Jeff and Holly Noordsy

Dealers Specializing in the Sale of Early American Bottles, Glass and Period Decorative Arts

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THE EVOLUTION OF FORM AND DESIGN IN AMERICAN BOTTLES: 1739-1903

CHRONICLING THE TRANSFORMATION FROM ART TO INDUSTRY

As Presented by Jeff and Holly Noordsy at the Eastfield Village Glass Symposium in August 2005

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

As touched upon earlier, it is the increased availability and demand for personalized two and three-piece molds that precipitated the greatest changes within the industry during the pre-Civil War period. Although embossed medicine bottles were produced by Dyott as early as 1810, there was not widespread use of personalized two-piece patent and proprietary medicine mold until the 1830s. Use of such molds was spurred by the creation of new glass houses and the resulting competition between them, the opening of broader markets through the ever-expanding transportation system and the steady growth of a middle class hungry for medicines to cure their maladies. In addition, as was seen in the popularity of flasks blown to satisfy topical appeal, marketers quickly learned that embossed bottles could effectively be used as a powerful advertising tool. And, with no Government body in place to sanction the claims made by the patent and proprietary medicine industry until passage of the Food and Drug Act in 1906, the industry ran unfettered through the remainder of the 19th century, seemingly gathering strength at every turn. As is now well documented, many of the so-called medicines were little more than masking agents that would give minimal relief and in some cases, the elixirs had no medical value whatsoever. However, with alcohol as a base ingredient of many medicines, some comfort was afforded by their use and many hundreds (if not thousands) of distinctly different medicine bottles were produced in the 1830 to 1860 period.

Primarily aqua in color, these medicine bottles were generally round, often square or rectangular and sometimes polygonal in form. Of the colored medicine bottles from the period, most were blown in New England with some production in New York, especially in the Glass Houses of Mount Vernon, Lockport and Lancaster. These personalized, embossed medicine bottles were blown into simple two-piece molds with cut and recessed lettering, removed from the mold with the aid of a pontil rod and fitted with a hand-applied lip or collar. The earliest of these bottles typically exhibit a delicate flared mouth (in the fashion of the freeblown and dip molded vials that had preceded them) with later bottles finished with square collars, sloping collars and generally heavier, sturdier mouth treatments.

Most popular among the patent and proprietary medicines of the era were those various elixirs offered by men such as "Dr." Townsend of Albany, William Swaim of Philadelphia and Dr. D. Jayne, also of Philadelphia. Of these three men, Swaim was the first to bottle his preparations in privately molded bottles and it is believed that by 1828 his "panacea" had received enough acclaim to have been sabotaged by counterfeiters. As would befall Dr. Townsend a decade or so later, Swaim was forced to turn to the courts to protect his name and rights to his medicine. In addition, Swaim created and patented a distinctly formed bottle in that year that would remain in use until 1852. Produced mainly at Glass Houses in Philadelphia and New Jersey, it is also probable that some of Swaim's bottles were blown at the Coventry, Connecticut Glass Works. It would seem likely then, that in addition to owning the rights to the design of his own bottle, Swaim owned the molds themselves, simply farming out his orders to the lowest bidder. Of course it is also possible that Swaim was forced to use multiple Glass Houses at times of increased demand but with the number of Glass Houses in the Philadelphia area it seems unlikely that he would have utilized the services of the far removed Coventry Glass House without significant financial advantage.

Like Swaim, Townsend packaged his medicine (in this case a sarsaparilla) in distinctively designed vessels. Though later to become popular with other Sarsaparilla makers as well as liquor merchants (hoping to capitalize on Townsend's success), the crude, heavy quart-sized square case bottles first put out by Townsend in the late 1830s were to remain the hallmark of the brand through the end of the nineteenth century. Produced at a multitude of Glass Houses along the East Coast, there is definite evidence of Townsend bottles being blown in Glassboro, at Stoddard, in Willington, at the short-lived Albany Glass Works and at Mount Vernon. That they were blown at other Glass Works as well is a near certainty. As with those bottles used by Swaim, the great majority of Townsend's bottles were blown from colored metal.

More indicative of the medicine bottle forms of the era are the plethora of differently shaped aquamarine vessels containing preparations offered by Dr. D. Jayne. Unlike Swaim and Townsend, Jayne was not content to offer a simple "cure-all," instead marketing a plethora of different medicines, each with a specific curative claim. Those bottles embossed with the Jayne name include "Ague Pills," "Indian Expectorant," "Liniment," "Alterative," Carminative Balsam," "Expectorant," Life Preservative," Tonic Vermifuge" and "Ague Mixture." Doubtless, each of the aforementioned elixirs would have its own root and herb flavoring but it is more than likely that their base ingredients were not radically different. Like Townsend and Swaim then, it is probable that the popularity of Jayne's medicines was not a reflection of their medical effectiveness but rather the relative success of national advertising and marketing.

Other patent medicines of the era were marketed with regional success for as noted previously there are hundreds, if not thousands of embossed pontiled medicine bottles from the period. Many of the bottles were blown for only a short period as men moved in and out of the quack business while others endured for decades, many times expanding upon their success by adding additional elixirs to their arsenal of offerings. Gaining in popularity throughout the period were those bottles embossed with the word "bitters," which contained a bitter tasting mix of roots, herbs and alcohol meant to treat digestive disturbances. Taken in small doses, bitters were initially packages in vessels indistinguishable from other medicines of the period. Among the most popular of the early bitters were those bottled by John Moffat and marketed as "Phoenix Bitters." First brought out in or about 1836, Moffat's Bitters bottles were generally rectangular with widely beveled edges and finished with a short tapered collar. Blown primarily from natural shades of olive and amber bottle glass, it is likely that Moffat's bottles were blown in Mount Vernon, at Coventry and likely at other Glass Houses of the period. It is with the rise in the popularity of bitters (a natural result of the accelerating Temperance Movement) that the next period of bottle making begins but before making that transition a short discussion of other bottles blown in the 1830-1860 period is necessary.


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