According to research, the use of glass bottles for storage in pharmacies dates from sometime in the 1600’s, and became more common during the mid to late 1700’s. This was because glass did not react with medicinal preparations a much as ceramic containers; therefore, it was a protective container. It became necessary to protect medicines from the light, and that is why colored bottles came into being, and are still used today. Originally, it was thought that black was the most effective color for protecting medicines from the light, but it did not allow one to see what was inside the bottle. Blue then became a more popular color, since it provided protection and allowed one to see inside the bottle. Also, dark green and purple were used because of these same reasons. However, red was shown to be the most chemically inactive glass, but was not widely used to make bottles because that color was very expensive to produce. This was due to the addition of gold to the molten glass in order to make it both red and very stable. During the mid 1900’s the most common glass for medicinal preparations became the color amber because it protected the contents from light and was not expensive to produce.
Before 1860, bottles were free-blown (blowing the bottle without the aid of a mold) and can usually be recognized by their irregular shape. It is very rare to find complete examples of these early bottles, or even identify them, except for the base.
During formation, the bottle was attached to the blowpipe in the neck area. After the bottle had been formed by blowing through the pipe, a long iron rod or “pontil” was attached to the base of the bottle. The melted glass or molasses-like substance on the end of the pontil fused it to the base of the hot bottle, allowing the bottle to be freed from the blowpipe while the lip was being formed. Then the finished bottle was broken away from the pontil by a sharp tap; that left a scar called a “pontil mark.” This mark is always present on bottles made prior to about 1860.
A new invention called the “snap-case” replaced the pontil rod between 1850 and 1860. This was a five-foot-long rod with tongs or claws on one end to grasp the hot bottle while the neck was being formed.
The next step in bottle making was the use of molds in forming bottles. Instead of shaping the bottle by blowing and turning it in the air, the glassblower took a few puffs, and then lowered the red-hot, bladder-shaped mass into a hollow mold. The blower continued blowing into the tube until the glass compressed itself against the sides of the mold, and that produced its finished shape.
The earliest molds were called “open molds,” which only shaped the base and sidewalls. The shoulders, neck, and lip were drawn out and shaped by hand. Molds of two or more sections came into use in the 1800’s, and were called “closed molds.” These determined the shape of the bottle, including the shoulder, neck, and even the lip on later specimens. The various sections of the mold came apart to allow the bottle to be removed after it hardened. After the bottle was removed, “mold seams” were the result of this technique, and offer clues to the manufacturing methods used in producing those bottles. Three-piece molds came into use in America around 1809, but were not used extensively until the 1880’s.
Mold seams can be used to determine the approximate age of a bottle. The closer to the top of the bottle the seam extends, the more recent the bottle. It did not matter whether bottles were free-blown or blown into a mold, the lips still had to be formed by hand. The “mold seam” will end below the lip. Any bottle which had an “applied lip” was hand-made before 1900. In a machine-made bottle, the lip is formed first, and a mold is used in its formation; therefore, the “mold seam” will extend through the lip. One of the most positive signs of a bottle made prior to 1840 is the presence of a “sheared lip.” This lip was formed by cutting the glass free from the blowpipe with a pair of shears, leaving the lip with a stovepipe appearance.
Bottle manufacturers applied a ring of glass around the sheared lip around 1840, which formed a “laid-on ring” lip. During the next sixty years, many variations and types of lips were produced, always applied by hand, using pinchers, tongs, wooden paddles, and later a lipping tool. However, in general, the more crude and uneven the lip appears, the older the bottle.
In approximately 1869, bottle manufacturers adopted the habit of inscribing in the glass the names of the contents, manufacturers, distributors, slogans, and messages of all sorts. This was done by engravers when the mold was formed, in reverse on the inside surface of the mold. The engraving was done with a chisel and hammer, and was quite an art. After the mold was formed, the mold engraver would put the embossing or engraving inside the mold. It is said that one of the hardest letters to do in reverse is the N; next was the S. The engraver could not go back over the letter once it had been carved, so whatever mistake was made had to stay! This custom came to an end with machine-made bottles, and paper labels took over that function.
During the early 1900’s it was customary for doctors to compound the medicines they gave to their patients. My great grandfather, Dr. Walter F. Thomison had a drug store next to the Hotel Aqua during 1907, and his office was either in the back of the store, or upstairs over it. Then he moved his office and drug store to Market Street sometime around 1911. I have several of his medicine bottles which were dug up when the new Dayton Municipal Building was being erected. According to Clyde Roddy, who found the bottles and gave them to my grandmother, Clara Thomison Brown (Dr. Walter’s daughter), the site of the present City Hall building was a garbage dump for the City of Dayton in the early days of the town. It is amazing that anything glass survived at all! The bottles are embossed with the following: “W.F. Thomison, Druggist, Dayton, Tenn.”
Researching medicine bottles is very interesting and can be an exciting adventure in which one can find many stories relating to the production of those bottles and the people who used them. Studying these early pieces of history helps us to learn from the past in order to live in the present and prepare for the future.