Scavenging at Dead Horse Bay

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As my Converse sneakers crushed broken bottles farther into the sand, it was clear this wasn’t any old littered beach but a piece of New York City’s complex—and somewhat forgotten—history. Situated on the western shore of Brooklyn’s Barren Island, Dead Horse Bay is where horses came to die and houseware came to be forgotten.

A 40-minute train ride, two buses and a short walk through an abandoned part of the woods had brought us to Dead Horse Bay. A group of Edible staffers roamed the beach for over three hours, picking and choosing which old bottles and plates to take home. My curiosity about these pieces was fully sparked.

From the late 1800s up until the early 1900s, Barren Island and Dead Horse Bay served many purposes. When cars became more affordable and carriages went out of style, the old horses were taken to Barren Island and used to make fertilizer and glue. Their bones were then tossed into the ocean, and sometimes they would wash ashore. In 1931, Barren Island would be home to Floyd Bennett Field, NYC’s first municipal airport. By then, the island was connected to Brooklyn by heaps of trash and landfill.

Dead Horse Bay continued to be used as a trash dump until the late 1930s, when it reached capacity and had to be sealed off. But just a few decades later, trash was spewing into the ocean and washing ashore.

Back then, I’m pretty sure nobody foresaw that the beach would be a draw for eager scavengers. Personally, dumps are not my typical first choice for a fun weekend, but Dead Horse Bay is as magical as it is eerie. I spotted half a decomposing shark corpse, shards of old records and graffiti-scrawled boats sinking into the sand. It was a transporting experience—suddenly, I was in a time when bottles were made of glass and not plastic, when Scotch whisky seemed to be the drink of choice, when soda brands had funny names like Step-Up and Mission Dry.

Our scavenging trip involved a lot of digging and sludge removal. Little did we know that finding the pieces would be the easiest part of the adventure. The next step was to figure out what this treasured trash held: where these pieces came from, who made them. It turns out getting people to recognize “trash” with no identifiable markers is not easy, even for those who are most versed in history.

After getting turned down by over 10 historians, appraisers and collectors because these items were “just junk,” have “no value” and are “not special,” I got in touch with Helaine Fendelman, an antiques appraiser. Fendelman is the former president of the Appraisers Association of America; she’s been looking at antiques for over 30 years. I went to meet her, trekking through New York City with a suitcase full of artifacts (possibly the heaviest suitcase I’ve had to drag, I might add). Fendelman agreed that it was junk, but this junk was different.

“It’s junk that is part of our history … and the bottles tell a story, as do the other pieces,” she said. “They tell an interesting story. Interesting story from detritus.”

With her help, and the assistance of the National Bottle Museum (Ballston Spa, NY), and the Brooklyn Historical Society, I was able to piece together a little part of New York City’s history—through a sand-scuffed, green-tinted lens.

Coca-Cola Bottle

Light Green Glass: height—7.75 inches; circumference—7.85 inches

The shape of this bottle, the typical glass Coke bottle, is know as the “hobble-skirt.” The design was patented in 1916, and the hobble-skirt shape itself was registered as a trademark in 1960. This shape is now among the most recognized in the world.

Hoffman Pale Dry Ginger Ale Bottle

Green Glass: height—7.5 inches (top broken off so height is skewed); circumference—6.28 inches

Hoffman Pale Dry Ginger Ale operated a bottling plant in Newark, New Jersey, in the 1930s, with a massive 60-foot bottle next to the Garden State Parkway for passersby to admire. The bottle statue, to many people’s surprise, was actually a 55,000-gallon water tank. In 1945, Pabst Blue Ribbon bought the factory, took down the bottle, painted it blue, changed the label and put it back up.

Nedick’s Soda Bottle

Clear glass with label printed on glass: height—7 inches (top broken off so height is skewed); circumference—6.59 inches

Nedick’s, the orange soda company turned fast-food joint, was a New York classic. The first storefront was opened in 1913 on 23rd and Broadway. Though Nedick’s became famous for their hot dogs, orange soda was their staple. It was uncarbonated but apparently contained actual orange pulp. Drinking Nedick’s was “always a pleasure,” a phrase found on the bottle.

Hiram Walker & Sons Whisky Bottle

Brown Glass: height–8 inches, width—1.7 inches

Hiram Walker & Sons whisky comes to New York from Walkerville, Canada. Founder Hiram Walker began selling the whisky in 1848 to a very receptive drinking audience. Angered by the success of the spirits made across the Detroit River, American distillers insisted all foreign liquor products state their country of origin. Thus the name changed from Hiram Walker’s Club Whisky to the Canadian Club we know today. The phrase “Federal Law Forbids Sale or Re-Use of This Bottle,” is embossed above the bottle’s intricate design; this phrase began being embossed on bottles at the end of Prohibition in 1933 and was discontinued in 1970.

Gulden’s Mustard Jar

Clear Glass: height—3.6 inches, circumference—8.63 inches

This jar was one of the most easily recognized, and not necessarily for its shape but for its brand name. Gulden’s mustard can be found in nearly every supermarket across America. After French’s and Grey Poupon, it is the third largest American manufacturer of mustard and the oldest operating mustard company in the U.S. It was acquired by ConAgra, but it wasn’t always such a big company. This secret recipe of over 140 years has its roots in New York City—Mott Street to be precise. Charles Gulden branched out from his uncle’s mustard company to create his own mustard and far outdid that of his uncle’s. In 1869, Charles Gulden entered his mustard into the 38th Annual Fair of the American Institute and it won the second medal in the Department of Chemistry and Minerology, being revered for using American seeds in New York City to replicate French and German flavors. Based on the maker’s mark on the two jars, they were probably manufactured by the Owens-Illinois Glass Co. circa 1929—1954 in the factory in Auburn, New York.

Pabst Blue Ribbon Bottle

Brown Glass: height—9.25 inches; circumference—10.99 inches

Pabst Blue Ribbon was popular way before the hipsters of the world embraced it as one of their own. Frederick Pabst married into the brewing business after he met his wife, Maria Best, daughter of the founder and owner of the Best Brewing Company, in Milwaukee in 1862. When her father retired from the brewing business, Pabst and his brother-in-law took over the company and turned it into the Pabst Blue Ribbon we all know today. The company surged in popularity after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 that wiped out nineteen breweries, pushing Pabst and other Milwaukee breweries to the top. Although the award is contested by some, it is believed that the Pabst beer earned its named “Pabst Blue Ribbon” after it won “America’s Best” at the World’s Columbia Exposition in 1893.

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