Why? Why do people do what they do? Why do people collect material goods?
People collect things for a hobby. They collect as a pastime. They collect as an investment. They collect as a way of staying connected to the past. They collect as a way of staying connected to their pasts.
John Eisenhauer is a collector. He collects local milk bottles. His collection is valuable, but to no one more than himself.
“There are a lot of bottles I really like,” said Eisenhauer. “There are some I would not sell at this time. In a way, I’ve become attached to them. It’s just an object, certainly not as important as God or family or country. But it’s important. It keeps me going.
“It’s something I can’t explain,” continued Eisenhauer. “I really don’t know why I do this. Why does anyone collect anything that just sits there? Half of it is the hunt. I look for bottles and then when I get them, it’s anticlimactic. If I had every bottle, would I be as interested?”
Eisenhauer, a former Wengert’s Dairy employee for 38 years, owns about 400 local milk bottles, housed and displayed in the basement of his North Lebanon township home. Through his passion, he has become a foremost authority on milk bottles in Lebanon County and quite accidentally one of the most knowledgeable historians on the local agriculture business.
“It’s a history of agriculture in the county,” said Eisenhauer, 60. “You get to see who tried, and failed. Only a few dairies made it, and now there’s only one. I’ll hold a bottle and wonder how many times it went out and who had it.
“I get satisfaction out of it,” Eisenhauer added. “I think enjoy the history of it. Nobody knows everything about these bottles, but I like to learn.”
At one time, Lebanon County was home to over more than 100 dairies. Bottles for milk came into use around the turn of the 20th century, and it allowed county farmers to share their wares for profit.
The oldest bottle in Eisenhauer’s local collection dates back to 1900.
“If you had two or three cows, you probably had too much milk,” said Eisenhauer. “Once bottles started getting popular, dairy farmers could sell their milk. Before bottles, deliveries were made in cans. You would dip into the cans and pour it into the customers’ containers.
“Oh yes, you had to return the bottles,” Eisenhauer continued. “The bottles cost more than the milk that was in them. If they didn’t return your bottles, you went out of business. Bottles were big investments. That was half the reason the dairies would put their locations on them, so they would get back to where they came from.”
Milk bottles were financially relevant for about 100 years. In the 1980s, they were replaced by waxed cardboard cartons and then eventually plastic.
“They were hand-blown in the beginning,” said Eisenhauer. “Then they went to machine molds. Then they went from round to square, so they would take up less space. Home delivery of milk was phased out around the 80s. The early ones were crude and heavier. The newer glass broke easier.
“Bottles went out in the early 80s,” added Eisenhauer. “Now, basically everything is plastic. That’s the way it is. If they still made glass bottles, these wouldn’t be as valuable. I don’t think glass will ever come back. It’s too expensive.”
Eisenhauer began collecting local milk bottles through his processing and pasteurizing work Wengert’s Dairy in the late 80s. He retired in 2015.
Through the years, his collection has taken on a life of its own.
“I collected, didn’t do much for a long time, then started up again,” said Eisenhauer. “I worked at the dairy. I started collecting mostly Wengert’s bottles, because that’s where I worked. Then I started collecting bottles from Lebanon County.
“It got bigger,” continued Eisenhauer. “It’s getting to the point where I’m looking for scarcer bottles now. I branched out to Lancaster, Dauphin and Schuylkill, and milk bottles from those counties. I’m only collecting rare bottles now, because you get too much stuff.”
What’s driving Eisenhauer’s collection currently is a need to complete it.
“I’d like to complete my collection,” said Eisenhauer. “I’ve just got to keep looking at auctions. Some people call me up. Some people go on my website. There are eight to ten bottles I haven’t found yet. I also have eight to ten bottles that only I know exist.
“But just because a bottle is old doesn’t mean it’s worth a lot,” added Eisenhauer. “If they’re rare, they could be worth $400-500. I occasionally sell bottles if I have two of something, it helps feed my hobby. For any bottle I need yet, I’d gladly pay $200 or $300. A plain milk bottle is worthless. It’s got to have something on it.”
The future of milk bottle collecting in general, and Eisenhauer’s collection specifically, is murky at best. But for now, he is still adding.
“I’m still adding, but not at a huge rate,” said Eisenhauer. “I’m very selective about what I add. There will come a time when I have to let it go. But I’d like to complete the collection. To put it bluntly, collectors are dying off and not being replaced by younger collectors. Prices have gone down.
“My kids have no interest in it,” Eisenhauer continued. “They don’t want even one bottle. I think eventually milk bottles will be worth less and less. But I don’t collect them just for the value. Sometimes I’ll come down here and sit and look at it. It gives me pleasure.”
Because one man’s milk bottle is another man’s treasure.
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