by Dr. Lori Verderame
By the 1700s, hundreds of medical elixirs, concoctions, and serums were on the market. The varied and interesting history of medicine bottle collecting dates back to the British red coats bringing cure-alls to America during the Revolutionary War, features the production of medical expos that attracted thousands to experience the newest remedies of the early 1800s, and highlights the snake oil salesmen at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago, IL. Collecting apothecary bottles, medicine bottles, and bitters bottles hit its peak in the late 1800s/early 1900s.
Bottle Shape and Form
Like other glass bottles used for many purposes, medicine bottles came in many shapes–cylindrical, rectangular, oval, short, tall, embossed, paneled–and sizes. These bottles had a recognizable shape and color relating to the medicine inside, not unlike today’s collectible Coca Cola bottles. Some companies realized that having a recognizable bottle could help sales like Doan’s pills, Bayer aspirin, and Geritol.
Collectible glass medicine bottles could feature an image associated with the ailment, medical field, or famous doctor or expert for marketing purposes. Glass bottles along with signs and trade cards were used as advertising tools. Medicine manufacturers and doctors even ordered private bottle molds in an attempt to have a unique look to their bottles.
Designs and Colors
Medical bottles came in many colors, however cobalt blue was one of the cheapest colors of glass to make and the dark color of the bottle would help keep the light out and away from the medicine assuring the customer that the medicine inside had not been compromised. Some medicine bottles are embossed with the name and city of the druggist or pharmacy.
Cure-alls came in many forms such as elixirs and bitters. Around 1870, bitters were widely marketed and were made from 50% alcohol. Bitters bottles were collected along with liquor and spirit bottles. Bitters bottles were typically amber, green, aquamarine in color.
Medicine and bitters bottles range in value from a few hundred dollars to rare examples worth thousands of dollars. Collectible medical and bitters bottles do not have to be particularly old to be valuable. Some of the bottles from the early 1900s command high prices. At the top of the market, there are some rare American-made bitters bottles like the one that recently sold for $60,000. Don’t make the mistake thinking that your bottle isn’t worth more like the horror story told to me about a bottle sold on eBay.
What to Look For
Mold blown bottles with three seams could mean that your bottle dates from circa 1809. If your old bottle has three seams (from that type of mold), most likely it is from the early 1800s and rare. If your bottle doesn’t have seams, read how to tell the age of the bottle.
Unique colors and interesting forms of medicine and bitters bottles impact the value. While all of the colors of bottles are of collecting interest, dark purple and amber colored bottles are highly sought after. Bottles in the shape of a figure, animal, or other recognizable object are considered a niche market collectible and will stir interest. Bottles embossed with the names of famous doctors or even medical quacks of note and the towns where they practiced make these bottles collectible.
It is easy to overlook a bottle thinking it is not valuable and that is a big, big mistake. This field of collecting is very active with many interested collectors who will spend money to assemble fine collections.
Get an online appraisal of your medicine and bitters bottle from Dr. Lori