H.T. has a 30-inch tall demijohn, sometimes called a Dame Jeanne bottle, that is a huge 20 inches in diameter. The vintage green glass bottle is shown with a maroon colored glass stopper custom made for it (because it fits perfectly). It has been out in the garden gathering bird droppings, and she thought after owning it for 20 years it was time to clean it up; her partner rigged a contraption with baby bottle brushes on poles to clean the beast. You see it is gorgeous and perhaps rare because of its size and the fact it has its own stopper extant now, but at one time these huge (could you carry it filled with liquid?) bottles were quite commonplace.
Let us go back to the 14th century, when legend says demijohns were invented, or I should say first blown. And like so many origin myths, there are two valid versions.
Version one: These bottles, holding up to 50 liters, were first made in Persia in a glass blowing town called Damaghian. (Say this out loud if you are curious about how demijohn got its name.)
A demijohn is a bottle for liquor or oil that can hold more than 5 full modern bottles of wine or more. These bottles went all over the trade routes with liquor, packed in cases, and were imported as transport bottles, all of course hand blown, and imbedded in straw or woven around the bottle itself with wicker or reeds.
Version two: The other myth is the more colorful story of Queen Jane of Naples (Joan I, 1326-1382), later Countess of Provence. In 1347 the King and Queen of Naples were ousted from the throne and fled (of course, legend says this flight took place one stormy night) to the small town of Grasse in Provence. The first house they came upon in the storm was the house of a glassblower, who gave them shelter for as long as they desired; during the visit, Queen Jane became interested in the process of blowing glass, and asked to observe the lowly glassblower at work. So nervous was the little burgher about the Royal Gaze, that the little man blew and blew and blew the molten glass on the pontil rod, inflating “the gather” (the amount of hot glass used to make a certain size bottle) that he typically used to make a simple glass bottle to a massive translucent balloon size, however, with the skinny neck of his regular “blows.”
Queen Jane thought the huge blimp was delightful, and therefore the glassblower called the vessel The Queen Jane. Apparently the Queen, who was no longer a Queen, deferred to the name Lady Jane (Dame Jeanne). So, if you pronounce Dame Jeanne, and pretend you are French, you will also see where the name demijohn originated.
Whichever story is correct, the bottles are beloved by designers who place them in rustic but elegant settings, and can be worth, if they are older than the 1940s, around $600. The old ones (19th century) can sell for much more. H.T.’s is 20th century: I can see from the small size of the bubbles in the glass and the few imperfections that the technique of mouth-blown glass used was not the older style, usually seen with less clear, clean glass, and the lip of the huge bottle has crimped edges made by a machine or a standardized tool, not hand “deadened,” another clue that the bottle was blown post “machine age.”
The historical center for blown demijohn bottles was Spain and France, but any other country that imported liquor had these huge bottles, and here are some permutations of names.
The online wine dictionary Wein Plus gives us the names these large beasts were termed in various locations:
Demi John, demingnon, Lady Jane (in England, Portugal, and Spain for the transport of sherry and port), damajuana in Argentina, damigiana in Italy and Dame Jeanne in France.
You might wonder why all demijohns used to store and transport wine are greens of various hues. This is because wine naturally contains antioxidants, but sunlight can decay the wine’s natural preservative. Sunlight also breaks down tannins, which also protects the wine. A deeply tinted glass stops sunlight, and green comes from the minerals in the sand used to make the glass in certain wine growing areas. The value of H.T.’s demijohn is $400.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.