Is Your Sarsaparilla Bottle Worth $1 or $1,000?
I dug this very rare Dr. Stockers’ Sarsaparilla bottle circa 1850 from the muddy banks of the Salmon Falls River in Berwick Maine many years ago. I have only seen one other, and it sold for well over $1,000!
The first “inexact” thing about sarsparilla is its spelling and pronunciation. I learned to spell it by pronouncing it in three distinct sections, as in sar- sap- arilla. Why in the world something pronounced “sass pa rilla” is spelled that way, I’ll never know. But if you are a collector of early American bottles, and you find a bottle embossed “sarsaparilla,” you’ll forgive the strange letter arrangement. You’ll know you have entered into yet another strange subset of an already peculiar collectible—old, empty bottles!
Sarsaparilla was made using the root of a plant called smilax, combined with other natural herbs, and then most probably, alcohol. The etymology of the word sarsaparilla is, in my opinion, a word that fell together, in part, for marketing reasons. Would you rather quench your thirst with a shot of sarsaparilla, or by having some smilax?
Look up the definition of sarsaparilla, and you will not be satisfied by any clear picture of what the stuff is. From the era that I collect (19th century), sarsaparilla was an ill-defined combination of medicine and beverage, with some labels claiming to cure syphilis or skin diseases, and others boasting to be a “delicious beverage good for one’s constitution.”
If you know a little about bottle collecting, you may know the “major” categories, namely historical flasks, bitters, medicines, poisons, inks, etc. But there are also many subsets and combinations of those categories. One such subset is sarsaparilla bottles, and believe it or not, these bottles can range in value from $1 to several thousand dollars!
I dug this very rare Dr. Stockers’ Sarsaparilla bottle, circa 1850 (pictured in the top photo), from the muddy banks of the Salmon Falls River in Berwick, Maine many years ago. I have only seen one other, and it sold for more than $1,000!
Over my decades of digging and collecting, I have handled hundreds of what is the most-common sarsaparilla bottle, Hoods’ Sarsaparilla from Lowell, Mass. You might see one in an antique shop for $10, or a slightly dirty one like this for $1.
Over my decades of digging and collecting, I have handled hundreds of what is the most common sarsaparilla bottle, Hoods’ Sarsaparilla from Lowell, Mass. You might see one in an antique shop for $10 or a slightly dirty one for $1. So, what would create such a chasm in value, from one bottle to another? Well, without getting in to what makes a collector pay thousands of dollars for any collectible, I’ll focus on the components that create value in this specialized category.
In this category, rarity is the great separator. The Hoods’ Sarsaparilla shown above was produced by a highly successful enterprise for many years. As a result, hundreds of thousands of these embossed bottles were made over the decades, from the 1870s through the 1920s. They were all made with aqua colored glass, and with a perfectly consistent design.
There are at least three similar bottles that I suspect were copycat products by proprietors near Hoods, which could have been worthy of a lawsuit. They weren’t as successful as Hoods, so their bottles are now scarcer. Those bottles and values include Ayers Sarsaparilla (Lowell, Mass.), worth about $20, Wetherells Sarsaparilla (Exeter, N.H.), worth around $125, and the very rare Rackleys Sarsaparilla (Dover, N.H.), which checks in at about $250.
The Dr. Stockers’ Sarsaparilla was produced by a proprietor that was in business for such a short period of time that there is almost no information on him, or this product! Through the years, I have found tidbits of information from fellow collectors, and through old newspaper articles that suggest there was a Dr. Stocker selling medicines here in Southern Maine where I live. So, it is the rarest of the rare! It is also a bottle that was hand blown, using a pontil rod tool, giving the base of a bottle a “pontil mark,” dating it to before 1865, generally.
This is a ring pontil mark on the base of the Stockers Sarsaparilla.
Now, the thing that would send the value of this bottle into the stratosphere, would be if it were in a deep color, something other than aqua (the standard color for medicine bottles of that era). This bottle is a super pale aqua color, but is essentially clear/ colorless. You have to look at the base sideways to pick up any aqua. It is not clear flint glass, but it is clear enough to make it an even more special bottle, rather than if it were common aqua.
This Dr. Guysotts bottle is a kind of a middle-of-the-road” sarsaparilla bottle, dating to the 1880’s, with a smooth base (not pontiled) but still, a hand-tooled lip.
This Dr. Guysotts bottle is a kind of a “middle of the road” sarsaparilla bottle (above), dating to the 1880s, with a smooth base (not pontiled), but still has a hand-tooled lip. It is a tall, oval shaped bottle, embossed on the front “DR. GUYSOTT’S S / YELLOW DOCK / AND SARSAPARILLA / JOHN D. PARKS / CINCINATI, O.” An exceptional example of this bottle might bring $125 at auction, but mine is a dull aqua, and has some haziness to the glass. It also is weakly embossed, so it takes some effort to make out the embossing. These issues all bring the value of any bottle down a little bit. But it is a really cool bottle—Yellow Dock and Sarsaparilla! Two medicinal roots used to make a concoction to cure what ails you. In the past, I’ve owned other bottles embossed “Sarsaparillian Resolvent” and “Sarsaparilla Bitters.”
This rare Townsends Sarsaparilla has an open pontil base, giving it a value of about $1,000.
In the bottle-collecting field, the most popular sarsaparilla bottle is from Albany, N.Y. It is a gorgeous, large, square hand-blown bottle, usually found in a shimmering olive green, emerald green, or olive amber colored glass. The bottle reads “TOWNSENDS’ SARSAPARILLA / ALBANY N.Y.” It normally has a smooth base, or what is called an “iron pontil,” which is a somewhat subtle pontil scar that is not that easy to detect sometimes. I found this rare teal green Townsends bottle (above) with an open pontil a few years ago, scuba diving in a deep river.
And finally, at the very top rung of sarsaparilla bottles, and near the top of ALL antique American bottles is the Wynkoops Sarsaparilla bottle from New York. It is a massive bottle, in a vivid sapphire blue glass. When I’ve seen these at national bottle shows, I just look because I’m too nervous to pick one up, as to drop it on the floor may set me back $20,000 or more!
In defense of the proprietors of sarsaparilla in the days gone by, it is also true that nowadays you can go out and buy a can of sarsaparilla soda at your local gourmet grocery store and God only knows what is in it. I’m guessing a lot of sugar, artificial colors, and gluco-thymo-sorbem-bloatamate, or some frightening-sounding substance that doesn’t sound like it’s good for your constitution. And as far as the empty can goes? I’m putting the value at ten cents, if you find the right recycling code on its label!
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 has just founded an estate liquidation company and auction house, Hepburn and Co. Antiques in Eliot, Maine. You can send an email to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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