Pontil Medicines

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By Digger Odell

American bottle collectors covet those medicine bottles made prior to the Civil War. Bottles from that time period share a number of attractive characteristics. They tend to be more crudely made giving them each a unique character. They often have wavy glass, bubbles and other imperfections, which endear them to collectors. The bottles were blown into iron molds often with the name of the medicine and the proprietor raised in the glass. The great variety and availability of these collectibles ensure their future value.

Prior to 1820 there were few embossed bottles. About the only bottles with embossing from that early time were the historical flasks. Unlike medicine, whiskey was a necessity on the frontier. Everyone was their own doctor, but not everyone could make their own whiskey. Once the cost of making individual molds was reduced to the point where businessmen could afford them, thousands of would-be proprietors from all over the country began to put up their own medicines in private mold bottles. The bottles they used are much sought after today by collectors. And for good reason.

With an expanding population and the rapid growth of newspapers the stage was set for an explosion of commerce as of yet unseen in our new country. Patent medicines had been a part of the American landscape from the colonial days when settlers brought them with them or imported the medicines from England. It was in fact in England that the notion of a "Patent" medicine began. A Patent was a privilege granted by the King. Many of these patent medicines were well known the colonists and their popularity continued until the War with England and our independence.

After the Revolutionary War, The English imports never regained their former popularity (although they were still sold widely and for many years). they were rapidly replaced by American counterparts. Every city spawned at least a few of these collectible bottles. New York, Philadelphia, and Boston had many examples. As the population expanded West so did the need for medicines compounded locally. Some brands, through prolific advertising campaigns, managed to keep their place in the American conscious. But the rapid growth and difficulties with distribution opened plenty of opportunities for newcomers. It was commonplace for eastern proprietors to open depots in far away cities such as Cincinnati, St. Louis and New Orleans. But these cities also had a rash of new medicinal proprietors touting their products, offering sever competition for the more established brands.

A large number of these products were sheer quackery. There was cures for every imaginable disease. One disease however, consumption (today called TB or tuberculosis) was more feared than others. For good reason too. Consumption killed millions in the 19th century.

Cures for Consumption were nearly as common as the disease itself. That consumptionís beginning stages were much like that of a cold or cough. Cures were marketed by playing on peopleís insecurities and fears. No doubt many died without much benefit from the medicines they were taking.

Pontil medicines come in wide variety of shapes, colors, sizes, and embossing. Literally thousands have been uncovered by collectors. More are still being discovered regularly by bottle diggers and collectors. Some of these bottles are selling for thousands of dollars. All of them are of value to collectors. Even the lay person would interested in the wealth of history behind these bottles.

Not only are the bottles themselves interesting and appealing, the old advertising for them is equally attractive. In the course of researching the material for my latest book Pontil Medicine Encyclopedia, I had the pleasure of finding thousands of these ads. Given the artwork and historical value of this advertising and the outrageous claims made by them, I decided to include many of them in the book.

I tried to produce the kind of bottle book I would like to read. I want to see lots of pictures and learn as much as I can about my bottles. It was with this in mind that I organized the book. You will not find a better source of information about medicine bottles of this period that the Pontil Medicine Encyclopedia.