Bottle tickets, also referred to as ‘wine labels’, have been in use since the early 18th Century. Their predominant use (as their name suggests) is to indicate the content of a certain bottle or decanter. They became more necessary when silver and glass decanters grew in popularity; as there would be no inscription or indication on the decanter itself. Another factor that led to their necessity was the influx of a wider variety of wine and other drinks during the 18th century- more to drink and more to label!
They weren’t strictly used for drinks however; bottle tickets could also label condiments and toiletries such as cologne, tooth mixture, barley water, vinegar, mustard, lime juice among other things. Although these versatile tickets are most frequently crafted in silver, there have been many fine examples found crafted in different materials such as enamel, plated metals, mother of pearl, zinc, nickel, porcelain, tortoiseshell, bone ivory, cork, tusk or even tigers’ claw. In various forms and having various uses, these small collectors’ items have stood the test of time and are still used today for special occasions and important dinners.
Not only are they terribly handy for labelling things, they can also be helpful for disguising beverages that were perhaps more frowned upon. Gin for example, was a traditionally ‘sniffed at’ drink choice. Instead of the word ‘Gin’ therefore, some labels would denote the beverage by the word ‘Nig’, or-more crudely- ‘Mother’s ruin’. Bottle tickets could also be useful if you wanted to decant a perhaps ‘less impressive’ wine into a different, unmarked bottle in the deviant hope that no one would know the difference!
Bottle tickets grew in popularity hand in hand with the advent of the decanter. During the late 17th and 18th century, decanters became a common household item among the British aristocracy. After a formal dinner, the men of the group would stay up long after the wives and children had gone to bed; they would use this leisure time to pass round various decanters of wine- much more civilised than just passing the bottles. The decanters of course, were not labelled; therefore bottle tickets were essential for knowing what was what during these late evening soirees.
The bottle ticket (or wine label) can come in many different forms; the most common you’ll find however, is a fairly simple rectangular shape with cut off corners. It isn’t rare to come across more elaborate shapes: bottle tickets have been crafted in the shape of cupids, satyrs, goblets, vine leaves, grapes, and foxes just to name a few. Many early labels only bear a maker's mark, as each weighed less than ten penny weights. They were thus excluded from hallmarking until 1784 when new regulations were introduced.