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19th-Century Botany in a Bottle—Highly Desired Medicinal History in Glass

by Bram Hepburn (08/28/12).

A very rare golden-amber-colored DR. GUILMETTE’S EXTRACT OF JUNIPER/ BOSTON stands 9½-inches tall and has an applied, squared-collar lip and an early smooth base. Value: $275.

In all antiques and collectables, the more interest there is in an object, the more valuable it becomes. In the field of antique bottle collecting, enthusiast invariably wind up gravitating to one or two categories and begin a quest to own or at least document all of the bottles ever produced in that category. This wonderful obsession, of course, drives up the price for the rarer examples as bottle collectors become “bitters collectors,” “figural collectors,” “cure collectors,” etc.

One lesser-known category that is very specialized, but gaining interest year after year, is botanical and herb product bottles. And even more specialized, dealing in even harder-to-obtain items, is the category of 19th-century American embossed botanical bottles. Any proprietor could throw together a concoction, bottle it and stick a paper label on it, but it was much more of a financial commitment to your product to actually bottle it in glass bottles blown one at a time, in bottle molds that printed embossed lettering onto each bottle. Long after the paper label has peeled off, the concoction used up and the consumer had passed away, your bottle—with your name and the medicine you were hawking—would live on as long as the bottle wasn’t smashed into little pieces when it was thrown off the family trash tote cart, over the edge of a rock wall at the edge of the farm property. There it would lie, for decades on end, until a bottle digger like me happens along in search of these glass jewels from the past.

And what a feeling it is to slowly unearth a deeply buried glass bottle, with the embossed letters showing themselves as you wipe off the dirt! And with words like “BOTANICAL” or “JUNIPER” or “SMARTWEED” emerging, you know it is a good one, if it is intact. And then, as more thought is given to what the bottle contained and the accompanying historical interest, it makes the thrill of the hunt that more enjoyable. One of the most interesting parts of the hobby of digging and collecting American bottles is studying the history of the products they contained and learning in the most vivid and tangible way how the people living here in generations past used what they found around them in nature to manufacture medicine.

An extremely rare 1860s bulk medicine bottle, crudely embossed on the front DR. LEATHE / BOTANIC STORE / 502 GRAND ST. N.Y. This bottle measures 9 inches tall, with an unusually short neck, and applied collar lip. It is worth between $200 and $400.

EXTRACT OF SMARTWEED front panel embossing from a somewhat common Dr. Pierce’s Extract of Smartweed, Buffalo N.Y. It comes from a fairly successful operation from a larger city, so its value is $20 or so. In general, if bottles are embossed with small town names, proprietor names and with names of exotic concoctions which were failures, the value tends to rise (factoring in age and condition as well).

Another subset of early American bottles I’ve seen collected is embossed “animal oil” bottles. I believe there are only about 20 of them (different animals, that is), who’s oils were bottled and the name of the animal was actually embossed on the bottle. Bear’s oil was the most common, but others included beaver oil, sperm whale oil, snake oil and sturgeon oil, to name a few.

In general, the products manufactured and bottled in this manner used oils from animals they could find locally. Similarly, the botanical products were made using herbs and plants found just a horse ride away.

This is the side panel of an 1880s DR. SCHENK’S SEAWEED TONIC, a 9-inch-tall square based bottle. Smooth-based version value $30, while 1860s-era pontiled base version is worth $200.

This very popular DR. KILMERS SWAMP ROOT KIDNEY LIVER AND BLADDER CURE. From one of the most successful “snake oil” proprietors of the day, with many different medicinal cure bottles to his name. This little 1890s sample bottle is common but desired by collectors and novice alike. Value: $15.

So, in great contrast to how today’s technology has shrunken the world down in many ways, a botanical druggist in the 1850s had to live in the world around him and derive a cure for the common cold, being resourceful in the truest sense of the word.

And, while many of these early hand-blown bottles command hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars, there really is a pricelessness to them, if you take the time to think it through.

An 1850s open pontiled base vial, embossed MRS. GARDNER’S INDIAN BALSAM OF LIVERWORT, a rare early bottle, made more desirable because of its super-thin flared lip, which somehow has remained intact for 150-plus years. Its value is $200.

A super-rare, unusually large (almost 10 inches tall) paneled medicine with a crude, sharp open pontiled base. Embossed on three concave panels, it read WILSON FAIRBANKS & CO SOLE AGENTS / SYRUP OF GINSENG & MALVA / 45 HANOVER ST. BOSTON. Amazing whittled glass, desirable form, large early embossing font, mushroom type applied collar lip. Very few known, its value is $1,000 or more. It is one of the most desirable aqua-colored pontiled medicine bottles.

In all my hiking through the woods of New England in search of digging sites, there have been several times where I would unearth a 150-year-old bottle from a local doctor who put together a medicinal recipe himself, and I am actually within view of the village where he lived and worked. And I’m also kneeling there in the dirt at the edge of a field where he very well could have hiked and searched for the plant, root or herb he needed to mix together something he believed would heal his patients.

For me, it doesn’t get any more organic than that.

Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He lives in Eliot, Maine.

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