Collecting Vintage Medicine Bottles: Types & Values

Published December 29, 2020
Vintage medicine bottles

Vintage medicine bottles' charm comes from their brightly colored, sometimes unusually shaped, appearance particularly when they are placed against the standard white capped, orange medicine bottles the world is used to today. Given that the pharmaceutical world from a hundred years ago is much different from the industry today, the possibilities are endless for finding vintage medicine bottles in every shape, color, and size. Since there was certainly no lack of sick people in the past, there is currently a bountiful collector's market you can spend hours perusing.

Identifying Antique & Vintage Medicine Bottles

There may be a substantial market for antique and vintage glass bottles, but medicinal bottles are a type of antique medical/dental equipment that remain one of its most sought after categories. Here are a few different characteristics which can help you easily identify a potential historic medicinal bottle or tin.

Types of Antique Medicine Bottles

Prior to the advent of the modern pharmaceutical age, medicine often consisted of either natural ingredients or boasted extreme percentages of alcohol. Since these antique bottles are not often found with existing labels, or were perhaps never sold with one, some of the typical categories you may find inscribed into these bottles include:

Antique medicine bottle collection
  • Bitters - Bitters were a popular 19th and early 20th century medicinal mixture which included high percentages of alcohol combined with natural herbs and were significantly distributed during the temperance and prohibition movements to allow for legal alcohol consumption.
  • Sarsaparillas - Sarsaparillas was another common medicinal concoction of the 19th and 20th centuries that was made out of a mixture of sarsaparilla roots and other natural herbs.
  • Cures & Remedies - Medicinal bottles that tout themselves as a cure or remedy were outlawed in the United States under the Sherley Amendment of 1912, which prohibited the libelous use of the word cure in medicinal packaging.
  • Prescriptions - Prescription bottles were manufactured for local pharmacies and marketed these companies to their nearby communities by having these companies' names or addresses blown into the bottles themselves.

Antique & Vintage Medicine Bottle Shapes

Most antique (and vintage) medicine bottles were blown into relatively consistent shapes. No matter the shape and artistic detailing on the bottle, usually these antique medicine bottles were made of glass and were hand blown. This means that if you look at the bottom of one of these glasses you can find pontil scars, the rough scarring of the glassblower's punt. The typical shapes these antiques were blown into include:

  • Square
  • Rectangular
  • Oval
  • Round

Antique & Vintage Medicine Bottle Color

As with most glassware, one of the greatest appeals to collecting old medicine bottles is the wide variety of colors that they were made out of. Here is just a small representation of the many different colored medicine bottles you might encounter.

Antique and vintage colored glass medicine bottles
  • Amber
  • Green
  • Blue
  • Clear
  • Light Blue
  • Purple

Vintage Medicine Bottle Characteristics

Although medicinal bottles were produced long before the 20th century, you can find a lot of vintage medicine bottles at auction, in antique stores, and at yard sales. Here are some characteristics that are unique to these 'newer' vintage medicine bottles.

  • Clear Labeling - Many of these bottles still have their original packaging and/or labeling, making them both visually appealing and very easy to research.
  • Plastic Materials - While plastic was not widely used in medicine bottle manufacturing until the 1940s, you can find early examples of vintage plastic medicine bottles available.
  • Familiar Brands/Medicines - You may find a vintage aspirin bottle or vintage cough medicine bottle from a company that is still in business today; this nostalgia is something that is mostly found in collecting these 'newer' old items.

Dangers of Collecting Antique & Vintage Medicine Bottles

Interestingly, collecting antique and vintage medicine bottles can be dangerous work. Some of these bottles contain either pure, or ingredients used to make, narcotics. In 1970, the United States passed the Controlled Substances Act, which (among other things) acted in combination with other state laws and local ordinances to require permission from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to sell bottles which still have narcotics inside of them. Collections specialists, like Rebecca A. Frierson, make sure to contact the local DEA offices to ensure the safe sale of any of their auction lots. Thus, if you're interested in buying bottles of outlawed narcotics like methaqualone and opiates, you should be sure to contact the right government agencies to make sure that you're not doing anything illegal.

Antique poison bottle with cork shaped like medicine bottle

Evaluating Antique & Vintage Medicine Bottles

Since antique and vintage medicine bottles are not particularly difficult to find, they don't bring in high values at auction. Bottles that are rare, come from iconic companies, or are related to popular culture or the historic zeitgeist, will sell for more than the average pharmaceutical bottle will. That being said, since these bottles are easy to store and require little restoration to be visually stunning, the market has very high turnover rates. Thus, you can sell any antique or vintage medicine bottles you might have pretty quickly.

Antique & Vintage Medicine Bottles at Market

Antique and vintage medicine bottles make perfect collectibles for novice collectors as they don't cost very much and require very little special care. You can find bottles ranging between $5-$50, but most are listed at the lower end of this scale. For example, two vintage Desitin bottles with intact labels and the original contents are listed for about $5 at one auction. Similarly, a prescription bottle from Leedom's Drug Store is listed for about $30. Even an assortment of about twenty antique and vintage medicine bottles is estimated to be worth only a little over $100. Therefore, though the market may not be a typical money-marker as with some antique and vintage collectibles, it does have a low barrier-to-entry for beginner collectors.

Turn Medicine Into Art in the Modern Home

As your collection of inexpensive antique and vintage medicine bottles grows, so too do the possibilities you have to display them. Their vibrant colors and shapes make them a perfect interior design option; you can fill them with rocks, sand, flowers, and even candies. So, make art out of medicine and put your antique and vintage medicine bottles to use. Next, learn more about old bottle identification and rare, valuable jars in case you'd like to branch out with your collection.

Collecting Vintage Medicine Bottles: Types & Values