The Leather Bottle, bottel, botteil, flask or flackett

Thomas Tanner of Ely

I present my attempt at a leather bottle. Such bottles were, along with pottery, wooden and metal vessels, much more common before the widespread use of glass, at least in England and France.

(A Florilegium quote from a post-period source indicates that the French, at any rate, did not use leather drinking vessels: Philocothonisa 1635:
Of drinking cups, divers and sundry sorts we have. Some of elme, some of box, some of Maple, some of Holly, etc. Mazers, broadmouthed dishes, noggins, whiskins, piggins, crinzes, ale bowles, wassell bowles, court dishes, tankards, karmes (from a bottle to a pint and gill) Other bottles, we have of leather (but they most used amoungst the shepards and harvest people of the country) Small jacks we have in many ale houses of the citie and suburbs, tipt with silver, besides the great black jacks and bombards at the court, which when the Frenchmen first saw, they reported at their return with their(own) country that ‘the Englishmen used to drink out of their bootes.’
I am afraid I have not been able to source this quote.)

This quote would also seem to indicate that specifically bottles of leather were, by this time, viewed as a country-bumpkin vessel. However, the leather bottle recovered from the Mary Rose (left), by its decoration and location, would indicate that this was not always the case.

Certainly, what I have interpreted as leather bottles, by their colouring, shape and use, appearing in a 15th C. manuscript illustration (below), would also indicate their use on the Continent in earlier times. There are reputedly existing examples of bottle moulds, but the only documentation I have for this is third-hand. The fashioning of leather bottles was the exclusive right of the leatherworkers’ guilds, and as such, no methodology was published in period. It is likely that the methods used closely parallel those used in period, inasmuch as the basic tools and materials used were those available to Late Mediaeval craftsmen, and the basic techniques as well. This is not intended as a treatise on Mediaeval leatherworking per se, but only on its application in the fashioning of this bottle. From the Mary Rose find, it can be seen that the leather bottle, by its very nature hard-wearing and sturdy, was owned by either a soldier or sailor, in either case a Tudor fighting man. The hunt illumination shows it in use by the huntsmen of a noble, where again its toughness would be appreciated.


Hunt scene from manuscript 15th C. Gaston Phoebus’ Book of the Hunt – Bibliotheque Nationale

1. Close-up of huntsman drinking
2. Close-up of flask chilling
3. Close-up of flask on table

In period, it seems likely that there would be two ways of constructing such a bottle. Waterer believes that either the pieces would be moulded in wooden shapes and then stitched together, or else stitched together, then stretched to shape by a sand filling. I have only anecdotal reference to the existence of moulds, but a period reference for the use of sand in a different, but closely allied, context, led me to the second method for this project. Cennini, in discussing the manufacture of leather crests for jousting helmets, discusses sewing two halves of the crest together, leaving an opening:

“…so that you can put sand into it; and press it with a little stick until it is all quite full. When you have done this, put it in the sun for several days. When it is quite dry, take the sand out of it.” (Cennini, trans. Thompson)

The end result of this process would be a hollow leather crest, probably quite hard given the Italian climate, ready for painting and gilding. I considered that there is a close enough parallel to justify my use of a similar method, as described by Waterer as well, in the construction of my bottle. Waterer was also the main reference for my choice of waterproofing. Various society members, in pursuing similar projects, have used either pitch (pine as well as bitumen) or wax as the waterproofing method. While no direct methodology references are known to occur, there is in existence Parisian guild ordinances of 1473 and 1560. Waterer states that the later reference is often cited to point to bottles being hardened by boiling in wax, but goes on to make a convincing argument that the earlier reference points to use of the wax inside the bottles i.e. as waterproofing. Waterer is of the opinion that the wax was intended as waterproofing and finishing only, and that hardening is the result of baking the moulded object at low temperatures. This is therefore the construction method employed here, with notes on where I believe the method diverges from likely period methods, and how:

1) The two matched pieces of 8 oz vegetable-tanned cowhide are cut out with a knife. The two halves are sewn together in saddle-stitch using linen thread, waxed with beeswax. Stitch-holes are punched with an awl, and thread is drawn through using curved steel needles. Period needles would more likely be brass alloy, or hog-bristles.

2) The proto-bottle is soaked in cold water for a few hours. Nothing unusual there.

3) The carved design on the front is done. I chose the merlion because it is a carved figure I have had much practice in. Carving leather is a period practice, as can be seen in the incised designs on the bottle from the Mary Rose.

4) The bottle is stuffed with sand (construction sand, if anyone is interested) to stretch the leather to its current shape. A wooden dowel is used to ram sand in, then left in the neck to give it a cylindrical shape. All perfectly period, as per Cennini. By the end of all this, the bottle is no longer soaked, merely slightly damp.

5) The bottle is baked in an electric oven at ±75° C for several hours. This is not likely to have been the period method! Leaving it in the sun, as for Cennini’s crests, would lead to some hardening, but some sort of baking would be better. Waterer speaks of some sort of “heated chamber (‘the stove’)”, by which I take it to mean an oven, either wood- or coal-fired was employed.

6) The dry, hard bottle is dyed black. A modern, spirit-based dye was used, but period black dyes for leather were considered. These include ‘coperas water’ (iron salts) which react with tanned leather to colour it black, as well as vegetable dyes. It was decided that the use of a modern dye would not impact significantly on the exercise.

7) The carved design is gilded. Cennini mentions the gilding of heraldic designs on crests and other fittings of the nobility, so I decided it would be appropriate here.I used an alloy leaf, rather than real gold, for reasons of expense. I used a modern size, rather than a period one, because I had not worked with gold leaf before, and did not want to learn two new skills (size preparation and leaf application)at once.

8) Beeswax is melted in a double-boiler, poured into the bottle, then poured out, leaving a waterproofing layer. Testing shows that all the seams are not waterproofed, so a second internal application is done, as well as an external application just along the seams. The bottle is now waterproof. Waterer believes that total immersion in the wax may have been the method, but this seems to be unnecessary.

9) A thin layer of beeswax is painted by brush onto the whole outside as a finish. This is then “boned” into the surface with a heated loop of wire. This has the added benefit of mixing soot in with the surface wax, colouring it black. Unstained wax is still evident in places. Such a finishing technique is traditional for leather objects, but I have no evidence for it’s use in period. It is done merely to bring out the rich glow of the wax, and shine up the leather.

10) A top is carved out of wood, covered with leather, and decorated with brass nails. Period examples used wooden or leather-covered wooden stoppers. The Mary Rose bottle, for example, has a carved wooden stopper covered with leather.

The main primary source for this piece is the illumination mentioned above, as well as the photograph of the recovered bottle. Unfortunately, these are both internet-based resources. Alas, I have not been able to use what would be the best secondary source, “Black Jacks and Leather Bottells” by Oliver Baker. I remain indebted to Waterer, even though only an extract of his work was available to me. His arguments for the internal use of wax, and the process of moulding the bottle, influenced my work greatly. I have included the relevant extract as an appendix.

The only real modern materials used were the modern dyes, and modern gilding materials. These were used primarily for reasons of reduced expense. I have already noted the use of an electric oven, but I do not believe this influenced the resultant product at all. I do not have a period reference for this exact shape of bottle, but it is the one put forward in the Compleat Anachronist article referenced.

I believe my methods are as close to those a period artisan would employ as possible, and the chief materials (leather, linen thread and beeswax) and tools (awl, needles and knife)used were certainly those known to be used by leatherworkers of the time. I believe the project was a success. Next time, I might use thinner leather because I found the stitching to be the hardest part. Thinner leather, once hardened, would still be sturdy enough, I believe. The only other thing I’d do differently, is make a bigger vessel. This one only holds 200 ml or so, and since really strong alcohol dissolves wax, the strongest liquour it can hold is wine. And, if I may conclude on a selfish note, 200ml is hardly enough!

Bibliography

Cennino d’Andrea Cennini trans. Daniel V. Thompson Jr. The Craftman’s Handbook “Il Libro dell’ Arte” (Dover, 1960)

Compleat Anachronist No’s 8 and 18, Leatherworking Articles (Society for Creative Anachronism, 1983/1985)

Waterer, John W. Leather and The Warrior (extract) (The Museum Of Leathercraft, Northhampton, 1981)

Websites

The Bibliothèque Nationale de France presents: The Age of King Charles V (1338-1380) 1,000 Illuminations from the Department of Manuscripts.
www.bnf.fr/enluminures/manuscrits/aman10/i5_0040.htm (See Fig. 1)

The Mary Rose – (Built between 1509 and 1511, sunk in 1545)
www.maryrose.org/lcity/cook/men3.htm (See Fig. 2)

Stefan’s Florilegium article on leather bottles
www.florilegium.org/files/BEVERAGES/lea-bottles-msg.html