, first up is this sturdy bottle capper, 17” tall, made of iron, and marked “Standard D Since 1923.” (An internet search has found a few other examples with the same mark, but so far no additional maker info or history.) It was donated in 1962 by Alice, widow of Henry H. Griffith (1862-1951), along with an assortment of farm and household tools; other than noting “used at Crow’s Content,” the Griffith family home in Laytonsville, Mrs. Griffith provided no specifics.
Next we have a lighter, steel bottle capper, 16.5” tall; it’s likely also from the 1920s or 1930s, though it has no manufacturer’s name or other helpful marks. Donated recently by Jane Sween, this capper originally came from her husband’s family in Frostburg, but was later used in 1970s Bethesda for a Girl Scout project: bottling home-made root beer. Along with the capper, Mrs. Sween also donated the box of metal and cork bottle caps – purchased from Community Paint and Hardware in Bethesda – from the same project.
These two examples are of similar height and size, are based on the same general design (both can be screwed to a table or work surface, for example), and perform the same function, but they operate a little differently. The “Standard D” Laytonsville capper is all-in-one; the bar handle can be turned one way to raise the mechanism, and the other way to lower the capper onto the bottlecap and force it closed. Our Frostburg/Bethesda capper has a removable ratchet-style handle, which can be slid onto the base at the appropriate height, then levered downward a few inches onto the bottle. This 1929 patent for a similar mechanism explains some details.
As usual I turned to the internet to find video of the artifact in action, and ladies and gentlemen, I have found a winner: newsreel footage of a bottle-capping race, circa 1920. These “home brewers” are using machines similar to our “Standard D;” the winner capped twelve bottles in nine seconds. You must watch.
As for the original usage of both these machines, let us assume that the Griffiths and our friends in Frostburg were bottling only non-alcoholic beverages – at least until the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Others, of course, were not so law-abiding. Montgomery County Police records from the 1920s – early 1930s include a number of raids on home stills and arrests for “possession of intoxicating beverages with intent to sell.” For example, here is an entry from the Takoma Park Police station log, dated August 4, 1932:
Aug 4, 32. Report of raiding the home of [redacted], Hollywood Park near Colesville. There we found about 150 bottles of beer and 100 empty bottles, and about five quarts of whiskey. A six gal. crock of beer was in the making which was destroyed, and some coloring. Time 11 PM. [Officers] Snyder & Barnes & Hobbs.
Though this police report does not list all the equipment discovered in the midst of this illegal operation, our anonymous whiskey entrepreneur would have needed a way to seal all those bottles. . . it seems probable that a bottle capper was involved.