Antique medicine bottles have an intriguing history which arguably fuelled the glasswork field. Medicine manufacturers competed with one another to produce the showiest bottles and the most astounding cure-alls. This created a fascinating array of beautiful bottles which have now become highly collectible in the antique world.
Have you come across an interesting medicine bottle and want to find out its origin? Perhaps you would like to know how much it is worth? Or have you sparked an interest in becoming an antique medicine bottle collector? You have come to the right place! Here, we provide you with 3 guides to identifying, valuing and buying antique medicine bottles.
Brief History Of Medicine Bottles
The origins of medicine bottles are thought to have begun in medieval Europe. Apothecaries and alchemists of the time would display all sorts of bottles filled with medicines, potions, lotions, anything that could draw a sick or ailing customer into their shops. Usually these bottles would be filled with herbs that had been prepared in some kind of liquid.
Medicine bottles began to be manufactured on a bigger scale during the 18th century. Elixirs claiming to cure all ailments, such as Turlington’s Balsam of Life (below), were sold with labelling and branding, as medicine bottles became a commercial enterprise.
As well as large bottles of medicines for home use, companies began to manufacture small, pocket-sized bottles which could be carried around in the pocket or knapsack. Hence, these bottles became a standard item carried around by travellers and soldiers.
As more and more competitors entered the medicine bottle market, bottle designs became more interesting and extravagant. Glassworkers created the distinctive thin-necked design which made these bottles easy to drink directly out of. They manufactured cylindrical, oval, angular, rectangular, and even panelled bottles in colors ranging from brown to blue to green and beyond.
In the 19th century, medicine merchants including Big Sensation Medicine Company and Hamlin Wizard Oil of Chicago would put on medicine shows to pedal their wares. These became big affairs boasting entertainment of all kinds from music and acrobatics to magic shows and ventriloquism. It’s not hard to see why medicine bottles became so widespread and that people were, and still are, fascinated with them.
Antique Medicine Bottle Identification Guide
Firstly, it is important to note that a medicine bottle is only classed as antique if it was produced over 100 years ago. If it was produced between 20 and 100 years ago it is classed as vintage.
There is a staggering variety of medicine bottles in every shape, size, and colour. It can be a little overwhelming when you try to identify a medicine bottle at first. But don’t worry, there are a few simple steps you can take that will help you clock key features and take you a step closer to discovering the provenance of your bottle.
1. Shape And Form
Take a good look at the shape and form of your bottle. Is it rectangular, cylindrical, or round? Is it embossed? Does it sport panels or indents? How does the base look?
Depending on the original medicinal product, the thickness of medicine bottle glass tends to be thinner than those used for drinks like water, beer and wine bottles. The majority of antique medicine bottles have a thin neck and mouth, and pronounced rim. These features made it easier to pour liquids, and potentially limited evaporation through the cork which would have stoppered the bottle originally.
Bottles used for ointments and balms are flatter and wider, with wider rims so the owner could access the product more easily.
A typical mid-19th century medicine bottle is rectangular with distinctive indented panels. These kinds of bottles were widespread and common, and used up until the Depression, 20th century.
The bases of bottles which were produces between around 1810 and the American Civil War (1861-65) usually have pontiled bases – a scar left on the bottom of a bottle by a glass-blowers pontil rod. The shape of these bottles was usually rectangular, round or square. You may be able to find imperfections in the glass of bottles from this ear, such as small bubbles.
More modern bottles tended to lack embossing, and were more often free from faults.
2. Logos, Brands, Names, Trademarks
Does your bottle have any letters, symbols, words or numbers on it? From around the early 1800s some companies embossed or indented their bottles with the company logo, brand name, or product name. There are also bottles printed or marked with the name and address of the drugstore or apothecary the medicine was purchased from. If you can find any of these then a basic internet search will produce plenty of results (depending on the rarity of the bottle). If you are lucky enough to have a bottle with the label still attached, even better!
Bottles from around the 1840s-50s from America or England side-lettered the glass molds they used. Those from around 1880 tended to sport the manufacturer or trademark information on the base of the bottle.
However, many bottles were not marked with the brand logo or name, so we cannot always find the bottle’s provenance in this way.
Blue was a common glass color for cosmetic products, especially women’s products for the skin and hair. Amber glass was used for some products which needed some protection from light to stay fresher for a longer time, although this color stopped being used for medicine bottles after around 1860. Green shades ranging from forest green to olive green were sometimes used for medicinal products, especially in America. Black glass, which is technically classed as a green or amber glass of a very dark shade was also common for medicinal products through the 18th and 19th centuries.
The more modern bottles produced during the 20th century used clear glass rather than aqua (the slightly blue-y or green-y color of older transparent glass). Aqua glass was commonly used when manufacturers wanted consumers to see the color of the product inside.
Milk glass, or white glass, was not commonly used for medicinal products.
4. Find A Book Or Reference Manual
There have been several books and reference manuals published detailing the different kinds of antique medicine bottles and their history. Perhaps the most famous in the medicine bottle world is ‘The Bottle Book – A Comprehensive Guide to Historic Embossed Medicine Bottles’ by Richard Fike.
Try searching your local library for a guide to antique medicine bottles. Alternatively, there are useful online resources such as this detailed guide.
5. Ask An Antique Glass Specialist
Antiques specialists love their subject and can be an incredibly useful resource when trying to identify an antique medicine bottle. Try to find a specialist near you that you can take the bottle to – it is much easier to identify antique objects from life than from photos!
If you can’t find anyone to take the bottle to, you can try an antiques forum where everyone from experts to enthusiastic amateurs are a great bottle ID resource. Try:
Antique Medicine Bottle Valuation Guide
With such a great variation of antique medicine bottles in existence, it can be incredibly hard to put a value on such objects. In general, antique bottles are one of the most affordable antique items you can collect. As a rough approximation, they can go from anywhere between $5 and $50 USD depending on the factors below. They are an exciting collection to assemble as there is such a range of colours and shapes – they make an excellent display.
There are a few general tips which can help you value a medicine bottle…
Bottles in mint condition will fetch the greatest prices while those with chips and scratches, or repair work will go for a low price.
It goes without saying that the rare the bottle, the more value it holds. Products which were limited edition, or which were produced on a small scale but reached a high degree of fame have a higher value. Very rare bottles can fetch thousands of dollars at auction.
Some medicine bottles were produced in incredible shapes including houses (for example Drake’s Plantation Bitters bottle which was shaped like a log cabin), human figures (for example a recreation of the bust of George Washington produced by Bernard Simon of Scranton, Pennsylvania), and corn (a design patented in 1867 and produced by National Bitters). Others were embossed with trains, fish, the texture of tree bark…the list is endless!
Although it is not a hard and fast rule, the color of a medicine bottle can dictate the price it will fetch. Unusual colors such a light purple are rare and coveted by collectors while more common colors such as aqua are lower cost items. Experts give a general guide:
- Low value colors: aqua, amber, clear
- Medium value: green shades, black, milk glass, and teal blue
- High value: yellow shades, purple, and cobalt blue
However, low value colors with interesting patterns or designs which combine more than one color are more unusual and can push the price up.
Bitters bottles are particularly collectible and tend to hold a higher value. Brands to look out for include:
- Drake’s Plantation Bitters (those produced in unusual glass colors)
- Brown’s Celebrated Indian Herb Bitters
- Fisch’s Bitters
- National Bitters
- Bourbon Whiskey Bitters
- Harvey’s Prairie Bitters
- Kelly’s Old Cabin Bitters
- General Scott’s Artillery Bitters
- Warner’s Safe Bitters
And so many more!
Note: so-called antique medicine bottles produced by the company Wheaton Glassworks of New Jersey are reproduction bottles, so avoid this brand if you are looking for genuine antiques.
5. Original Labels And Contents
On rare occasions you can find antique medicine bottles with the labels still attached. This boosts the price because it proves the provenance of the bottle and often contains priceless information about the manufacturer, contents, and description of the healing power of the concoction inside. You will notice as you start to look around that these bottles tend to fetch higher prices.
On even rare occasions there are bottles still filled with their original contents! While this can be exciting and raise the price of such items, it can also be dangerous or even illegal. Some of these medicines contained narcotics which are nowadays prohibited by law (in the US the Drug Enforcement Agency, DEA, is responsible for enforcing the Controlled Substances Act). It is therefore recommended to contact the DEA or equivalent agency in your country of residence to ensure the safe sale of bottles with original contents to make sure you are not breaking the law.
Antique Medicine Bottle Buying Guide
If you’re interested in purchasing an antique medicine bottle for yourself there are some great sites to check out, and some important tips to keep in mind.
First, we’ll list some of the places you can find interesting bottles for sale…
- Ebay – you can find the ‘Collectible Medicine and Cure Bottles (Pre-1900)’ category via this link. eBay is an auction site with a helpful search function whereby you can filter the results and fine-tune your quest for an antique medicine bottle. Filters include: feature refinements, condition, and price.
- Etsy – by simply searching for ‘antique medicine bottles’ on the Etsy website, you can find many excellent examples from all over the world. Etsy sellers are usually open to contact and questions from potential buyers, so don’t be afraid to ask them for a little more detail about the items they are selling.
- Collectors Weekly – this site gathers together interesting auctions and listings from around the web. It provides lots of information about the particular category of antique you are interested in.
- Second hand sites and garage sales – if you want to be thrifty and love to scour second hand stores for intriguing items this is definitely an option for you! You can find amazing antique bottles for very low prices in these places.
In terms of buying tips, our first recommendation is to do your research! Find out as much as you can about the specific type of bottle you are interested in – brand, colour, shape and size, embossing, labels, the options are endless. Once you know what you are looking for it is easier to avoid reproduction pieces.
Look for listings with lots of details: condition, provenance, features, authenticity, and plenty of photos. Go for sellers with a good reputation and who are open to questions. Try to find an item that interests you whether it’s how the item looks or if it has an interesting story attached to it.