Bill Simms collects advertisements set in stone

At least 80 years before stoneware jugs were offered by merchants, customers relied on this “master container” demijohn from which to buy cups of spirits. Held by collector Bill Simms and dating to about 1835, demijohns are valued as decorator pieces and by collectors for their unique color and character.

Advertising today means being on social media platforms that create electronic images that wow and dazzle potential customers. With sound, color, movement and state of the art graphics, company ads fight for every penny of the consumer’s retail dollars.

A century ago, local merchants relied on their names being stenciled or incised into stoneware crocks and jugs and embossed into glassware to garner customer traffic and hold it. 

Unlike visual images on laptops, cellphones or electronic notebooks, the images of the past can be touched. And, as collectors discovered decades ago, they can be collected.

Today collectors want local pieces, items that were produced for area merchants of yesterday.

Bill Simms, of Salisbury, almost 92, has been a bottle and stoneware  dealer and collector for 70 years.

The Wicomico County native has a legendary reputation for being a persistent, determined and aggressive figure in the collecting world. Hands down, there’s no doubt Simms is the oldest collector on the Eastern Shore with the most years of collecting. He’s also one of the Shore’s premier collectors of rare glass bottles.

Forget the “senior citizen” label, Simms is no pussy cat when on the trail of a choice collectable. Under that stereotypical, sweet great-grandfather image, with white hair, spectacles, and a soft voice, is a Tasmanian devil on a mission.

Simms, weighing in at 147 pounds, (almost the same weight he’s maintained for the past 70 years), is a 5-foot, 6-inch whirlwind powerhouse with a passionate collector’s soul. He has no equal on the Shore.

He buys and sells, swaps and trades glassware and stoneware of the past to acquire choice pieces.

The pride of his stoneware collection is a plump, short, grayish-colored whiskey jug.

“This was made in Baltimore for the S. Ulman and Bro., business firm in Salisbury and dates to after the Civil War,” he said. Sure, enough, the neat incised letters on the side of the jug, near the top, reads, S. Ulman & Bro. Wholesale & Retail  Dealers in Liquors, Cigars & Tobacco Dock St. Salisbury, Md.

“It was made for Ulman (sometimes spelled Ullmann) and Bro., but it was empty when it came here from Baltimore and probably filled at the store the Ulman’s operated on Dock Street (near the western end of the Downtown Plaza). Each time it was empty, it was brought back and refilled, and the name on the side encouraged customers to come back to that precise store to get a refill,” he said. 

Heavy and chunky, the half-gallon-size whiskey jug probably had a corn cob to seal the spout. Like most things of yesterday, it was built to last.

Now, more than 150-years-old, the jug is a most desirable piece. Some collectors would cherish the piece even if it was void of the business name and information, but with it, the humble piece of stoneware gets respect as it can command a few hundred dollars, up to a thousand, depending on size, condition and advertising.

Many merchants of the past relied on crocks and jugs to encourage repeat business. Now, all that is left of many businesses, that once were so important to the area economy, are a few rare and sought-after pieces of stoneware. Originally they may have cost just pennies or may have been given as Christmas gifts by shop owners to value customers, yet the money they fetch now would have bought the entire store inventory of the day. 

Even during the earliest years of his youth, many folks carried small and large jugs to country stores for refills, or topped them off at home with bootleg whiskey.

They embody local retail history. Now they are stoneware works of art with their appealing simplicity, color, texture and incised script.

The bottle and stoneware collecting bug got him when his two sons were youngsters. “I didn’t hunt deer or turkeys and I didn’t want to take them hunting, so I came up with something we could all enjoy,” he said.

They are sweet, delicious finds, wonderful visual delights from the Civil War years onwards. In a few years he transitioned from a bottle digger to a collector. The artistic appeal of glass and stoneware crocks captured him.

No longer digging them, Simms began finding them through auctions and private sales and fellow collectors.

Even moderately-priced pharmacy bottles ($35 and up) have charm and appeal, as a piece of clear glass can bring local history alive.

“White and Leonard Co., that’s once was on the Downtown Plaza,  had their now pharmacy bottles, as did Reed’s Drug Store,” he said.  The two became iconic core businesses of Downtown Salisbury that have faded away.

As rare as it gets, this is the only known example of a soda or beer bottle produced about 1880 for the “S Ulman & Bro.” business that operated, as the lettering says, on “Dock Str.”

 “All prominent pharmacists had their own medicine bottles,” he said. These small, seemingly “routine bottles” have value, from about $35 up into the hundreds, or even more, depending on age, condition, location and rarity.

Simms has a two-gallon-size stoneware liquor jug with the incised lettering that reads “From DJ Holloway  & Co., Wholesale & Retail Liquor Dealers, Salisbury, Md.”

Not long ago, Wicomico County Councilman (District 5) and Parsonsburg businessman, Joe Holloway, said he owned a similar jug.

“It probably was my ancestor,” Holloway said. “Going back 150 years ago, I’d say all the Holloways around here were related.”

The probable ancestral bond to the mysterious Holloway wasn’t strong enough for the councilman to cherish the jug as an heirloom. He sold it.

Collector Bill Simms holds a 2-gallon stoneware jug that dates to the late 1800s. It reads: “From D J Holloway & Co Wholesale Retail Liquor Dealer, Salisbury Md.” Its color and crisp lettering adds to the value.

The jug Simms owns is brownish gray. The surface is like that of a grapefruit, surprisingly textured and glassy-smooth. It was never intended to be a valuable or artistic collectible, yet these handmade stoneware items have become just that. They have a mystical appeal, just looking at them puts one in touch with yesterday’s simple, safer, kinder life.

Before Pocomoke City was Pocomoke, it was on the maps as “Newtown,” Simms said, and he has a rare crock of “Merrill & Dryden, Dealers in Dry Goods & Groceries, Newton Md.”

Then, too, there’s the desirable one and a half gallon crock with the incised blue lettering that reads “From Colgan & Phoebus, Dealers in Dry Goods, Groceries & C, Princess Anne.“ 

Advertising jugs and crocks routinely are found on the Shore, Simms, said, that also promoted Baltimore businesses. Shoppers routinely went from the Eastern Shore to Baltimore and brought home city goods.

Even the smallest towns, like Princess Anne, often had merchants investing in advertising wares.

A 2-gallon whiskey jug from Sharptown, that reads “From Smith & Caulk, Sharptown, Md.” It has a rich, earthy, reddish-brown patina that draws the eye and begs to be touched.

It is poignant that of all the personalities, inventory, the shops and routine life of that business, all that remains is this humble jug. Wars have come and gone, generations have home and gone, yet here it is, a piece of small-town history embodied forever in a stoneware liquor container.

Like so many items in the antique market, values have changed dramatically over the years.

“People no longer collect like they did,” he said. Surprisingly even the value of good larger pieces of stoneware, especially those without advertising, have slipped over recent year, but the “good stuff, the rare stuff,” he said, is holding its own.

Cracks can cut the price of a stoneware or glassware piece 75 percent to 95 percent, depending on the extent of damage.

Meet the collector

As a boy and adult, Simms worked for the legendary Victor Lynn trucking and freight company in Salisbury.

The Victor Lynn freight dock once operated on the shore of the Wicomico River,  across from where Brew River is now located.

Simms began working there as a 9th-grader at Wicomico High School student, typing freight bills. After taking a typing course, the teen-ager was zipping through 70 words a minute, a plus for his part-time job.

His father, Bill, ran Victor Lynn during World War II. The freight company had four boats, Red Star, Victor Lynn, Henrietta Frances, and the Cleo. Truck “feeder lines” distributed freight across Wicomico, Worcester and Somerset counties. 

German prisoners of war came from their camp in Westover to work at the company, unloading ships and trucks. Only one, a school teacher, could speak English and through him the young Simms, working as a dock foreman during the summer, gave instructions.

The Victor Lynn dock was just a few minutes walking distance to the location of Dock Street, home to numerous businesses of the mid-1800s and early 1900s that offered the much-cherished stoneware crocks and jugs Simms would later collect.

Simms stayed through various reincarnations of the business, including Eastern Freightways and retired almost 30 years ago from Roadway Express.

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