Bottle Typing/Diagnostic Shapes
HOME: Bottle Typing/Diagnostic Shapes: Medicinal/Chemical/Druggist Bottles
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Medicinal bottles are probably the largest and most diverse group of bottles produced during the era covered by this website - the 19th through mid 20th centuries. To quote Fike (1987) on medicine bottles - "Literally hundreds of thousands of brands and variations of vessels were manufactured..." during the noted era. This variety is not too surprising since one's health was (and still is) probably the most important personal issue of all time, made even more important during the era of primitive medical knowledge and practices and universal ignorance about hygiene and even the causes of disease. As noted in the opening line of Odell (2000), "Medicine is as old as man, no doubt born of necessity and wrought by trial and error." Self-medication was often all that could be had by most people and the ability of doctors to help a person - if they were even available - was very limited and their training and/or backgrounds often suspect. Thus, the allure of patent or proprietary medicines (Young 1961).
The picture at the top of the page shows just a tiny bit of medicinal bottle diversity which is frankly staggering in depth and variety as virtually any shape imaginable was used at some point. The bottle pictured to the left is a mid-19th century medicine with a general shape (rectangular with indented panels) that was used for tens of thousands of different medicinal products from the mid-19th century until at least the Depression in the 20th century. Though intimidating in its immense diversity there are some useful trends in shapes that mark a bottle as very likely to have been used primarily or originally as a container for some type of medicinal product. The breadth of variety within the medicinal bottle category is indicated by Fike (1987) dividing his classic book (The Bottle Book: A Comprehensive Guide to Historic, Embossed Medicine Bottles) into over 40 different "product" chapters, ranging from "bitters" to "cures" to "purifiers" and many more. Within each chapter is a listing of hundreds of different embossed bottles with many times more embossed ones not addressed by Fike's book. Add in the fact that most bottles were not embossed with product or company names (probably less than 40% as late as 1890) and one can understand how this website can not cover but a sampling of the medicinal bottles one could find.
This section also includes druggist bottles (aka pharmacy, drugstore, or prescription bottles) due to their close connection to the other types of medicinal bottles. Most of the many thousands of local druggists during the 19th and early 20th century typically concocted their own medicinal compounds to sell from their stores utilizing proprietary druggist or prescription bottles, i.e., bottles with the druggist or store name, address, city/state, and/or other information or a graphic feature (Feldhaus 1987). There were likely ten's of thousands of different embossed druggist bottles made between the 1870s and 1920s - the heyday of the proprietary druggist bottle. This section also includes chemical and "poison" bottles which, of course, contained liquids that were not for human consumption but were sold and/or distributed by some of the same companies as medicinal bottles (e.g., The Owl Drug Company - example to the right). Poisons could have been covered also under the "Household (non-food related)" or "Miscellaneous Bottle Types" sections below, but are covered here because since some "poisons" were used for external human use (e.g., witch hazel, denatured alcohol).
Medicinal bottles were similar to liquor bottles (another very diverse category) in that bottle design was not inherently constrained by some quality of the contained product, i.e., the contents were not typically carbonated which demanded heavier glass and typically a round body shape. (One exception was citrate of magnesia which was usually carbonated and bottled in heavier almost soda-like bottles.) Generally speaking the glass thickness of medicinal bottles is distinctly less than for soda/mineral water, beer, champagne, and most wine bottles. That is a diagnostic feature that can be useful in bottle fragment identification at times. Most medicinal bottles also had a narrow neck and mouth (aka bore or throat) since this conformation was most useful for pouring out the typically liquid contents. A narrow neck and bore likely limited evaporation through or around the cork also. (Note: Various medicines were made in ointment form for external use so these type bottles had wide mouths for accessing the contents.) Beyond the glass thickness and neck attributes - which are of course not medicinal group unique characteristics - there is little else that physically differentiates the extremely diverse medicinal bottle group from other groups. The added strength inherent in a round (cross section) body was rarely an issue with medicinals so the limitations on overall shape were much reduced and the possible variety multiplied many fold.
The history of the patent and proprietary medicine industry is an exceptionally interesting subject though beyond the scope of this website, which covers primarily just the bottles - like the cabin shaped "bitters" bottle to the left which dates from the 1860s or 1870s. If interested, users are directed to consult some of the various publications noted below or check some of the references mentioned throughout this page. However, a few notable early 20th century historical events have some relevance to the dating and typing of medicinal bottles, as follows:
The Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906 (effective January 1, 1907): The Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906 imposed regulations on the labeling of products containing alcohol, morphine, opium, cocaine, heroin, alpha or beta eucaine, chloroform, Cannabis indica, chloral hydrate, or acetanilide. It required that products containing any of those substances be labeled with the substance and quantity on the label. Use of the word "cure" for most medicines was nominally prohibited, though there were little teeth in the law and enforcement was rare. However, the word "cure" began to be replaced by "remedy" and other terms about this time, though "cure" was still used at least up to the passage of the next discussed law in 1912 - the Sherley Amendment (Fike 1987).
From implementation of the above Act (1907) until the early to mid 1910s, virtually all patent medicines were required to meet the requirements of the law and be labeled with the following notation - "This product guaranteed under the Pure Food and Drugs Act, June 30th, 1906." Thus, labeled bottles (it was never embossed on bottles to the knowledge of the author) with this notation do not date prior to 1907 and appear to not date after - or much after - the passage of the following act in 1912 (Fike 1987; empirical observations).
NOTE: Canada passed a similar law to the U.S. law which was known as the Proprietary or Patent Medicine Act. It was passed by the Canadian Parliament in 1908 taking effect in April of 1909. It roughly followed the outlines of the U.S. act although focused more on just "secret-formula proprietary preparations" - aka patent medicines - which contained most of the potentially dangerous substances noted above in the U.S. act (Saucy 1953).
The Sherley Amendment to the Pure Food and Drugs Act (1912): The Pure Food & Drugs Act was considerably strengthened with passage of the Sherley Amendment in 1912. According the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) website - Congress enacts the Sherley Amendment to prohibit the labeling of medicines with false therapeutic claims intended to defraud the purchaser, a standard difficult to prove. The use of the word "cure" was largely curtailed and this is for all intents and purposes the end date for patent medicine bottles for human use that are embossed (or labeled) with "cure" although many producers continued to make wild claims about their product with "cure" changed to "remedy" for example (next paragraph). However, enforcement was still not complete and some use of the term most likely did occur after 1912-1913, although not likely embossed on bottles after this point. One of the first patent medicine producers to be prosecuted in 1913 was William Radam's Microbe Killer (pictured and discussed later on this page) whose bottles claimed boldly to "Cure All Diseases." The company lost their case and the Microbe Killer - and most other "cures" - faded quickly from the market (Young 1967).
The bottle pictured to the left is an example of some of the bottle related adaptations patent medicine producers had to make after passage of the above act in order to continue selling their product without breaking the law. This bottle is embossed as follows: DR. DEWITT'S LIVER BLOOD / & KIDNEY REMEDY / W. J. PARKER & CO. BALTO MD. Upon close inspection one can see that word CURE was removed (a more common version of this bottle has CURE) from the embossing pattern via a small inserted plate which was instead engraved with REMED on the plate itself with the letter Y just after it engraved on the surface of the mold which was previously blank at the point. Click close-up of embossing to distinctly see the fine lined "box" made by the edges of the plate which replaced CURE with REMED along with the new letter Y.
As an interesting side note, William J. Parker was prosecuted under the regulations promulgated by the above act(s) and his claim for the product curing "diabetes, Bright's disease, malaria and diseases of the liver, blood and kidneys" was "declared recklessly and wantonly false and fraudulent." He was fined $15 via a Notice of Judgment issued October 16th, 1916 (American Medical Association 1921:587). To further quote that reference "Government chemists reported that the preparation, which contained over 11 per cent alcohol, was essentially an alcohol-water solution bearing a cathartic drug together with Epsom salt, nitrates and iodids. The taste suggested senna." This bottle was mouth-blown, has a tooled patent finish, and is 8.5" tall, 3" wide and 2" deep with air venting marks on the shoulders, the four corners of the base and sporadically in the embossing pattern. This all indicates manufacture during the early 1900s, i.e., 1905 to the mid 1910s which fits well with the noted historical information.
National Prohibition (largely implemented in 1919; fully by January 1920). The various Prohibition and anti-alcohol laws (local, state, and federal) - and the temperance movement which drove that cause - "forced" many alcoholic beverages into becoming products "for medicinal use only." However, the subject of Prohibition and liquor, beer, and wine masquerading as medicinal products is covered on the Bottle Typing/Diagnostic Shapes: Liquor/Spirits Bottles, Bottle Typing/Diagnostic Shapes: Wine & Champagne Bottles, and Bottle Typing/Diagnostic Shapes: Beer & Ale Bottles pages.
This "Medicinal/Chemical/Druggist Bottles" page is divided somewhat arbitrarily into the categories and subcategories listed below, with the "Patent/Proprietary Medicinal Bottles" easily being the most diverse group of shapes. Some bottle groupings naturally fall out as separate - milk bottles, fruit jars, liquor flasks, Hutchinson sodas, and many others. However, many of the most recognized and accepted categories of medicinal bottles have been established primarily because someone wrote a definitive book on that grouping. Though not all of these medicinal bottle categories or types are addressed as separate categories on this page, examples of this phenomena include Blasi's book on "balsam" bottles, Watson and later Ring/Ham on "bitters" bottles, Jensen with "Owl Drug Company" bottles, Agee on "cures", Nielsen and later Odell for "pontiled medicines", Shimko and later DeGrafft for "sarsaparillas", and others which are noted and referenced on this page (and for that matter, throughout this website relative to other types of bottles). No author has written a reference book on "Citrate of Magnesia" bottles, like The Owl Drug Co. example pictured to the right, though there was at least one book on that company's array of medicinal bottles (Jensen 1967).
A user must be cognizant of the fact that the number of exceptions to this or any medicinal bottle classification is so large that it defies any systematic organization system; there simply was too much variety. Instead, the point of this webpage is to cover major stylistic bottle types that are at least somewhat closely identified with a particular product and to just provide a general overview on the universe of medicine bottles. When referring to the collective grouping of categories covered on the "Medicinal/Chemical/Druggist Bottles" page, they are usually just referred to as "medicinal bottles" unless a distinction is necessary.
There have been published numerous books on the subject of the patent medicine era and/or bottles which are very informative and often quite entertaining. Some particularly interesting ones are listed here, all of which are out of print though most are available via used book websites on the internet:
"The Bottle Book - A Comprehensive Guide to Historic Embossed Medicine Bottles" by Richard F. Fike (1987). Excellent book that provides some historical information and codified descriptions for several thousand medicinal bottles during the era covered by this website. (Note: This book is now in print again; check the References page for more information.)
"History of Drug Containers and Their Labels" by George Griffenhagen and Mary Bogard (1999). This is a fantastic overview on the history of druggist or pharmaceutical containers including poison bottles, shop furniture, and much more. Also includes a large listing of the makers markings found on druggist bottles.
"The Toadstool Millionaires - A Social History of Patent Medicines in America before Federal Regulations" by James Harvey Young (1961). An in depth overview of the "age of quackery" prior and up to the passage of the first Federal Food and Drug law in 1906.
"The Medical Messiahs - A Social History of Health Quackery in Twentieth-Century America" by James Harvey Young (1967). Follow-up to the above book, but dealing with the post-1906, increasingly regulated world of patent medicines.
"The Snake-Oil Syndrome - Patent Medicine Advertising" by A. Walker Bingham (1994). This is a "coffee table" type book showing the diversity of claims and products - as represented by the advertising - of the patent medicine era. Lots of full color pictures of the advertising.
"The Golden Age of Quackery" by Stewart H. Holbrook (1959). Classic work on the subject of patent medicines, medicine shows, and the state of medicine in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
"Four White Horses and a Brass Band" by Violet McNeal (1947). Fascinating insider account of the patent medicine and medicine show industry from an admitted medicine show con-woman herself.
"Merchants of Medicine - Nostrum Peddlers - Yesterday & Today" by Dewey R. Heetderks, MD. (2002). Another "coffee table" type book that covers the subject of its title with loads of full color pictures.
"Nostrums and Quackery" - This three volume series published by the American Medical Association (AMA) over the period from 1912 to 1936 outline a lot of the details about the war on quackery vigorous waged by the AMA, government, and other other social organization during the first third of the 20th century. Fascinating reading though the books are hard to find and/or expensive.
"The Great American Fraud" by Samuel Hopkins Adams (1905). A series of articles by the muckraking Adams, originally published in Collier's Weekly in 1905 and combined into a book in 1906, viciously but intelligently attacked the gross malfeasance of the patent medicine industry. The outcry and government action taken after the furor catalyzed by the Adams articles led to the passage of the "Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906" and ever increasing government regulation and enforcement in the decades following passage.
"Female Complaints - Lydia Pinkham and the Business of Women's Medicine" by Sarah Stage (1979). Interesting and well done book on the subject noted in the title - Lydia Pinkham and her patent medicine empire - as well as just the general subject of patent medicines in the 19th and early 20th centuries from the female perspective.
NOTE: Attached to the "Bottle Types/Diagnostic Shapes" grouping of pages is a complete copy of a never re-printed, 280 page, 1906 Illinois Glass Company bottle catalog scanned at two pages per JPEG file. Click 1906 IGCo. Catalog to access the page that links to all the scans of this very useful catalog. Medicinal bottles are listed primarily on pages 22-35, 42-53, 94-103.
Other bottle makers catalogs are
also available on this site (1920 &
1926 Illinois Glass Company; 1916 Kearns-Gorsuch Bottle Co.) by
going to the
Website Map page and clicking on the links listed under
Bottle Typing/Diagnostic Shapes section.
This page is divided somewhat arbitrarily into the categories and sub-categories listed below. The "Patent/Proprietary Medicinal Bottles" grouping is easily the most diverse group of shapes, though generally only the more common shapes are covered here. A user must be cognizant of the fact that the amount of shape and style crossover between categories and the number of exceptions to this - or any medicinal bottle classification - is large enough to defy any systematic organization. Instead, the point of this page is to cover major stylistic types that are at least moderately identified with use as a specific type medicine container.
Each of the pictured bottles has a relatively short description and explanation including estimated dates or date ranges for that type bottle and links to other view pictures of the bottle. Additional links to images of similar bottles are also frequently included.
The array of references used to support the conclusions and estimates found here - including the listed dating ranges - are noted. Additional information and estimates are based on the empirical observations of the author over 50 years of experience; this is often but not always noted.
Various terminology is used in the descriptions that may be unfamiliar if you have not studied other pages on this site. If a term is unfamiliar, first check the Bottle Glossary page for an explanation or definition. As an alternative, one can do a search of this website. To do a word/phrase search one must use the "Search SHA" boxes found on many of the main SHA web pages, including the Research Resources page (upper right side of that page) which links to this site. The Historic Bottle Website (HBW) has no internal search mechanism so be aware that when running a search one will also get non-HBW response links to other portions of the SHA site.
The first use of product or other proprietary embossing on any bottle bodies was on medicine bottles and likely began in England about 1750 with the small Turlington Balsam of Life bottles (Griffenhagen & Young 1959; Richardson 2003). The first recorded use of molded proprietary embossing on an American made bottle body was around 1809 on a Dr. Robertson's Family Medicine bottle (McKearin 1970). As with all the medicine bottle categories, this one is also quite diverse and not really separate from the large category covered next - Patent/Proprietary Medicinal bottles. This category is primarily based on age as reflected by the bottles exhibiting the manufacturing related features typical of bottles made in the U.S. up to and through the American Civil War. The few shapes and styles briefly discussed here are just a small sampling of the shapes produced and are not usually exclusive to this period; bottles of very similar shapes were also made after the Civil War when the diversity of shapes was many times richer.
This early medicinal bottles section is essentially an overview of the diagnostic features that typify bottles made during the first half of the 19th century; see the Mouth-blown Bottle Dating page for more information. Specifically, medicine bottles made during the period from about 1810 to the Civil War typically share most of the following diagnostic characteristics:
scared bases are the norm for these early bottles. All
pontil types are possible on early medicinal bottles, though
iron pontil scars are the most frequently observed.
The early, dark olive green (almost black glass) medicine bottle pictured above left is embossed on four sides with C. BRINCKERHOFFS - HEALTH RESTORATIVE - PRICE $1.00 - NEW YORK. This product was advertised between 1845 and 1849 as a cure for consumption (tuberculosis), liver complaint, asthma, colds, coughs, and pains in the side and chest (Odell 2000). This bottle has a crudely applied short oil finish, was blown in a two-piece "hinge" mold (as indicated by the mold seam crossing diagonally across the entire base), has a sand pontil scar, and of course, no evidence of mold air venting as this bottle pre-dates the widespread use of that technology by many decades. The dark olive green color as well as the overall crudeness of manufacturing is very indicative of an early manufacturing date. Click on the following links for more images of this bottle: base view showing the fairly distinct sand pontil scar; side view; close-up of the shoulder, neck, and finish. The last two pictures show some of the body crudeness typical of earlier mouth-blown bottles of all types.
The large, dark olive green (black glass) square medicinal bottle pictured to the right most likely dates from the 1840s or early 1850s and is covered in the "Sarsaparilla" section later on this page. It is a bottle shape that was relatively commonly used for medicinal as well as other products (particularly liquor) during this early era. Medium to dark olive green or olive amber glass was a common color for the earliest types of bottles, including medicine bottles as this and the prior bottle (Brinkerhoff's) indicate.
The large, light blue-green medicine to the left is embossed with LINDSEY'S - BLOOD + / SEARCHER - HOLLIDAYSBURG, PA. and dates from the 1850s or early 1860s. This bottle is rectangular with arched and indented panels on the three sides with embossing and a flat, non-indented panel on the reverse for the label which is often called the "label panel" on paneled bottles. The body is also several times taller than the neck height. These features (rectangular with beveled corners and one or more indented panels) are a very commonly repeated pattern of conformation for medicine bottles made between the 1850s and the 1920s, the latter period which would include machine-made bottles. Click the following links to view more images of this bottle: base view showing the very distinct and large red iron pontil scar which is scored into the glass; close-up of the shoulder, neck, and finish. What was "searched" for in the blood is lost to history but does reflect the boundless creativity that patent medicine producers found in describing their products. It was advertised in the Hollidaysburg Register in 1864 as good for cancer, scrofula, scald head, liver complaint, low spirits, paralysis, syphilitic diseases, and other maladies (Odell 2000). Sounds like it was high in alcohol which was very common.
The yellowish green rectangular medicine bottle pictured to the right is not body embossed but is typical of a generic, "label only" medicine bottle of the 1845-1865 era. It has a crudely applied patent or extract finish, blowpipe pontil scar, was blown in a hinge mold (as indicated by the mold seam crossing diagonally across the entire base), and has no evidence of mold air venting. Click on the following links to see more images of this bottle: base view showing the blowpipe pontil scar; shoulder, neck, and finish showing the crudely applied patent or extract finish.
The grouping of small (3" [8 cm] to 5" [13 cm]) aqua bottles pictured to the left are an assortment of very typical pontil scarred "utility" type bottles that date from the 1850s to mid 1860s (all were excavated in the West), have no embossing, and were most commonly used for medicinal products. These type of bottles are very commonly found on historic sites from the noted era and were the standard ware used by druggists (and patent medicine producers) throughout the country to bottle their own preparations prior to the origin of the druggist/prescription bottles covered later. All of these small bottles exhibit the characteristics noted earlier: pontil scarred bases (all blowpipe style), "true" two-piece molded ("hinge" molds, though one bottle is not molded), and various early style finishes (rolled, thinly flared, early applied). The first (from left to right), third (laying down), and sixth bottles are 12-sided which was a common configuration for utility medicinal bottles of the era. An example of one of these generic paneled bottles with the original label is described below. Five of the six bottles are molded, with one (5th) being free-blown or possibly dip-molded. All have relatively thin glass which is a typical characteristic of these early type medicinal bottles. In fact, these bottles are most often only found as fragments.
A few other images of early medicinal bottles bottles, many of which are used and discussed elsewhere within this website, are available by clicking on the following links. This helps show a bit of the diversity of shape found in these bottles:
Dating summary/notes: The bottles noted above are just a sampling of the thousands of different medicine bottles produced during the "early" era from about 1810 through the Civil War. Some of same shaped bottles carried over from the "early" period well into the decades after the Civil War; the Swaim's Panacea noted above is a good example of a bottle that straddles both eras. During this transition many or most of the manufacturing based diagnostic features apparent on the bottles would change with the times. Overall, the dating of these type bottles follows quite well the guidelines presented throughout this website and summarized on the Bottle Dating page; see that page for more information.
One of the best books on early medicinal bottles is John Odell's "Digger Odell's Pontil Medicine Encyclopedia: A Look at America's Pre-Civil War Medicine Bottles" which includes hundreds of different medicine bottles with photographs and extensive company histories (Odell 2000). At the time of writing, this book was still available from the author; see the References page for Odell's website address. In addition, Hume's (1991) book "A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America" has some good early history and illustrations (with dates) of early pharmaceutical and patent medicine bottles.
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The general group of patent and proprietary medicine bottles certainly includes the largest number of different shapes within the massive group of bottles covered by this webpage. Very few 19th and early 20th century medicines were actually formally patented; thus, the use of the term "proprietary" as most of these products were simply the proprietary product of a particular individual or company (AMA 1912). Although technically incorrect, the generic term "patent medicine" was and continues to be the most commonly used name applied to remedial agents sold without prescription and the term is still associated with this group of bottles (Munsey 1970; Fike 1987). Incidentally, the first patent issued for a medicinal product in the U.S. was in 1796 to Samuel Lee, Jr. of Windham, CN. for his "bilious pills" (Young 1962; Fike 1987).
Patent & proprietary medicines can be divided into an assortment of functional groups, i.e., divided into categories based on what class of medicinal product the bottle was likely used for. Dozens of "categories" that could be covered separately are not simply because there are too many. Fike (1987) used over 40 categories in his classic medicinal book! This webpage will only cover a few common categories and a few variations within those categories to show a sampling of the bottle shapes and designs that were used for patent/proprietary medicines. Other references, like those noted above and on the References page, must be consulted to get a more complete picture of the scope of this group of bottles and the history behind them.
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Druggist/Prescription bottle styles
Druggist, drugstore, apothecary, pharmacy, pharmaceutical, and prescription bottles - all different names used for essentially the same identifiable group of bottles - are variable but do contain some strongly identifiable general shapes, though size will vary greatly (Munsey 1970). The bottles covered in this section are those that were purchased and used by local druggists and drugstores with typically only city-wide or otherwise limited geographical distribution. For example, the 1880s era Portland, OR. druggist bottle to the left was certainly purchased and used almost exclusively by customers within a few miles of the druggist's store near the Willamette River on the west side of that city. (The bottle was actually excavated a few blocks from the embossed address.) It would be very unusual for this bottle to be found in Nebraska, though could conceivably make it there due to the ever increasing reach of the U. S. railroad network, i.e., the bottle could have been carried by a traveler. (This particular bottle is covered in more depth later, including the fact that this pharmacist moved to Phoenix, Arizona Territory within a year or two after this bottle was made and used almost identical bottles for his druggist business there.)
One note on terminology is that the term "pharmaceutical bottle" is sometimes used in reference to the bottles used by the big wholesale druggist and pharmaceutical firms from big cities like New York and Chicago whose primary customers were the thousands of local druggists, though these companies also frequently sold straight to consumers. (Many of these pharmaceutical companies established in the 19th century were the precursors to the large multi-national corporations still in business today. The section on "Poison and Chemical" bottles found later on this page briefly touches on the types of generally larger bottles commonly used by these wholesalers.) For those interested, an nice and concise overview of the early days of druggists is found in Preble's (2002) book "The Rise & Demise of Colorado Drugstores 1859-1915."
Munsey (1970) divided the universe of medicine bottles into two categories - proprietary or ethical - which may reflect the distinction made in the early 20th century by the American Medical Association (AMA 1912). Proprietary (aka "patent") medicines were (and are) remedial agents available without prescription (aka "across the counter medications") and "...generally protected by secrecy, copyright, or patent against free competition by name, product, composition, or manufacturing process" (Fike 1987). Drugs of an ethical nature are those dispensed via a doctor's prescription (Munsey 1970; Fike 1987). Patent/proprietary bottles were covered earlier on this page. Druggist or prescription bottles (the two terms used on this website) are the bottles that contained these "ethical" products, though of course, the ethical nature of such things has changed over time with increasing public concern and government regulation, primarily beginning in the early 20th century.
This section covers some of the types of bottles commonly used by local druggists/pharmacists from about the Civil War era (1860s) to well into the 20th century. Druggist bottles, of course, go back much farther in time - as far back as the ancient Egyptian era. The first identifiable pharmacy bottles were Venetian bottles in the 16th century with applied enamel labeling identifying them as such (Munsey 1970). (Note: For some information on early American pharmaceutical bottles, see Hume's (1991) book "A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America" which has some good history and illustrations (with dates) of early pharmaceutical bottles.)
This section is divided into four main sections based on general cross-section shape of the bottles: round, square, rectangular, and oval. Within these four groups there was a wide array of proprietary and patented shape variations available from different glass companies. Some of these different shapes - which usually had proprietary names attached - are covered in the sections below. A fifth section is also included at the end that covers what were known as "shop furniture," i.e.,, larger (up to several gallons), generally glass stoppered, bottles and jars that were used by druggists to store bulk substances (Whitall Tatum 1880; Illinois Glass Co. 1903).
A fair amount of detail has and will be added to this section since druggist bottles are some of the most commonly found bottles on historic sites dating from the mid 19th through mid 20th centuries. The Druggist Bottle Dating Summary/Notes for the first four categories below is located just after the "Oval" druggist bottle discussion section.
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This grouping of bottles is bound together only by the fact that they were primarily intended for products not intended for internal human consumption but still types that could be used for medicines or pharmaceuticals. Content possibilities for some of the more generic bottles were virtually limitless and included denatured or wood alcohol, ammonia or other cleaning compounds, formaldehyde, insecticide or other pest chemicals, iodine, liniments, acids, embalming fluids, various antiseptic compounds, vaporizer substances, writing ink, and many other substances which were known to be toxic to humans if ingested.
The major difference between the two parts of this category ("chemical" and "poison" bottles) are not the contents but the fact that a majority of poison bottles had design features that physically indicated the contents were poisonous. This usually entailed the embossing of multiple bumps and ridges, bright glass colors, and/or unusual shapes (Griffenhagen 1969; Durflinger 1975). Chemical bottles are a vague category and covered next briefly. As with most of the groupings and categories on this page, there is a high diversity of shapes and sizes used, of which only a few are covered here.
(Authors note: Although some of the bottles covered here were certainly used for medicinal products, many were just as typically used for insecticides, ammonia, and other cleaning products which would not be considered medicinal. These noted categories of products are covered additionally on the Household Bottles [non-food related] page.)
Chemical bottles are a hard to define category as they varied in shape immensely - from small rectangular bottles (like the deep green bottle pictured below left) to large capacity containers that were referred to as "shop furniture" (covered above). The 1906 Illinois Glass Company bottle catalog did not list any bottles specifically for "chemicals", though did offer glass stoppered "acid bottles" which were similar to the "tincture" (narrow bore/neck) type shop furniture bottles. Click IGCo. 1906 pages 92-93 (right page) to view their offering for acid bottles which were specifically intended for liquid chemicals and ranged in size from 4 oz. to 2 gallons. Click acid bottle to view a large (about a quart) mouth-blown chemical bottle with a ground glass stopper from eBay® that is typical of the bulk chemical bottles made during the last half of the 19th century to the mid-20th century. Click label close-up to see such on the same bottle indicating a manufacture between about 1907 (label notes the Pure Food & Drugs Act) and the mid-1920s (likely ending date for most mouth-blown bottles of that type). Due to the vagueness of this category it is only covered by a couple additional examples which follow.
The large (about a quart in capacity) amber bottle pictured to the right is what the Illinois Glass Company called a "Druggist's Packing Bottle" in their early 20th century catalogs (Illinois Glass Co. 1903). They offered it in 15 sizes ranging from 1/4 pint to 2 gallons and may have been the same bottles as discussed in the above paragraph ("acid bottles") except that acid bottles were fitted with a ground glass stopper instead of simply sealed with a cork. Click IGCo. 1906 pages 94-95 to view their 1906 offerings of these "packing" bottles. The pictured bottle (right) has a crudely applied "patent" or possibly "packer" finish (a fine line separates these two finishes based largely on height), was blown in a post-bottom mold, has ample body crudity (whittle markings), and no evidence of air venting all of which indicate a likely 1875-1885 manufacturing date, though the maker is unknown (i.e., no makers markings). These type of unembossed generic type bottles could have - and likely were - used for many types of liquid products, e.g., ammonia or other cleaning products, acids and chemicals of all types as well as liquor, maple syrup, or anything that could be poured into it. Click on the following links to view more images of this bottle: base view showing the post-bottom mold conformation (side seam coming around the heel onto the base is visible in the upper part of the picture); close-up of the shoulder, neck, and applied finish.
The deep emerald green bottle pictured to the right could have been listed under the "Early Medicinal Bottles" section earlier on this page but is listed here because of the "Chemist" notation in the embossing and the fact that it possibly held a product designed for external use. Specifically, it is embossed with the following: FROM THE / LABORATORY - OF / G. W. MERCHANT / CHEMISTS - LOCKPORT / N.Y. It dates from the Civil War period (early 1860s) and was produced in a two-piece "key" mold, is very crude with no evidence of air venting, has a crudely applied oil finish, and though the bottle base is not pontil scarred, many of these type bottles are pontiled (Wilson & Wilson 1971). The bottle is also quite distinctive in shape being rectangular with indented beveled corners instead of the typical flat beveled corners (see the "base view" picture linked below). The medicinal contents were likely Merchant's very popular "Celebrated Gargling Oil" which was actually a liniment touted for "Man or Beast" though was largely directed towards use on horses. It was originally solely for external use though appears to have been later used internally as it contained 44% alcohol and one grain of opium per fluid ounce (Holcombe 1977; McKearin & Wilson 1978). The company did produce several other medicines intended clearly for internal use including a couple types of sarsaparilla, "Itch Ointment", "Kreosote Toothache Drops", and "Balm of X Thousand Flowers" - some of which could also have been packaged in this generic type bottle (Odell 2000). Click on the following links to view more images of this bottle: base view showing the rectangular indentation that essentially obscures the offset "key" portion of the two-piece base mold seam (not uncommon during that era); close-up of the shoulder, neck, and applied finish; view of one embossed narrow side (FROM THE / LABORATORY); view of the other embossed narrow side (LOCKPORT / N.Y.). Click labeled MERCHANT bottle to see an example of this bottle type that was reused or "pirated" by another New York druggist and relabeled for their own product - Madder Compound. (Note: The madder plant - Rubia tinctorum - was an old world herb that "...promotes menstrual and urinary discharges." [Frederick Stearns 1886].)
The small amber rectangular poison bottle pictured in two views in the top left corner of this box is embossed with POISON on both narrow sides. This example is also embossed on the base with P. D. & CO. and the (now meaningless) mold number 405. This was a generic poison bottle used by Parke, Davis & Co., a large pharmaceutical & chemical firm based in Detroit, MI. but with many offices around the world. They did business under that name from 1875 to 1970 when it was acquired by Warner-Lambert (Durflinger 1975; Fike 1987). These particular type bottles were made in sizes up to at least 8" tall (Munsey 1970). Note the small embossed "warning" bumps on the four edges of the bottle. This was commonly done on bottles intended for poisonous substances that might be placed among other medicines for human consumption. Variations of these type rectangular poison bottles were made in many sizes by both mouth-blown and machine manufacturing methods by many companies (Durflinger 1975). Mouth-blown examples similar to that shown date from the 1910s and before; machine-made versions from the later 1910s and after. Click on the base view which vaguely shows the embossing on the base.
This verbiage would seem to indicate that this style of poison bottle was originated by Whitall, Tatum & Co. (likely) and a recent introduction in 1880, though they were reportedly introduced by the company in 1872 (Griffenhagen 1969). (Note from 9/08: These bottles were also listed in the 1876 W. T. & Co. catalog.) The style was occasionally produced in colorless ("flint glass" according to Whitall, Tatum) and olive green glass though any color but cobalt blue is very unusual. A matching shell-cork type glass stopper with "sharp diamond-shaped points" on it was available at least as early as 1892 (Whitall Tatum 1892). Whitall Tatum made this style in sizes ranged from 1/2 ounce to 16 ounces (the pictured bottle is about a 4 oz. size) and are always seen with manufacturing characteristics similar to prescription bottles, i.e. cup-bottom mold produced and a tooled prescription finish. Earlier examples would likely have no air venting marks, though later ones do. Click on the following links for more images of this particular bottle: base view showing the W. T. CO. embossing; close-up of the shoulder, neck, and finish (images from eBay®). This style was produced by Whitall Tatum until at least the early 1910s, but had disappeared from their catalogs by the 1920s (Whitall Tatum & Co. 1909,1924).
The style was also copied by other glass manufacturers in later years (early 20th century) as examples up to one gallon size and with other glassmakers marks have been noted (Durflinger 1975; empirical observations). One common base marking on these bottles - including later machine-made versions - is H. B. CO. Click H. B. CO. poison base to see an image of this base marking on a machine-made diamond lattice poison bottle like the example pictured to the right above; the suction scar or base parison mold line is faintly visible (see the Glassmaking & Glassmakers page for more information on these subjects). The maker of these bottles - the H. B. CO. - is still as yet unknown (Toulouse 1971; Lockhart pers. comm. 2006).
The cobalt blue poison bottle pictured to the left is a common early 20th century bottle from one of the first more or less national chain drugstores with a distinctive shape (triangular) and color (cobalt blue) that was used for various poisonous compounds. It is embossed on all three sides with the following: THE OWL DRUG COMPANY (horizontally in script) - POISON - (Owl on a mortar & pestle trade mark). These bottles were made between the late 1890s and at least the early 1920s by both mouth-blown (1890s to the possibly as late as 1920) and machine-made methods (late-1910s through the 1920s) (Munsey 1970; Mark Lutsko pers. comm. 2004; empirical observations). The pictured example is a mouth-blown example which has the typical diagnostic features of an early 20th century mouth-blown bottle - tooled finish, cup-bottom mold produced, and multiple air venting marks. It is the next to largest size which ranged from less than 3" to 9 1/2" (quart size). The Owl Drug Company poison bottles are frequently seen with the labels indicating they were used for a myriad of different non-consumptive products including denatured alcohol, formaldehyde, ammonium, and likely many other poisonous compounds (Jensen 1967; Durflinger 1975; empirical observations). Click on the following links to view more images of this bottle: base view; close-up of the shoulder, neck, and finish.
The small semi-triangular poison bottle pictured to the right is a variation of the style theme represented by the bottle at the very top of this section. It is not embossed with the words poison but does have the tell-tale bumps on the corners warning a person that a poisonous substance was contained within. These type bottles were also made in many sizes (up to over 10" tall) and by mouth-blown and machine methods (Munsey 1970; Durflinger 1975). This particular bottle is mouth-blown (tooled finish, cup-bottom mold produced, air venting) and dates from the first couple decades of the 20th century. Click on base view to see an image showing the semi-triangular shape and a meaningless (today) mold number.
Additional images/information of poison or chemical bottles:
Dating summary/notes: Due to the diversity of shapes the dating of poison and chemical bottles can not be reliably done based on shape alone since many of the shapes were made over relatively long time spans. Instead dating must be approached based on manufacturing based diagnostic features or through research of the historical record for that bottle, if possible. Dating of these type bottles follows quite well the guidelines presented throughout this website and summarized on the Bottle Dating page; see that page for more information. Some of the shapes covered above did, however, have prime periods of use which were noted in the discussion above. This type information can assist in making reliable dating estimations.
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Other related shapes/styles
This section is a catch-all section for various distinctly shaped medicinal bottles that do not fit in with the above categories. As with the rest of the medicinal bottles covered on this page, an intuitively satisfying systematic organization system is impossible for medicines since the variety is staggering. However, the following bottle types are strongly identified with certain products.
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For additional images of various labeled medicinal/chemical/druggist bottles click the following link to view the pertinent section of the Labeled Bottles page.
Again it must be stated that the category of bottles covered on this webpage (Medicinal/Chemical/Druggist) is enormous. Like all of the bottle "typing" (typology) pages connected to the main Bottle Typing/Diagnostic Shapes page, this page just scratched the surface as to the total diversity of these bottle types. It does, however, cover the primary styles that were most commonly used and encountered within an archaeological context. This page has also somewhat emphasized mouth-blown bottles since that subject is of more familiarity to the author of this website than later 20th century, machine-made items. However, though the automated bottle production era also had incredible variety, it was not as diverse as the mouth-blown era since shape standardization and simplification was typical of machine manufacturing. Also, bottle body embossing became much less frequent on machine-made bottles and a significant amount of the diversity of the mouth-blown production era was the different proprietary embossing on essentially the same shapes of bottles.
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