Treasure Hunt

Lifelong Newton County resident Joseph Malcom’s passion for vintage bottles has kept him in the dirt for decades and allowed him to keep alive a tradition passed down to him by his father.

by Chris Bridges

Joseph Malcom gets his love of bottle collecting honestly.

The hobby was passed down to the lifelong Newton County resident by his father. Malcom continued the tradition and even took it to new heights after his father’s death in 1980. He believes he owns the largest Coca-Cola bottle collection in the state, and those who have seen it would be hard-pressed to dispute the claim. 

“My dad was a digger,” Malcom said. “He loved going to old dumps with a shovel and pick. I remember he took me to a dump site in Social Circle and said we were going to dig for treasure.” That father-son interaction remains entrenched in his memory. “On that trip, we started finding old bottles, and it just got in my blood,” Malcom said. “I view it as finding treasure in the ground. My father and I would go to different locations, and we always seemed to find a new treasure.”

Malcom met other bottle collecting enthusiasts along the way. “We just enjoy talking about what we find and then what we might sell, buy or trade,” he said. For the 60-year-old, the actual digging process has always been the fun part of the hobby, although it also results in the most work. Malcom goes to local libraries to research where old trash sites were and then plans his next dig accordingly. Vintage soda bottles comprise the largest part of his collection. He has an extensive assortment of bottles going back to 1900. During his treasure digs, Malcom has also unearthed vintage medicine bottles, as well as poison and ink bottles. They often feature cork tops. The soda pop bottles are significant in the collector world. Malcom revealed that he has approximately 600 different brands of soda bottles in his collection.

“You are always searching for that one bottle you don’t have. It keeps you going.”

Joseph Malcom

“There were just so many of them manufactured back then,” he said. “Most cities in Georgia had their own bottling company. Many sodas were made for a while [and] then discontinued. Most of the brands on the bottles have not been produced for decades.”

Some of his prized items include those made in the old Covington Bottle Works.

“Most of those are from Mansfield,” Malcom said. “I found an old bottle dump there and found some beauties.”

Going back more than a decade, Malcom said mom-and-pop operations would open up to compete with Coca-Cola. Oftentimes, they did not stay in business long, but even in the year or so they were open, there were various brands made and distributed locally. Malcom said collector shows are held throughout the state, but he conceded that at this point in his journey, he typically does not uncover anything he does not already have in his collection. He does not offer many items for sale, but if a fellow collector lacks a particular item and if Malcom has duplicates of a given bottle, he will consider selling. 

“I am really not much into selling,” Malcom said. “I will trade for something I might need.”

During his experience collecting, Malcom began finding bottles from the Covington Hutchinson Bottling Company, which was in business from 1888-90. “No one really knew they existed until I starting finding those bottles,” he said. “They competed with Coca-Cola like many others back then. Coke was developed around 1886 and initially was sold to pharmacies. That approach didn’t work very well, however.” Malcom estimates that the most popular timeframe for soda pop bottling in the state was from 1910-15. “After that, everyone knew about Coca-Cola,” he said. “It had a distinct taste and was promoted as having a ‘fizz that burned your nose.’”

Some of the rarer items in his collection come from the Wells Bottling Works, which was based in Mansfield. The company was in business from 1906-09.

Even today after decades of collecting, Malcom still goes on digs every week. He recently had cataract surgery but looks forward to going on another dig as soon as his eyes heal. When preparing for a dig, Malcom admits the work can be “intense” due to the amount of physical effort it requires. For each dig, Malcom takes an extensive list of equipment, including two probes, leather gloves, bug spray, clippers, saws, a machete, a pick and two sizes of shovels. 

“You also need to wear clothes you don’t mind getting dirty,” he said.

He uses the machete to combat the kudzu, which was often planted at old bottle dump sites. Even when multiple collectors go on a dig, each will take their own equipment. Finding vintage bottles intact can be a challenge. Malcom said many companies would destroy the bottles before burying them in an attempt to keep other companies from reusing them. During a recent dig in Washington, Malcom said 99% of the bottles found were broken. 

While hunting for bottles, Malcom has discovered various forms of pottery, which he does sell. During a dig in Monroe, he found a round object he thought was a World War II shell casing. He has also found vintage food containers and old metal signs, mostly from gas stations. The signs often have heavy rust due to being in the ground for decades.

“The key is always to be careful when you are digging,” Malcom said. “You usually find the bottles around four
feet deep.”

Even with many years of collecting behind him, Malcom does not plan to stop anytime soon.

“You are always searching for that one bottle you don’t have,” he said. “It keeps you going.” 

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