Collectors Corner: Poison Bottles
By Michele Alice
Back in the day when you might store the bottle of rat poison next to the vanilla extract and stomach powder (bicarbonate of soda), it was found that people were occasionally being poisoned to death.
While it is true that some of those deaths were deliberate (does Victorian serial-killer Mary Ann Cotton ring a bell?), far more incidents were merely due to the ingestion of lethal ingredients accidentally added to a cake or other recipe,...or when an individual suffering from a midnight migraine fumbled around in the dark or by candlelight looking for the aspirin tablets, and popped a couple of poison pellets instead.
Labels listing contents or bearing printed skull-and-crossbones warnings did not eliminate mistakes by the illiterate, the hard-of-seeing, or the inattentive, so by the latter half of the 19th century, manufacturers had already begun introducing distinctive features to the bottles to minimize confusion with ordinary products.
Bottles became saturated with color: cobalt blue was the most common, followed by emerald green, amber, and black. They were embossed with patterns - lattice work, ribbing, hobnails, skull-and-crossbones - and wording - "Poison," "Poisonous," "Not to be taken internally." They acquired interesting shapes - coffins, skulls, 3-sided, "submarine."
And it is precisely because of these attributes that poison bottles (often simply referred to as "poisons") have become so popular with collectors today. The most coveted pieces date from about 1860 to 1930, and prices run the gamut from a few dollars for the most common specimens to up to $12,000+ for the rarest, like some of the coffin-shaped ones.
Among collectors of specific bottle or drug manufacturers, The Owl Drug Company (1892-1930) is a particular favorite for the several versions of the company's embossed owl logo, both on the blown and the machine-made specimens. And while blown pieces are generally more valued than machine made, some of the latter were actually produced in smaller quantities. How to tell the difference? Look at the lip! The lip on an automatic-bottle-machine (ABM) container will have vertical seams, while the lip on a blown-in-mold, applied-lip (BIM or BIMAL) piece will have none.
For those who have limited access to old backyard dump sites, cellars, and landfills (and that includes most of us), the best sources for obtaining poison bottles remain the usual: estate and rummage sales, online auctions, dealers, and other collectors.
Note that in the descriptions of poisons, you may see the letter K followed by other letters and numbers. The K refers to a system devised by collector Rudy Kuhn to codify the bottles by their shapes and other variants, so if you are really interested in collecting poisons, you may want to obtain a copy of Kuhn's book.
You need not be a serious collector, however, to appreciate poison bottles. Their striking colors, shapes, and other unique features can make even an inexpensive assortment an eye-catching and discussion-sparking element in any home or office.
Would you like to learn more about this interesting collectible? Check out the resources listed below, and
The American Poison Bottle Book, by The Antique Poison Bottle Collectors Association
Poison Bottle Workbooks, by Rudy Kuhn
Warman's Bottles Field Guide, by Michael Polak
Antique Bottle Collector's Haven - Check out the page on Poison Bottles and the Poison Bottle Hall of Fame for some really nice photos of unusual specimens.
Antique Bottle Hunter - Scroll down this section on Poisons for a great photo gallery with descriptions.
Antique Poison Bottle Collectors Association (APBCA) - Articles, links, more.
Antiques Roadshow: Poison Bottle Collection - Watch the video, and then click the link to the "Foul Facts Gallery - Poisoning" to read about serial-killer Mary Ann Cotton.
A Killer Collection...Poison Bottles - Great article by Mike McLeod provides lot of interesting information.
"The Pellet with the Poison's in the Vessel with the Pestle" (The Court Jester) - Movie Clip - Say that three times fast. You still can't beat Danny Kaye!
Robs Poisons Page - Descriptions and photos of a large number of the more unusual bottles dating from 1860-1912.
About the author:
Michele Alice is EcommerceBytes Update Contributing Editor. Michele is a freelance writer in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts. She collects books, science fiction memorabilia and more! Email her at makalice @ adelphia.net eBay ID: Malice9
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