Demijohn port bottle

Demijohn port bottle

Date: late 18th century

Origin: Brazil, via Portugal to California

Materials: Glass

Size: 19”H x 13”W x 8”D

Object ID: WHP-BOT157

As a note: In Britain, demijohn is an imperial gallon or 4.5 L (liters) and is a glass brewing vessel.

Wine bottles made of glass with a balloon-shaped body are known as balloon bottles. In the 17th century, the first small bottles were fabricated where the bottom was only about half the circumference of the middle belly of the bottle, eventually being produced in many sizes from two to fifty liters.

These types of bottles were fragile and would break easily or could be damaged by harmful light. Therefore, these fragile bottles were often covered with a weaving of straw, willow, or raffia materials; they became known as wicker bottles. The “coverings” often included woven handles which were either one or two-handled; and the bottles eventually evolved into a variety of shapes and sizes. Large balloon bottles were filled with wine and olive oil; and because wine was sold over the counter, merchants ladled wine into these wicker bottles for customers.

Wicker Bottles Worldwide in the 19th Century

The process to wrap the bottle was called “wickering;” now that term is used to describe furniture-making using wicker materials. The etymology of the word wicker is from the Middle English wiker and is of Scandinavian origin. People during the Victorian Era (1837-1901) found wicker inexpensive, it resisted harsh weather, was adaptable and believed it to be more sanitary than other materials.

Nationality and Term Used

  • Persian: Qarabah
  • French, at times British: Dame-Jeanne
  • Argentinean, Spaniard, Philippino: Damajuana
  • Italian: Damigiana
  • Bulgarian: Damadzhana
  • Provencal: Damajano
  • American: Demijohn, or Demijon

Glass Blowing in the 19th Century

Molten glass was produced by heating pure sand/silica to a temperature of at least 3100 Fahrenheit in furnaces (called tanks); adding soda ash and limestone allowed the sand to melt at lower temperatures. The tanks had side holes, known as “glory holes”, where the glassblower had access to the molten glass.

In the 19th century practically all bottles were still made by glass blowers. Because of the complexities of making glass, mechanization, which had affected most other industries in the United States by this time, did not occur. Glass had characteristics that were difficult to control by a machine; such as viscosity, surface tension, and density.

During the early decades of the 1800s, glass blowers utilized a hollow iron blow pipe (which changed eventually to a solid iron pipe), or pontil, with a gob of molten glass at the end of it; the blow pipe being swung overhead to create the initial shape of the bottle. Then, using wooden tools a finisher worked the glass into its final shape.

The New England Glass Company perfected the process by the 1820s by pressing the glass into molds. Common or green glass was used for various containers and household bottles. From my research, there were five to seven people in each of the glass shops of the mid-nineteenth century; two to three skilled blowers and finishers and three to four young boys who opened the molds and carried the glass from blower to finisher to cooling oven.

The term for bottle finishes, or the “lips” of the bottle, comes from the bottle production process when bottles were mouth blown. The last step in that process was to “finish the lip;” also referred to as corkage, top, or mouth. Between 1830 and 1885 the most common way in America to finish a bottle was an additional application of a “string” of hot glass where the blowpipe was removed. It is generally referred to as an applied or tooled finish.

The Origin of Wicker Coverings

Archaeological records in Italy from as early as the 14th century show that the wicker bottle was used in apothecaries and chemistries. According to writings, paintings, and pictorial evidence, the shape and function of the wicker bottle allowed people to use the larger wicker containers for wine, olive oil, and food provisions; writings from the 15th century confirm that wine, like bread, was considered a nutritious food.

From my readings, there were decrees and laws during these centuries in an attempt to remedy the fraud of evading taxes on transporting wine. In an article titled “The Wicker Bottle: A Long History from its Origins to the Seventeenth Century” by Silvia Ciappi written September 20, 2019, an announcement of 1481 established a “limit to the sale of the wine in wicker bottles because the lightness and the low cost of such containers simplified the direct relation between producer and consumer.”

In a description of the Italian language (1887–1897) in the Novo Vocabolario by Crusco the wicker bottle is described as “a glass vase, round and thick, without foot; with a covering of straws, which surround the body, and support it at the base.”


Originally a demijohn, or as some called it a “glass balloon,” was defined as a bulbous narrow-necked bottle holding from 1.5–15 gallons (4.5–45 liters) of liquid and was typically encased in wicker, bamboo, reeds, sedges, willow twigs and sometimes leather which was to cover and protect the fragile blown glass for storage and shipping in transit on long wagon or ship rides. Transporting liquids was difficult to do because of glass fragility. The demijohn was ideal for the many types of liquids to be transported, such as molasses, cider, olive oil, brandy, rum and sherry.

In the United States, glass companies produced these large capacity demijohns between 1870 and 1930, with their workers utilizing lip finishing tools. This tool with a large central plug bore into the bottle to be finished and would form the finish as the bottle rotated and the jaws of the tool held the bottle steady. For more information on this tool, see the article “Crown ‘Lipping’ or ‘Finishing’ Tool for Bottlemaking” from our website.

We believe that the cylinder style for demijohns was more prevalent in the late 1800s and into the early 20th century; in most cases, the rounded bottom started to change to a smooth bottom because of glass companies taking on the automated production of glass making for bottles.

The Demijohn – From Glass Balloon to Glass Cylinder

Even though wine has been part of life for millennia, the wine containers that wine is stored or packaged in have changed. In a future article, we will discuss the progression from qvevri or kvevris, to amphorae and dolia changing to wooden barrels, finally leading to glass bottles. The glass bottles themselves have changed in shape; beginning as squat shapes with large bases and short necks.

Probably the oldest example of the shape just described in the Wine History Project collection is the port shaped demijohn bottle shown above.

Demijohn – The Origin of the Name: Persia or Provence?

There are at least two interpretations of the name. According to one version, the name of Lady Jeanne is derived from the Persian city of Damghan, famous for its glass works. The second version, which is most commonly mentioned in various sources, refers to an anecdote with Queen Joanna I of Naples and Countess of Provence (1326-1382). She was expelled from Italy with her husband in 1347 and fled to Provence. There she found shelter in the workshop of a glassblower near the municipality of Grasse during a storm. She became interested in the production of bottles and had the glassblower make special types with a volume of about 10 liters.

Demijohns – The European Connection

As a note: The Greeks planted vines and pressed wine in Provence as early as the 6th century B.C.

In Italy, large balloon bottles made of glass and usually 28 to 53 liters and wrapped in wicker, were filled and sold on the spot. These vessels were used for olive oil or vino sciolto (open wine), both liquid products being filled in the Damigiana that the buyer would bring with them.

In Portugal and Spain, maturing sherry and port wine were stored in 45 liter-sized Damajuanas; then the contents were decanted into normal bottles before being marketed.

A demijohn, or large belly bottle, is still used today mostly for storing and transporting brandy and rum in German Lower Saxony.

These types of bottles were used in America at least as early as the middle of the 18th century although at that time they would have been predominantly imported from Europe.

Demijohns – Colors, Shapes, and Sizes

Two common shapes refer to demijohns; a flattened apple and a tapered cylinder. By the middle of the 18th century, French manufacturers were advertising in American newspapers wickered bottles for export that would hold up to five gallons. Because there were no markings from a glasswork or manufacturer of glass, it is virtually impossible to attribute an individual bottle to a particular glasswork.

The cylinder-shaped demijohns with an average size of 15-16 inches in height and 5-6 inches in diameter would have had oil type finishes, hold upwards of two gallons of liquid, would have been blown in two-piece base molds, and would date from the last quarter of the 19th century. They were covered for protection and sometimes had a woven wicker handle for carrying and pouring.

The majority of these narrow-bodied demijohns would have been blown in shades of amber or aqua glass; more uncommon are shades of moderate to deep green, or cobalt or sapphire blues. Our research concludes that the colors of glass for the bottles of this type include the following:

  • Colorless (clear)
  • Aquamarine
  • Opaque White or Milk Glass
  • Non-Olive Green
  • Blue-Green
  • Olive Green
  • Olive Amber
  • Amber
  • True Blue
  • Purple/Amethyst/Red
  • and the rarest of all – Black Glass (dark olive)

The wider bodied demijohns in America were a later design.

Demijohns – Modern Day Collectors

It seems like many people found (and still find) demijohns attractive as decor and because they looked cool and held up well because of their wicker, raffia or bark coverings. So they kept them, eventually letting them go. Later 19th century demijohns were mostly made of stronger glass which is why they are still out there, available at antique websites and on eBay.

Building The Wine History Project Collections

The Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo County has 22 rare wicker-covered demijohn bottles, 14 round-bottomed balloon bottles, and several unique “naked” 18th and 19th century mouth-blown bottles. Additionally there are the Italian Swiss Colony fiasco bottles and other miscellaneous bottles from the 19th and early 20th century in the collection. When I asked Jim McCormick of the California Wine Museum, about the items we purchased from his Museum Collection to identify the provenance of each of the bottles he stated “They came from many sources, but mostly each was bought in California at one venue or another.” He continued, “I rarely bought demijohns at auction, although some. Many were found searching in old properties and on ranches and vineyard properties or at bottle shows.”

Some Examples Of Demijohns From The Wine History Project Of San Luis Obispo County Collection

The Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo County is fortunate to have in our collection many various shapes and sizes of surviving demijohns covered by wicker or dried vegetation. Most wicker coverings on demijohns have disintegrated over time because of this covering that fell apart with time because of storage in a dry place, like an attic or cellar.

Even though our collection contains 22 wicker-covered demijohns in various shapes, we have included only nine, ranging in color of glass bottles and height from 5 inches to 21 inches. We have also included one “naked” demijohn bottle that appears to be mouth free-blown dating back to the mid-19th century for comparison.



Materials: Glass and wicker

Object ID: WHP-BOT801



Materials: Glass and wicker

Object ID: WHP-BOT804



Materials: Glass,willow-wrapped, wire, reed

Object ID: WHP-BOT805



Materials: Glass and wicker

Object ID: WHP-BOT806



Materials: Glass and wicker

Object ID: WHP-BOT808



Materials: Glass and wicker

Object ID: WHP-BOT809



Materials: Glass and wicker

Object ID: WHP-BOT810



Materials: Glass and wicker

Object ID: WHP-BOT813



Materials: Glass and wicker

Object ID: WHP-BOT816



Materials: Glass and wicker

Object ID: WHP-BOT825

Balloon Glass, Chianti Or Fiasco (Plural Fiaschi)

A bottle typically found on the tables of both Popes and peasants in Italy was the fiasco. But because this type of bottle usually has a round body and bottom, it was completely or in some cases partially covered with a close-fitting straw or sala (sun)-dried swamp weed basket. That allowed the bottle contained by the basket to continue to have a round bottom glass bottle which was simpler to make by the glass blowers in the country.

This basket covering provided protection during both handling and transportation while giving a flat base for the bottle container. The bottle shape could be packed for transport efficiently; alternating an upright bottle with an inverted bottle.


Archives of Pearson Scott Foresman, donated to the Wikimedia Foundation.

Glassblowing (both free-blowing and mold-blowing) involves inflating molten glass into a bubble with the aid of a blowpipe or blowtube.

From research, I have found that the fiaschi glass business in Italy, employed about 1,000 glass blowers and 30,000 basket weavers beginning early in the 20th century. This bottle business was so important to the Italian economy that the Comissionaria Industria Fiaschi, a manufacturer’s association, was established in 1933 at Empoli, an agricultural town 12 miles south of Florence, Tuscany.

A description of the basket surrounding the bottle of this type of wine bottle used a systematic approach to the wrapping of the sala. The straw bands were either horizontal or vertical. Horizontal bands had careful weaving and a reinforced base; these bottles were used for export to other countries and the circular molding at the base (torus) was made of scrap straw tied with straw blades (salicchio). If the basket had handles, they were made of twisted straw. If there were vertical bands around the fiaschi it meant these bottles were destined for local markets.

Starting in the 1950s the manufacture of the baskets and the bottles became increasingly automated. In fact, in order to attempt to restore the classical wine bottle to a place of importance, a 1965 law stated that the fiasco was “reserved for wine of legally controlled denomination” or in Italian, Denominazione di Origine Controllata. The Bordeaux-style bottle became more popular with wine producers and the government and wine industry regulated bottle types; therefore eventually the fiasco lost its place on lunch/dinner/supper tables.

Nowadays the fiasco is not commonly used for storing and selling wine, but it is sold in Italy as a souvenir or a decorative item.

Some Examples of Fiaschi From The Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo County Collection

We have 14 round-bottomed, balloon glass bottles in the collection, but chose to include this small, green glass, mold-blown with applied lip example as labeled WHP-BOT824.

Fiasco, Chianti, Balloon glass

Fiasco, Chianti, Balloon glass

Materials: Glass and cork

Object ID: WHP-BOT824

Fiasco, Chianti, Balloon glass

Fiasco, Chianti, Balloon glass

Date: 1950s-1970s

Origin: Asti, California, Sonoma Valley

Materials: Glass, Raffia, Paper, Plastic

Object ID: WHP-BOT152A/B

And Now a Story of Demijohns and Prohibition….

New Jersey’s Liberty Hall Museum Built in 1772 – Discovery Hidden Under Straw in the Attic and Behind a Wall Built During the Prohibition Era

One of the largest and most extraordinary collections of early Madeira in the United States was discovered during a renovation project of the Liberty Hall Museum in 2015. This building was the home to many notable figures in history including Alexander Hamilton (U.S. Treasury Secretary), William Livingston (first Governor of New Jersey, a signatory of the American Constitution), Henry Brockholst Livingston (U.S. Supreme Court Justice), and the Kean political dynasty/family (many U.S. Senators and Congressmen).

Approximately forty demijohns from the 1820s were found in the attic buried under straw, still labeled with handwritten tags, and referenced in documents relating to the house. Robert Lenox, Esq. who was a banker and financier was referenced in this paperwork; he was known to import Madeira in demijohns and then bottle and label it once it arrived. Beginning in 1795, he was the exclusive U.S. importer for Newton, Gordon & Murdoch, the largest shipper of quality Madeira at that time.

John Kean Sr., President of Liberty Hall at the time of this discovery, said in an interview that he was “going to give them away to our employees because they like to make lamps out of them”. It is fortunate that did not happen. He continued with, “he was unaware that Madeira didn’t spoil, and assumed instead that the hundreds of bottles of wine in the hidden compartment behind the wall were unfit to drink.” “Initially, we decided to leave them as they were and as a prop for visitors to look at,” he revealed.

According to history, the original thirteen colonies imported about 95 percent of the wine produced on the Portuguese islands of Madeira. Madeira was a popular beverage in the early United States, chiefly because it was easy to ship, and it lasted. Madeira was used to toast both the Declaration of Independence and the inauguration of George Washington. Chief Justice John Marshall, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were all noted collectors. See our Wines in the White House section of the Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo County website for additional information.

After they did background research, the Liberty Hall Museum Director of Museum Operations Bill Schroh, Jr. determined they had something very rare for the United States. So, Christie’s Auctions and Private Sales, a British auction house founded in 1766 by James Christie, was contacted to appraise the found Madeira demijohns. Edwin Vos, Christie’s Head of Wine, after the first tasting states “from demijohn number one on we were just flabbergasted by the quality of the wines”.

The sale, Finest Wines and Spirits, Including The Liberty Hall Museum Collection of Historic Madeira and an Extraordinary Collection of Pre-Prohibition Whiskey, took place on December 7, 2018, at Christie’s at 20 Rockefeller Center in New York. The sale total including the buyer’s premium was USD 3,015,521.

The discovery of these demijohns represents one of “the largest known early collections of Madeira in the United States and one of the most extensive in the world.”