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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Bitters In Bottles

Author: Clarence T. Hubbard

( Article orginally published October 1959 )

IN the era of the facile street corner "pitchman", over 110,000 different tonic bitters were made and dispensed in America. The medicine show, run by itinerant hucksters with fancy wagons, gave the bottled bitters, usually a murky substance concealed by dark amber glass, its first sales impetus. The pitchman captured the city buyers, and the old time drugstores carried a flood trade from thereon in.

It was an Age of Hypocrisy. Most of the buyers asked, with straight faces, for these elixers, blood stream purifiers, liver stimulators, and digestive dunkers, knowing full well they were well fortified with alcohol and some with opium! Many a professed teetotaleer turned up with D.T.'s-and a cellar full of empty bitters bottles.

Before these tonics were lawed out by stricter drug and food supervision, they were subject to fantastic merchandising schemes. "When Hoboes Get Sick" was the actual name of a tonic manufactured in New Orleans, which enjoyed a wide buying response. The bottles serving as containers took on fancy appeals, and today collectors vie for the remaining empties which are turned up in old drugstores, attics, auctions, and antiques shops.

An ear of corn, partly husked, in dark amber, was the chosen statue-in-glass for the National Bitters. A few were cast in other tones, such as light golden amber, or with a greenish cast.

A good bust of George Washington was chosen by the famous Centennial Bitters, and can now be seen again, reproduced, in liquor stores, dispensing wine. Log cabins, elephants, tree trunks, pineapples, and other ingenious designs were worked into shapes for bitter tonic distributors.

"A, H. Bull's Extract of Sarsaparilla" was put out in a rectangular bottle with bevelled corners, a long straight neck and a double collared mouth. The names were as tricky as the bottles. Swaim's Panacea, Dr. Warren's Tonic Cordial, Scovill's Blood and Liver Syrup, Dr. Lindenfeld's Vegetable Worm Tonic, Crook's Tar Wine, Warner's Nervine, Niagara Star Bitters, Osgood's Cholague-thousands and thousands!

Berkshire Bitters came in a pigshaped bottle; Napoleon Cocktail Bitters were uncorked from a drumshaped bottle; Seaworth's Bitters were put up in a lighthouse bottle; Angostura Bark Bitters, in a globe.

A tale to interest bitters collectors had wide credence. The makers of Brown's Iron Bitters, it goes, decided to invade the South Seas, and one Jeff Gordon, with a cargo of Brown's Iron Bitters was put ashore on the farflung island of Perpetual Bloom. The ruling queen, provocatively named Dallalingo, was beauteous but ailing. One draught of Jeff Gordon's all-purpose remedy, and she became a new woman, married Jeff, and made him King of the Islands.

Even Alaska was drawn into a bitters controversy-a tempest in a bottle. The imaginative Eastern generators of these elixers for liver complaint invaded what is now our forty-ninth state. This, said authorities, was a violation of the liquor laws applicable to the northwestern tip of America. But titular Washington heads had already decreed that bitters were not liquor, but tonic medicine. Bitters, it is recorded, were not withdrawn, and the sourdoughs of Alaska proved prosperous customers.

Though not all bitters came in figure-shaped bottles, few were in plain containers. Most bitter tonic bottles were unique, with roped corners, bevelled sides, odd titles, and embossed designs. More than 600 brands were produced. Some occasionally come on the market still filled with the tonic and bearing tax stamps. A lively trading market has developed among collectors attracted to bitters containers. A reasonably good supply, within a modest range of prices, is still available through dealers.


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