Antique Glass Medical Bottles

19th and 20th Century
The Archives of New York University School of Medicine mounted an Exhibit of Antique Medical Bottles for the 1999-2000 school years. The collection was the generous donation of Dr. Arthur Lindner, retired Associate Dean. In 2001, the Medical Archives received another gift of Antique Medical Bottles courtesy of Elena Lesser Bruun. Both collections consist of glass medical bottles from the Victorian and Modern Era (19th and 20th Century). The exceptions to this being a cardboard box of E.C. DeWitt’s “Dyspepsia Cure” and a small metal box of “Creamalin.”
5.5 linear feet
Catalogued by: 
Leala Abbott, November 2005
History written by: 
Adrienne Millon and Caron Capizzano, 1991
Donation of: 
Dr. Arthur Lindner and Elena Lesser Bruun
Received by: 
P.W. 11-12-01
Historical/Biographical Note

In eighteenth and nineteenth century America, glass bottles were often hand-blown.   These early bottles were free form and therefore were often irregular, misshapen or asymmetrical, as are some of the bottles in the collection. They were shaped on blow pipes and had to be detached from the pipe when finshed, resulting in a round imprint on the bottom of the bottle known as a 'pontil' mark. Another odd feature of these early bottles was the inconsistency of the amount of liquid a bottle could be expected to hold, but in the early days of glass production Americans apparently accepted this for the sake of being able to conveniently purchase medications without having to provide a container in which to transport them. 

The earliest of these bottles were made from natural and which gave the bottles an opaque aquamarine color. Early experimentation with additives resulted in bottles colored green, amber or blue. Cobalt blue glass is a considerably rarer find than the other colors and is a favorite among collectors. Clear glass was not perfected until the late nineteenth century. Shortly thereafter it became popular for use in medical bottles, providing an easy mark for collectors attempting to date glass bottles.

Many of the bottles in the collection contained Patent Medicines. These can date back as far as pre-Revolutionary times, when over-the-counter remedies imported from Great Britain and Europe were sold by many merchants, including postmasters, goldsmiths, grocers and tailors. After America had gained its independence from Great Britain, manufacturers of these products took advantage of rising nationalistic feelings among the populace to promote over-the-counter medications which they claimed were composed of plant products found exclusively in North America. 

In 1793, Congress passed patent legislation, which allowed manufacturers to protect their products against counterfeiters. Hence the term "patent medicine" came into common usage.   However, most manufacturers were using the same ingredients for their medicines as their competitors. The majority of these products were quack remedies composed in the main of vegetable extracts, alcohol, and narcotic derivatives such as cocaine, morphine, and opium. The main effect of these nostrums was relief from pain. Understandably, the manufacturers did not wish to reveal their ingredients, so they protected their products by patenting the label information, promotional materials, and even the shape of the bottle itself.   Patent legislation combined with the rapid growth and distribution of newspapers resulted in a large market for these remedies. 

One of the most successful of the patent medicine producers, The Kilmer Company distributed its product through the mail. The company even provided a free urinalysis to potential customers--and would then proceed to recommend Swamp Root to the sick and the well alike.   Kilmer's Swamp Root is a classic example of a quack cure, which promised the suffering customer far more than it could ever deliver. However, unlike some patent medicine manufacturers, Kilmer's does list its ingredients on its packaging and admits that alcohol is included in the mix. 

Doctors began to speak out against patent medicines as early as 1827.   Nevertheless, by mid-century, yearly sales of these products reached a high of millions of dollars. By the turn of the century, however, the public began to favor legislation which would force manufacturers to disclose ingredients and make more realistic claims concerning the effects of patent medicines. The industry received its fatal blow in 1906, when Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, although a few patent medicines continued to be produced up through the 1950's.
Some products continue to be sold even today, as over the counter remedies. One of them, Father John's Medicine, has undergone a modernization of its packaging since the time it was first produced by Father John O'Brien in Lowell, Massachusetts, but still has retained familiarity by continuing the use of a picture of Father John on a brown bottle. 

Most of these historic glass bottles originally contained pharmaceutical ingredients or patent medicines. More than 10,000 types of patent medicine bottles were produced and distributed throughout the United States and Canada between approximately 1850-1906. Historians have estimated that more than 15,000 different medicines were available in these bottles.