Antique Bottles and Patent Medicine

It is not surprising that antique bottle hunting is particularly popular in the southwest of the U.S. The activity of finding long disused garbage mounds, digging up, and cleaning old bottles is much like prospecting and so deeply ingrained in the make up of the populations of New Mexico and Arizona. Hours are spent laboring over bottles that, far more often then not, are essentially valueless. Once in a while, you can find one, if you’re inclined to sell, worth upwards of $1,000.

Before the invention of the bottle making machine in 1903 bottles, even when mass produced, were made by hand and so were unique in many ways. Differing slightly in shape even among supposedly identical bottles. People commonly reused them for a variety or household and workshop purposes. They were also disposed of differently than today, or more correctly they were separated from other types of trash as if for modern recycling but then buried in their own piles. This phenomenon creates mother loads, to burden the prospecting metaphor further, for antique bottle collectors.

Antique bottle collectors are indiscriminate and almost never return for an ongoing dump excavation empty handed. Bottles of almost any kind or age, when cleaned polished and displayed en mass are interesting to look at and can approach the level of art.

During the 1800s the sell of so-called patent medicines reached its hey day. They had existed for centuries, for example “Anderson’s Pills” were first made in England in the 1630s with a recipe that was allegedly learned in Venice by a physician to King Charles I. However, due to a number of factors related to the Industrial Revolution including improved methods of mass production, crushing urban poverty, and vile sanitation cheap wonder cures captured the imagination and hard earned dollars of the Victorian.

The term patent medicine is, not surprisingly, deceptive. Actual patents for chemical compounds and medicines did not exist until 1925. The patent refers to an outdated, even in the 19th century, practice of the European nobility issuing letters of patent that allowed their august names to be used in advertising. The use of letters patent to obtain exclusive marketing rights to certain formulas and their marketing fueled the circulation of early newspapers.

As near as we can tell the primary benefit any consuming these formulas might enjoy was intoxication. Most contained at least one of the following alcohol, opium, or cocaine. Despite various attempts to reign in the industry makers still found ways to get alcohol into the mixture. During prohibition patent medicines were often simply attempts to circumvent the unpopular law.

There weren’t all simply ways of getting high, others were nothing but purified water or hellish mixtures incredibly dangerous components. Towards the end of the period, a number of radioactive medicines, containing uranium or radium, were marketed to the public. Eben McBurney Byers, steel tycoon and radium water enthusiast was poisoned to such a degree that his jaw had to be removed. He had consumed over a thousand bottles of the wonder cure and re-vitalizer.

The upside, as there inevitably is, is that all of the potions and poisons were sold in bottles. When combined with patent medicines cousin in fraudulent health claims, bitters the bottle collector would get the impression that in the 19th century one was either in the patent medicine business, the bottle making business, or victim of the same.

They are simply everywhere, I’ve met collectors overwhelmed by the variety of patent medicines bottles who were forced in self defense to specialize in a particular manufacturer or only keep bottles that contained a singularly noxious concoction or promised unusually extravagant or lurid results.

Buying, selling, collecting, and even excavating old garbage dumps to get to antique bottles is a consuming passion for many Americans. It is more what they tell us about the daily activities of those pioneering Americans than their value as objects of beauty, although many are quite beautiful, that drives the interest in antique bottles and glassware.

Silas Finch is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Collectible Antiques Etc. He can be reached at Content and Solutions.

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