Bottled Health: The benefits of glass for peddling dangerous medicines and cure-alls

Written by Tess Shingles, Assistant Curator, Queensland Stories (Acting)

Glass was the perfect packaging for medicine during the 19th and early 20th century. Glass was stable and strong, colourful and colour coded, and built for ease of branding and distribution. But be warned, sometimes the most decorative bottles hid the most dangers…

Stability, but not inside the bottle

Whether benign or dangerous, your medicine could come in several forms, solid, liquid or gas. Regardless of the form, glass provided a protective and sealable packaging solution. It protected the contents from exposure to heat or light and was unlikely to react with the ingredients.

Glass remained stable even if your medicine was not, and smelling salts took full advantage of this property!

Made from carbonate of ammonia, a salt often dissolved in natural oil or vinegar, it was a volatile substance, waved under the nose, to revive a person who felt faint. As glass won’t absorb liquid, it was an ideal material for containing and extending the life of the smelling salts and slowing the evaporation of the compound.

Smelling Salts Bottle, Queensland Museum Collection.

This stability was not so ideal for all medicinal products. Some bottles held solid pills like this codeine bottle in the Queensland Museum Collection.

Pressed pills, then called a “tabloid” were a new way of administering medicine in the 1880s, but the method for forming the tablets was not yet perfected were not perfected and the tablets were still very brittle. Glass would protect them from external damage, but it did create a problem, as pills collided with the inside of the bottle, they sometimes broke. This was usually remedied by including cotton wool inside, on top of the pills to stop them from rattling around inside the bottle.

The very stability of glass has also meant it was long lasting. Glass has been kept by owners, prized by collectors, and preserved in archaeological sites, and as a result can tell us a lot about social history. The size, shape, and embossed labels on glass bottles can hint at the previous contents and can even suggest product distribution and popularity.

Recently parts of Brisbane have been investigated by archaeologists in preparation for the Cross River Rail construction work. The site of the new Woolloongabba Station was previously a rubbish dump and archaeologists have found, among other items, several medicine bottles from the late 1800s in good condition, suggesting that Brisbane residents were not immune to the promises of concoctions like Scott’s Emulsion or Powell’s Balsam of Aniseed.

Colour Coded

Another benefit of selling remedies in glass was the ability to colour the bottle. Did you know that the glass was often coloured depending on the contents? Orange and brown glass was used to block UV light, protecting medicines that might degrade with exposure. Chloroform was one such medicine.

This poisonous liquid is no longer used, but in the 1840s it was revolutionary medicine. Chloroform was used as an anaesthetic when doctors performed surgery. Prior to this, surgeries often occurred while patients were conscious or given naturally derived drugs, making the operations difficult and dangerous as patients could react physically to pain and go into shock.

Despite these benefits chloroform caused burns around the mouth and nose if inhaled, vomiting, nausea, damage to the liver and if administered excessively can cause respiratory failure and death. As it was so dangerous it was often stored in specialised glass dropper bottles to ensure a steady, measured pouring of the liquid, its colour further emphasising the dangers.

Chloroform and Chloroform Dropper Bottle, Queensland Museum Collection.

Health supplements used colourful bottles too, but usually as a marketing tactic, like Dr Townsend’s Sarsaparilla. Made in New York State, it claimed to be,

“the best general medicine” assisting with such ailments as “scrofula, erysipelas, sore eyes, quinsy, sore throat, jaundice, asthma, eruptions of the skin, rheumatism, ulcer sores, syphilitic cases, salt rheum, piles, costiveness and all bowel complaints, scald head, spinal complaints” but should also be considered a “general nursery medicine“.

Unfortunately, the ingredients of his sarsaparilla; molasses, senna, alcohol and some inconsequential herbs, were unlikely to cure any of these conditions. Despite this, the green coloured bottle would have customers associating this supplement with trusted and more effective medicines.

Bottle, Dr Townsend’s Sarsaparilla, Queensland Museum Collection.

Moone’s Emerald Oil similarly claimed to be beneficial for a variety of diagnoses and like Dr Townsend’s, it was a tonic that couldn’t possibly do everything it promised.

In 1934, the American Food and Drugs Administration, seized 515 bottles and found the tonic was not antiseptic as it claimed. They also took issue with the additional statements that Emerald Oil would “reduce simple irritation, acne, pimples, soft corns and bunions, toe itch, varicose and swollen veins, varicose ulcers…. dandruff….and as a relief in incurable disease.” After the company took no action to defend itself against these charges that particular shipment was destroyed.

While it was ineffective as a remedy, one can imagine consumers being persuaded by the bright green bottle advertising its scientific properties.

Bottle of “Moone’s Emerald Oil”, Queensland Museum Collection.

The bright colour of the Moone’s Emerald Oil bottle would also have served as a warning. To ingest the concoction was poisonous and a brighter coloured glass was thought to prevent misidentification and accidental dosage.

Bright blue glass was often used for poisons, with an additional physical feature, like the ridges on this bottle from the Queensland Museum Collection. The colour would ensure that someone who couldn’t read knew the contents were dangerous. The elaborate features of the bottle would allow someone searching a cabinet in times before electric lighting, to know the shape of a poison bottle by touch.

Blue Glass Poison Bottle, Queensland Museum Collection.

Shaped for Sale

The shape of a bottle was a very important for practical use and also as a marketing tool. The bottles could be small enough to fit in your purse or hold large quantities for a chemist or doctor.

The “panel” bottle style, rectangular with two short sides and two longer sides was popular, as it allowed a larger label to maximise marketing, and they could be neatly packed into a box for shipping. An example of this panel style bottle in the Queensland Museum Collection used to contain dugong oil.

Dugong Oil is a traditional medicine of the Quandamooka People of Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island) and was used as a rub or ingested. The practise was adopted and commercialised by European settlers in 1840s, spearheaded by local, Dr William Hobbs. 

Hobbs was a private practitioner, on the Medical Board for Queensland, and manufacturer of Dugong oil with his first two qualifications lending weight to the third. The oil was lent further credibility thanks to the doctor’s persuasive selling methods and the shape and branding of the glass bottle probably didn’t hurt either!

Dugong Oil, Queensland Museum Collection.

Glass was the most practical and colourful way to sell medicines in liquid, gas or solid form. Although it was often left to the customer to make sure that the contents weren’t dangerous or a scam. Here at Queensland Museum, we recommend you check the label and consult your doctor!

Explore Queensland Museum’s collection of glass bottles here.