Distinctive bottles of many shapes and hues, displayed in the windows of medieval apothecaries, lured ailing customers to buy their contents. By the 18th century, England was producing more than 200 elixirs and serums, their secret formulas known only to their makers.
Called patent medicines, these “amazing cures” were manufactured under grants to those who provided medicine to the Royal family. Each medicine came in its uniquely colored, hand-blown bottle. By the late 1700s, these elixirs began to arrive in the United States with the first settlers.
After American independence, rising nationalistic feelings were exploited by U.S. manufacturers, who claimed that their potions were derived from plant products found exclusively in North America. Self-medication was alluring to early Americans, who often had limited access to medicines or doctors, and the patent-medicine business flourished. Remedies, often laced with alcohol, morphine, opium or cocaine, were virtually unregulated and available for every known ailment.
By the mid-19th century, doctors, tinsmiths and everyone in between promoted their “branded” concoctions, each with its unique bottle. Sold in retail stores and at traveling medicine shows, they relied on attractive bottles to promote their exotic ingredients. From the 19th to the mid-20th century, a variety of glass medicine vessels, numbering in the thousands, were manufactured to contain an equally prodigious number of brands.
The earliest of these bottles were made from natural sand, which gave them an opaque aquamarine color. In 18th- and 19th-century America, glass bottles were often hand-blown and misshapen or asymmetrical. Because they had to be detached from the blowpipe when finished, a round imprint on the bottom of the bottle – known as a pontil mark or scar – was created.
Early experimentation with additives in glass manufacturing resulted in green, amber or blue bottles. Colored, pontiled medicine bottles are scarce, and prices range from $100 to $20,000. These rarefied bottles are typically a color other than aqua or clear, with a pontil scar on the base. They are embossed with the name of the doctor or the type of “medicine,” as in “Cure,” “Bitters,” “Tonic” or “Sarsaparilla.” The more common aqua medicines with pontils sell for upwards of $20. (Clear glass was not perfected until the late 19th century; hence, a clear bottle is a later bottle.)
One of the clues for dating a bottle is the lip, as nearly all bottles made prior to 1870 had a hot piece of glass crudely applied to the lip. As a rule of thumb, bottles made from 1830 to 1850 have a flared or sheared lip and those made from 1840 to 1870 have applied round or squared lips. After 1870, a lipping tool was used to twist two pieces of glass clipped onto the sides of the bottle into a uniform shape. Bottles from the last part of the 19th century show evidence of this twisting motion.
One of the many popular patent products sold via elaborate traveling shows was Kickapoo Indian Sagwa. Featuring acrobats and Native American horse riders, the shows traveled the countryside, touting their cure-all as a blood, liver and stomach remedy. The richly embellished bottles claimed to contain special Native America herbal medicine, which was actually mostly alcohol, stale beer and a strong laxative. They did, in fact, contained a touch of herbs.
In 1906, the industry received its fatal blow when Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act. The U.S. government had finally stepped in to stop the sale of these “medicines,” the sellers of which made unproven, often outrageous claims about their curing everything from tuberculosis and colds to cancer.
Even so, a few patent medicines continued to be produced up through the 1950s. Some products continue to be sold even today, such as Father John’s Medicine. First produced by Father John O’Brien in Lowell, Massacheusetts, in 1855, its brown bottle still retains its familiar picture of Father John.
More than 10,000 types of patent medicine bottles were produced and distributed throughout the United States between approximately 1850 and 1906. Historians have estimated that more than 15,000 different medicines were available in these bottles.
In 1892, Owens Glass Company invented the semi-automatic bottle machine, which left a large ring, known as the Owens’ ring, on the bottle’s base. At around that time, the typical color of glass used for bottles changed from aqua to clear. Fewer bottles were embossed by the late 1930s and into the 1940s, and bottles lost their individuality as food manufacturers demanded more regular containers. The bubbles and the charming irregularities that collectors love disappeared as the 20th century progressed.
Michelle Galler has been an antiques dealer for more than 25 years. Her shop is in Rare Finds, 211 Main Street, Washington, Virginia. She also consults from her 19th-century home in Georgetown. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.