Text: Jennifer Boles
Images Courtesy of Adams Antiques & The Potager
Of all the decorative arts, perhaps none has had as much difficulty surviving the centuries as objects made of glass. Whether an ancient Greek bowl or Georgian-era stemware, antique glass is a rare commodity today because of its delicate nature and its susceptibility to breakage, especially when handled by clumsy hands. But there is one type of glass object whose design more or less ensured safe passage through time: the demijohn, a voluminous glass bottle, originally wrapped in wicker, whose curious name is as intriguing as its rotund shape.
Some experts believe the name “demijohn” stems from an Egyptian word, damagan, a type of wicker-encased glass bottle which was allegedly introduced to Europeans during the Crusades. Others claim it is a corruption of an old French term for a large bottle, dame-jeanne, a name equally shrouded in lore. Legend has it that in the fourteenth century, Joanna I, Queen of Naples and Countess of Provence, visited a Provençal glassblower, who was so nervous by the presence of the queen that he over-excitedly blew a glass bottle of unusually large proportion. The French glassblower proposed that the new design be christened “la Reine Jeanne” after the queen, who instead eschewed her royal title and proposed the more modest “dame-jeanne” for this new type of large bottle.
Regardless of its murky roots, by the eighteenth century, “demijohn” referred to a – or bladder-shaped glass bottle, typically sized between two and five gallons, which was used to transport and store consumable liquids, particularly wine, spirits, and sometimes oils. In order to protect both its delicate glass and its contents, the bottles were usually wrapped in sturdy wicker, which safeguarded the glass from potential breakage and protected the liquids from the degrading effects of sunlight. Demijohns were made and used throughout Europe, including France, Spain, Italy, and Germany, countries which presumably required ample supplies of these bottles to accommodate their robust production of domestic wines. The demijohn was also commonly used in the United States. Although most eighteenth-century examples were imported from Europe, by the early nineteenth century, many American glass companies were manufacturing their own versions.
While demijohns can be described generally as having slender necks and stout bodies, there is variety in their form. Some of the more common shapes of antique demijohns are likened to flattened apples, loaves of bread, and onions, visually-evocative references which aptly describe their appearances. There is also diversity in glass color. The most common colors of eighteenth-century demijohns are green and black, which in reality is more of a dark amethyst shade. In the nineteenth century, these two colors remained predominant but were joined by amber, clear, and blue. Over time, the nature of their construction changed, too, with early demijohns having been made of free-blown glass while later examples from the nineteenth century were typically blown in molds. It is interesting to note that the wicker casings of many nineteenth-century American examples were woven by females, which was unusual at a time when bottle-making was almost exclusively done by males.
Although many of the original wicker casings have disintegrated over time, they nonetheless served their purpose by ensuring the survival of many demijohns into the twenty-first century. Now often repurposed as vases or displayed as decorative objects, antique demijohns have come a long way from their mundane origins.