Collectors Put New Life in Old Bottles

Bottle hunters know that a rural farmstead’s dump and outhouse sites are prime locations for digging up a wealth of old bottles. The rural family used a wide variety of bottled products in the course of their daily activities. In a society where daily bathing and use of deodorant did not become standard practice until well into the 20th century, males, as well as females, used cologne or toilet water. It often was stored on bedroom bureaus or washstands in art-glass and paint-decorated bottles similar to those found in the barbershop.

Rural America relied heavily on bitters and other types of patent medicines to fight illness and provide relief from a host of aches and pains. Bitters, often sold as a universal cure-all, were made from natural herbs and other ingredients usually mixed with a base that had a high alcohol content. Anyone could apply for a medicine patent, the first such patent being issued by the United States Patent Office in 1796. The only criterion was that the concoction not be poisonous.

Bitters and patent medicines were sold at the general store, through newspaper and magazine advertisements, and by “medicine show” barkers. Bitter and patent-medicine almanac advertisements, broadsides and trade cards make a wonderful secondary collection.

Paradise Oil bottle

Paradise Oil bottle

Advertising medicine bottle

Advertising medicine bottle

For more information on the Paradise bottle, click here, and here for the medicine bottle.

Manufacturers used a wide variety of bottle colors, shapes and sizes to attract customers to their brand of bitters or patent medicine. Many bottles had the name of the “medicine” and/or manufacturer either impressed or in relief on their surface. Most were manufactured at glass plants in western Pennsylvania and Ohio.

In 1907, the Pure Food and Drug Act required all medicines contain a label that accurately described the medicine’s contents. This ended the bitters and patent-medicine era. It also led to the era of established regional and national medicine brands, the bottles of which are highly collectible. Further, many of these medicines were sold in boxes with elaborate calligraphy and artwork.

Dental preparation bottle

Dental preparation bottle

Poison warning

Poison warning

This dental preparation bottle can be found on GoAntiques.

Poison was used extensively in rural America for rodent control and other reasons. Manufacturers used shape (coffin), symbols (skull and crossbones) and raised letters (POISON) to identify poison bottles and prevent the accidental intake or misuse of their contents. John Howell of Newton, N.J., developed the first safety closure in 1866. It was not until the 1930s that the concept became popular.

Poison bottle

Poison bottle

This antique bottle comes without the poison.

Whiskey warmed the soul and also was used for medicinal purposes. The earliest whiskey bottles were hand blown or molded. The Biningers produced the first commercially manufactured whiskey bottles in the 1820s. By the 1860s, distillers utilized the cylindrical fifth shape.

The 1860s’ E. G. Booz Old Cabin Whiskey amber bottle was the first embossed brand-name bottle. Folklore attributes the “booz” designation for whiskey to this bottle. Not true. “Booze” is a corruption of the 16th– and 17th–century words “bouse” and “boosy.” It was mere coincidence that a Philadelphia manufacturer named Booz used the first embossed whiskey bottle. Beware, the E. G. Booz bottle has been reproduced more than a dozen times.

Huntsman Whiskey bottle

Huntsman Whiskey bottle

Clown Whiskey flask

Clown Whiskey flask

Click here for details on the Huntsman bottle. Learn more about the clown flask by clicking here.

Barber, medicine, poison and whiskey bottles are only the tip of the iceberg relative to the use of bottles in rural America. Ink and mineral (soda) bottles are other possible collecting categories. Always emphasize condition. Do not buy bottles that are clouded or have other problems. Study the market before buying. Bottles that are scarce in one region may be plentiful in another. Beware of paying too much for commonly available examples.

Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out his Web site.

You can listen and participate in “WHATCHA GOT?,” Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. If you cannot find it on a station in your area, WHATCHA GOT?” streams live and is archived on the Internet.

“SELL, KEEP OR TOSS? HOW TO DOWNSIZE A HOME, SETTLE AN ESTATE, AND APPRAISE PERSONAL PROPERTY” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected letters will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5093 Vera Cruz Road, Emmaus, PA 18049. You also can e-mail your questions to Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

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  • VM

    I have 3 brown bottles that are available, but I don’t know the date. It appears that one was used to root plants, because it’s dirty inside.

    1 – Clorox 16oz(diamond on the bottom – pat. off – reg.U.S.)
    1 – Dr. J. Hostetetter’s Stomach Bitters (W.McC & Co. Pitts)
    1 – Weston’s Special Reserve Whisky (Duncan Weston & Son Scotch Whisky)

    All bottles are empty! and have no tops.

    Would anyone have an idea of the value?

  • Marilyn Jacobs

    Have 3 pinched waisted rectangular case bottles, 11″, 9″, 7″ tall. They are unusual and quite beautiful. Do you have any articles on this kind of bottle? Am trying to find out the value – just paid for a Worthpoint evaluation. Also have a green and clear overlay glass bottle with stopper and starburst in bottom.


  • Ron Karam

    These aren’t really old but I hate to throw them out and don’t know what to do with them. I have a set of 9 Flags cologne bottles from the late 60’s. They are empty and I have the box they came with. Any suggestions on who might want them? I doubt they are worth much now but probably will be sometime in the future.

  • james

    i am a big bottle colector and would love to have any bottles that you dont want anymore please contact me via e-mail so we can arange something thanks alot james

  • Mary

    I have a green whiskey bottle with gold faded lettering that says old ironsides with ship in center. In the back it has embosed letters that says don’t give up the ship with anchor in the center. Can anyone tell me if it means anything?



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