Digging Deep: Every Bottle Has a Story

Prohibition Era Postcard Courtesy of Christian Laub

It is a chilly Saturday morning, but at least it’s not raining. Which of course for Vancouverites like Christian Laub and Mike Sidic this is a welcomed change. They have been keeping a close eye on weather reports all week. As a new generation of bottle collectors, they are also part of the larger community of diggers—modern day explorers who go out and dig for old bottles on empty lots and construction sites. They have already had to postpone this dig a few times, but today is a good day. They are excited to see what this empty corner lot in the heart of downtown Vancouver will reveal.

According to Laub, every bottle has a story and this is what draws him to each new dig. “You just never know what you will find,” says Laub. “The reward is in digging and finding something new and learning the history.” He is a collector at heart who also sees himself as a historian and an explorer, and does not mind the hard, and often messy, work that goes into bottle digging. With a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts from Simon Fraser University, as well as a passion for photography and sharing historical details, he has garnered a large and loyal following on his Instagram account @vancityrelics.

“I was inherently born with the collector bug,” says Laub. “When I was four, I was already collecting beer bottle caps from the side of the road when I would go for walks with my mother. It wasn’t always bottle related, but I have always had this urge to collect things.” Laub says he went through a variety of collections including a rock collection, “But that ended when I came to the realization that there were just too many rocks in the world and I didn’t want a collection that was infinite.”

Drawn to adventures, finding treasures, and secret missions, it is no surprise that Laub’s early heroes were Indiana Jones, Tin Tin and James Bond. “I grew up on acreage surrounded by abandoned buildings,” Laub says, “and would often find myself crawling under those buildings looking for old cans, and whatever else I could find.” In terms of actual bottle collecting, it likely started when he was a pre-teen and would go exploring with his father in the B.C. Interior. “We would go out on old logging roads and occasionally I would come across an old bottle in the forest or an old tin can that I would end up keeping,” says Laub.

However, up until recently, he only considered himself a “surface finder,” looking around areas that had history but didn’t actually do any digging. “I only started going out on pre-planned digs about four years ago,” says Laub. “Finding places that had to be dug was a whole new step for me.” Over the years he had heard stories about people digging in the area which eventually became the construction site for Expo ’86. However, at that time, he believed that, “The digging days were over and there wasn’t anything left to be dug up.”

Early straight-sided Whistle Soda Bottle. Photo Credit: Christian Laub

It wasn’t until he moved to Vancouver when things changed. “Someone was talking to me about a guy selling bottles at the Vancouver Flea Market,” says Laub. “And he had mentioned that he had dug them up near the market. So I started to do research and found some places I could dig, and then got lucky.”

Laub’s first official dig was in an area in Vancouver well known to the bottle digging community called False Creek Flats. Up until 1915, it had been a tidal marsh with a network of streams and creeks until two railway companies had it filled in so that they could build their terminals.

For his day job, Laub works as a location scout for the local film industry, which has helped to refine his research and map reading skills (often overlapping historical maps with current maps). “I plotted my first dig out on Google Earth,” says Laub, “and found a spot that I knew had history and that had not really been touched by time.” Soon after digging his first test hole, he was digging up bottles from 1928 and 1935. “I also dug up a beautiful ceramic double sided sign for a paint company,” says Laub. “It had survived quite well in the ground. I kept that one.” He has been going out on digs ever since.

Initially Laub went out on his digs alone. He would post his finds on social media, which quickly began to attract many followers. “When I started out I was what you would call a lone wolf,” says Laub. “I dug alone but then through my Instagram account I started meeting other lone wolves and you get talking and eventually it got to the point where we started to trade locations and then we started to dig together.” Now he rarely goes out on digs alone.

These days Laub is more selective about what he keeps from his digs. In particular, he is mostly interested in early soda pop and distillery bottles from Vancouver. However according to Laub, “The majority of bottles found are from the U.S. or from the U.K., and local bottles make up less than 25% of what we find.” Which makes those bottles even more enticing.

One local distillery that he has been quite fascinated by is United Distillers Ltd. (UDL). According to Laub, “You will get a lot of bottle collectors who won’t give those bottles the time of day because they are not that old and are machine made, which means they were mass-produced. But, I love them because of Vancouver’s history with prohibition.” As a port city, Vancouver played an integral role in prohibition and smuggling alcohol to the U.S. Although B.C. had prohibition, it was one of the first provinces to dismiss it, only lasting from 1917 to 1920.

“One of the sad things with prohibition,” according to Laub, “is that there isn’t much documented in terms of history as local media thought it was a blemish.” As result, he has found very little information on his collection of UDL bottles. “Jason Vanderhill, is one of the only people who has done proper documentation,” says Laub. Vanderhill, a writer, photographer, and digital curator of historical ephemera in Vancouver, has published two books on the topic and has included some of Laub’s prized collection.

Bottles (1910-1920) from recent dig at False Creek Flats. Photo credit: Christian Laub.

For today’s dig, Laub is hopeful about what he and Sidic might find as he dug up a few “breadcrumbs” at an earlier site visit. According to Laub, “These are items that could potentially lead to a cache of bottles and can sometimes even help to date the site.”

They have come well prepared, ready to spend the day digging if necessary. They have hard hats, high visibility vests, steel-toe boots, gloves, shovels and even probes. Although Sidic, who has a proper metal probe, jokingly refers to Laub’s makeshift probe as a “BBQ tiki torch probe.”

They approach each site with caution and respect. “We dig in a manner so that it doesn’t look like we were ever here,” says Laub who also mentions that they will fill up every hole before they leave. After a quick visual scan, and trusting their instincts, they each chose to begin digging near the property’s edge, next an older graffiti-covered building.

Instead of digging a hole from top down, they decide to “undermine” and go in from the side, which they feel will make it easier for them to find “pockets” of potential bottles with their probes. “This is a different kind of digging,” says Laub. “You need to have a lot of patience and you need to be careful, as the hole could collapse.”

Laub and Sidic at recent dig in Vancouver.

Although they are working together, there is some healthy competition to see “who will get on the board first.” Turns out it is Laub, through his careful probing he finds a “corker,” which is a playful name for a corked bottle. Stamped with Johnson and Co., he guesses this small medicine bottle to be quite old, which makes them hopeful for what else they might find. They continue to dig for a few more hours and find 30 to 40 bottles, but mostly what they call “slicks,” “commons,” or “snotters.” These are less interesting to collectors as they are not embossed.

Although they believed this site went back to the 1890s, there was no evidence through what they dug up. The oldest bottles they found were from the 1920s. This was a bit disappointing, especially since not long ago another digger found the ultimate “dream find” and “trophy bottle” of a Standing Black Bear Ginger Beer bottle (early 1900s) in an empty lot nearby. However, Laub did take home two embossed beer bottles and a 1920’s 12-sided applied top Heinz vinegar bottle.

Despite only unearthing a few treasures, Laub and Sidic are not discouraged. They love this process and will continue going out on digs and making history accessible through what they find and post on social media. “Once construction begins on a site,” says Laub, “there will be one less spot where we can dig and find out more about Vancouver’s history.”

You can follow both Laub (@vancityrelics) and Sidic (@findersclub) on Instagram.

Reprinted with permission from Canadian Antiques & Vintage magazine. For subscription information to Canada’s only national antiques and vintage publication, please call toll-free 1.866.333.3397


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