The glassy beauty of antique medicine bottles

Vintage blogger Sarah-Jane Hosegood discovers that old medicine bottles have colourful possibilities

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H&A blogger Sarah-Jane Hosegood runs the weekly Twitter vintage networking event #vintagefindhour. In her blog for H&A she writes about her most recent finds and fair experiences. This month, she discovers a wealth of collecting and styling possibilities in glass apothecary bottles…

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There’s something about the look of antique glass bottles. As a child I remember discovering them while playing in a stream and being delighted with unearthing such ancient treasures. It felt like archaeology for beginners.

Since then I’ve found many of these bottles at house clearances. My favourite was a clear glass example with the original cork stopper and beautifully handwritten label found hidden away in a vintage metal bathroom cabinet. It was just asking to be kept. For me, the labels add that extra appeal, a glimpse into a time when even medicinal bottles looked pretty in their glistening greens, blues and ambers with gilt-rimmed notes detailing the contents.

It turns out that there were practical reasons for the attractive appearance of these glass bottles. In Medieval Europe apothecaries and alchemists used them to display dried herbs steeped in liquid to tempt ailing customers to sample their potions. This continued into the 18th century when the market was awash with secret remedies packaged in eye-catching bottles that promised miracle cures for all manner of diseases.

The use of glass for storing medicine dates back to the 1600s becoming most popular in the mid to late 1700s. Glass was less reactive than ceramics and in order to protect substances from the light, coloured glass was used. Blue was the colour of choice. It provided protection yet, unlike black, you could still see the substance inside. Red glass was expensive to produce, though research showed it was the most chemically inactive. To achieve a ruby shade, gold had to be added to the molten glass – the same process used today.

As colour became more widely used, a system of colour coding grew up. Blue was originally used for poison bottles though this later changed to green. Amber and yellow bottles were used to store silver and mercury while white opaque glass was used for liquids that needed to be kept cool. Bottles with wide-brimmed, loose-fitting stoppers were often used for syrups – the stoppers were loose enough not to become sticky yet keep out the dust.

Apothecary bottles have become something of a collectors item and increasingly pop up as styling tools in interior photoshoots. Early examples (c1700) with original labels or in sets nestled in antique travelling cabinets appear to be fetching higher and higher prices.

Recently my favourite find has been a rare set of four late-18th-century onion-shaped apothecary bottles in dark olive-coloured glass with, amazingly, their original labels. It’s steep but I’d say they are worth the £1,495 price tag. Another jaw dropper was a George III mahogany travelling apothecary cabinet that opened to reveal an interior for bottle storage, drawers and a locked compartment to the rear for poison – a piece of high-quality craftsmanship priced at £895.

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For collectors, it is the matching sets that are most sought-after. A late-19th-century set of nine clear glass bottles with globe stoppers and original shield-shaped labels, for example, would fetch around the £300 mark.

There is no need to blow your budget if you’re after a few for style purposes. More common bottles sell for as little as £5 each and with car boot sales and flea markets offering plenty of finds like the ones pictured. You may even be lucky enough to unearth a valuable gem for only a few pounds.

Try lining the bottles up on window sills so that they catch the sun and create a colourful glow. Equally they look stunning in glazed cabinets or in bathrooms – probably one of the most appropriate locations for them in the home!

You could even try using them as a form of gift packaging. Last Christmas while browsing a vintage shop, I came upon some clear glass medicine bottles holding pearl and diamante necklaces. Each was wrapped with a lace ribbon secured with a vintage brooch and with a piece of sheet music twirled into the stopper.

While their new incarnation as interiors props is a long way from their original use as carriers of tonics, I’d say with such an adaptable range of uses, spending some money on these glassy gems is a medicine I am more than willing to swallow.

Tweet Sarah-Jane at @vintagehomeshop

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Images: Paul-Ryan Goff