A Tonic a Day Keeps the Doctor Away
by Jessica Kosinski
Pharmaceutical bottles, also known as apothecary bottles, have been popular collectibles since their earliest uses. They come in a wide variety of colors and shapes, making them pleasing to the eye and perfect for display. They also have practical uses, which can be appealing to collectors with limited space who want to collect useful objects. The history of pharmaceutical bottles is one full of whimsical designs and creative storytelling. Let’s take a peek at how these strange and interesting bottles have captured collectors’ hearts through the years.
Medieval Alchemy Bottles
Many believe the tradition of collecting pharmaceutical bottles dates back to medieval European alchemists. They used bottles to display their herbal concoctions, often touting those concoctions as cures for specific ailments or magical potions able to spark such things as love or good luck. Although it is unlikely any of those bottles were collected for enjoyment, many were held onto for practical reasons. The bottles could be reused for other purposes once the herbal solutions were gone.
For a long period of time beginning around 1750, British apothecaries sprung up everywhere. The mixtures their proprietors sold were often called “patent medicines.” Patent medicines drew large followings because they were widely advertised with incredible claims. Many were said to have wide-ranging restorative properties that could cure almost any ailment. One of the earliest known examples was Turlington’s Balsam of Life, which was produced for many years, beginning in the 1740s. Turlington’s was carried by British soldiers when the Revolutionary War took place. Soon after that American pharmaceutical producers started making similar tonics.
Early American Pharmaceutical Bottles
Early American medicine bottles were not high quality, and many have not survived. However, in 1818 a doctor in Pennsylvania set out to change that by starting his own glass company. Dr. Thomas William Dyott produced high-quality medicine bottles for the next two decades. Throughout the 1800s several advancements were made in glass production, and pharmaceutical bottles could be found in shops, as well as in medicine shows.
In 1881 one of the most famous medicine shows was started. It was the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company, founded in New Haven, Connecticut. It could be seen in many towns throughout Europe and North America during its run. Other medicine shows were also popular in North America around that same time. Each one used theatrical performances mixed with sales pitches to sell patent medicines.
Pharmaceutical Bottles in the 1900s
By the early 1900s Americans were becoming wary of some of the cures touted at edicine shows and on store shelves. Many had been discovered to be fake. Producers of patent medicines found a way to restore the faith of the public by putting names and faces on the bottles. The public believed anyone who would put his face on his bottle must believe in his cure. Bayer Aspirin is one of the most popular products still used today that came out of the era of name and face-backed pharmaceutical products. Another famous product that was popularized that way was Dr, Pepper; although it was initially marketed as a blood purifying tonic. When its medicinal value was found to be lacking it was re-marketed as a soft drink.
Determining the Age of a Pharmaceutical Bottle
The easiest way to determine the age of a pharmaceutical bottle is to read its label, if one still exists. You can also check for makers marks etched or embossed into the glass. Additionally, you can tell the age of a bottle somewhat by examining the base for a pontil, or rough patch occurring during the glass blowing process. Most open pontil bottles were made from the 1600s to the 1850s. Iron pontil bottles were produced primarily from the 1840s until the 1860s. If you find a bottle with no pontil at all, meaning one with a smooth base, it was likely produced between 1865 and 1917. After that most bottles produced were Automatic Bottle Machine (ABM) bottles.
Age and condition are two main factors in determining the value of a pharmaceutical bottle. If the bottle was for a known popular product, its value may also be increased. However, for most pharmaceutical bottle collectors the things that draw them in are color and shape. Clear or aqua colored bottles were the most common in early days. Therefore, they have the least value, in general. Purple, cobalt blue, and puce are among the most valuable colors. If the bottle is an unusual shape or has other interesting characteristics, its value may also be higher.
Jessica Kosinski has been a freelance writer specializing in writing short articles for 15 years. She is also an avid collector of both antique books and Star Wars memorabilia. Although she is not in the antiques industry professionally, she has learned a lot about antiques over the years by periodically helping out at her mom’s antiques shop in Greenville, NH. She currently balances maintaining the antiques shop’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/MallofNE, and working on various freelance writing assignments. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.