Poison bottles are one of the most beautiful glass collectibles today. Most antique or vintage poison bottles collected date from the 1870s to the 1930s. Many people during those days were illiterate, so accidental poisonings were a fact of life. A New York Times article dated May 11, 1913, reported a superintendent of a Missouri hospital ordered sleigh bells chained to the necks of bottles containing poisons after an attendant gave carbolic acid to a patient by mistake. The patient died, and the attendant was indicted.
Using sleigh bells was merely a temporary solution to the answer for a growing chemical industry in the late 1800s. England was experiencing an economic boom from the Industrial Revolution. Local chemists and druggists found they could produce cleaning compounds, insect killers, vermin poison, etc. cheaply enough to sell far and wide. Glass bottles, too, were inexpensive and perfect for transporting their contents to market, so the poison trade really began to take off.
And so did the death rate! Both the governments of the United States and England enacted laws to prevent accidental poisonings. However, it was the poison manufacturers themselves who took direct action to save customers who were fumbling for medicine by candlelight and grabbing poison by mistake. What they did not only reduced the number of accidental deaths, but it also created an almost irresistible collectible.
To distinguish them from non-lethal products, poison bottles were made unique and dramatic in color, texture and shape. Colors like cobalt blue, honey amber, black, and emerald and several other shades of green were used to ensure they stood out from the other bottles on the shelf.
Poison bottles were also designed with unique textures: latticework, raised ridges, deep grooves, dots, diamonds, geometric shapes, horizontal or vertical ribbing, or hobnails. Also, embossed lettering warned, “DEATH,” “POISON,” “POISONOUS,” or “NOT TO BE TAKEN INTERNALLY.” There are also figural bottles (including a rare few shaped like coffins or skulls) and other shapes (e.g. cigar-shaped bottles).
One of the first glass plants in America was founded in Millville, NJ in 1806. It went through various owners and titles until it became Whitall Tatum & Company in 1857 when J. M. and I. F. Whitall and Edward Tatum became owners. Many poison bottles have been traced to them, with the most familiar being the cobalt quilted with stopper. Other colors are extremely rare especially in teal and clear, they come in many different sizes.
In the early 1860’s European and American Pharmaceutical journals recommended the use of bottles with restricted necks or special closures as protection against poisoning. Soon after introducing their special bottles Whitall-Tatum brought out a rectangular stopper with sharp spiney points and embossed POISON, for use with their bottles.
The Whitall Tatum & Co. listed this type in their 1880 catalog with the following description:
“These bottles are especially useful, not for prescriptions, but for Liniments, and the various poisonous articles, as Laudanum, Corrosive Sublimate, Oxalic Acid, Oil of Vitriol, etc., which are likely to be kept in the family medicine closet.
The frequent accidents in the use of POISONS have made a demand from well-appointed apothecary stores for a bottle which shall protect patients from danger of mistake both night and day – by the touch, as well as by sight – in the use of poisonous preparations.
We have met this demand by a new line of bottles, of a deep cobalt blue color. The surface is also covered with sharp diamond-shaped points, tastefully arranged. It would not be easy to make any mistake with these bottles in use.”
Whitall Tatum made this style in sizes ranged from 1/2 ounce to 16 ounces. This style was produced by Whitall Tatum until at least the early 1910s, but had disappeared from their catalogs by the 1920s (Whitall Tatum & Co. 1909,1924).
The style was also copied by other glass manufacturers in later years (early 20th century) as examples up to one gallon size and with other glassmakers’ marks have been noted.
Poison bottles are found in a variety of shapes, including some of the most unusual bottles to be found. Hexagonal and triangular shapes were chosen for poison bottles because of the “unusual feel” which they imparted to anyone who handled them. Unusual shapes were one method by which the bottler intended the user to identify the contents.
Very few of this good looking irregular hexagon poison bottle have been found. Always found in an amber color, the bottle comes in 2 sizes, 14 cm high and a little over 16 cm. One side has “Sercsol Elliott” on the shoulder, with “Poison” at the top of 2 sunken panels. The other side Sercsol Elliott on the shoulder with “Poison” at the bottom. Has “NOT TO BE TAKEN” on both edges.