Apothecary bottles have a bit of a checkered past throughout the annals of time. Originating with street apothecaries in Medieval Europe, these bottles eventually spread as the go-to carrier and preserver of medicine throughout the world. They have been vessels of both medical aid and financial masquerade, especially in America.
The term “snake oil salesman” refers to a time in the early 1900s where questionable “doctors” pedaled pseudo, beneficial concoctions—usually claiming Eastern/Asian influence and remedies—in these beautifully crafted glass beauties. There would even be medical circus shows of sorts for doctors and salesmen to advertise their products amongst a sea of theatrics and eager, naive audiences.
The bottles themselves even went through a series of transformations. After these bottles became popular in America, there was a major shift in apothecary bottle design in the 1880s. Dr. Thomas William Dyott created his own glassmaking company, because of his dissatisfaction with the low quality apothecary bottles in the market. And his products stood the test of time. Nowadays, most bottles seen and collected are offspring of his design and company.
We don’t typically see modern medicine in these craft containers anymore, but many people do collect apothecary bottles for home décor. The bottles make wonderful flower and bud vases. They can be incorporated into a mantel’s décor, or placed on windowsills to catch light and add a pop of green or blue to a room’s palette. Large bottles with wide mouths are perfect to store pasta, or other dry goods in the kitchen. They can also make a beautiful orchid terrarium for a dining room centerpiece.
We shopped the collection at Southern Crossing Antiques, which included some bottles from older companies from another world of medicine, as well as some companies that are still in practice today. They included smaller glass bottles used for making root beer, Father John’s Medicine bottles (cough syrup), Phillips Brand Milk of Magnesia cobalt blue bottles (laxative), Black Flag Insecticide (oldest insecticide in U.S.), a bottle used to house nitric acid, Yvonne talcum powder, and many others. Often, the company’s name was printed on the glass bottle for easy identification, and not all apothecary bottles were used for strictly medical purposes.
Regardless of the type of bottle, or how you use it, each has its own story that dates back to a time when milk was delivered at home and candy was kept in a jar at the drugstore. For that reason alone, they add a touch of nostalgia to any home.
Tips for Care
If you’re interested in beginning an apothecary bottle collection or think that it might be a good addition to your home, here are a few tips for caring
1. Don’t over clean your bottles.
2. Use a damp cloth with just water and no soap to clean and care for your bottles. Soap may damage some of the minerals used to make the glass.
3. Mind the labels and don’t use too much moisture to clean.
4. Deal with corrosion carefully. Don’t use any materials, such as steel wool, that might scratch or damage surfaces.