A Very Short History of Glass Bottles

Bottle embossed “Dr. Bell’s Medical Wonder, Kingston, Ont.” Photo courtesy of Nostalgic Journey

By Jim Trautman

Do you ever wonder when the first glass bottle appeared? Do you wonder why glass bottles came in so many different colours and the purpose of using all those colours instead of standard clear glass? Well, maybe not, but my inquiring mind wanted to find out some of the reasons. I enjoy researching an item, product or events that are part of our rich cultural collective history to find out how it may have started.


Glass was not often used to make items like bottles or jars until the mid-1800s. Before that time, earthenware and pottery vessels were the preferred objects used for storage, but as the Industrial Revolution expanded glass bottles become the vessel of choice. The Victorian Age was a time when an array of illnesses caused the population great concern, and the vermin that carried many diseases were a major health issue. In addition to these diseases, a large part of the community also suffered from consumption, a lack of energy and other medical problems that made the local pharmacy an important contributor in the fight against illness.


As the food industry grew and provided more food to the population, interest began to center on chemicals to kill insects and eliminate vegetable diseases. In the Victorian Age almost everything began to be perceived as some sort of illness or plague that could be controlled and cured through various chemicals and remedies. (As a side note there is a series of documentaries, “Hidden Killers of [the Victorian Home, the Tudor Home, etc.] by historian Dr. Suzannah Lipcomb who has studied historical eras like the Victorian Age and how some of the chemicals and other concoctions resulted in tragic consequences during that period.)


Documents indicate that medicinal bottles were the largest and most diverse of glass bottles manufactured in the late 1800s into the 20th century.  There were many thousands of brands and variations produced at this time.  Before the invention of the electric light by Thomas Edison bottles began to appear with raised letters on the front. In the days of candlelight and gas lighting, there were many incidents of someone choosing the wrong bottle and poisoning themselves or someone else. Paper labels with a large skull and crossbones was another way that early glass bottles were marked to indicate the contents. Many of the early medicinal bottles can be recognized by their size and colour. Dark green bottles with a large mouth opening were commonly used at the time as were cobalt blue bottles.  (Personally, whenever I see a cobalt blue bottle I immediately think of Phillips Milk of Magnesia or Bromo-Seltzer.)


Paper labels were introduced much later and were utilized to advertise the product inside the bottle. Early glass bottles may have the name of the pharmacy or a company name embossed on the front of the bottle or the sides but do not indicate the name of the medicine it was filled with.


Trying to identify bottles without labels or raised letters can be somewhat challenging, but many products used a certain type of bottle consistently.  One of the early brands to appear on restaurant tables is the famous Tabasco from Avery Island, Louisiana in its distinctive small-necked bottle. In 2017 Tabasco is still the only bottle allowed on tables in Five Star restaurants. Many of the bottles of the period contained tonics, mixtures that were meant to invigorate you, or bitters, which were made of combinations of plant extracts that had a pungent, sharp taste and were meant to assist with your digestion or appetite.  Around 1880 several large glass manufacturing plants opened and began to make bottles for various sauces and other edible products and by the late 1880s glass bottles were a common household item used for preserving (aka “canning”) food.


 As production increased, so did the variety  of shapes and sizes of glass bottles and jars.


A  major milestone for the rise of the glass bottle was the rise in popularity of soda water and, eventually, flavoured soda or “pop.” In the late 1880’s it seemed that almost every drug store had a special soda water to sell to the local public, but none caught on quite as well as Coca-Cola. In 1889, according to company documents, two Chattanooga, Tennessee lawyers traveled to Atlanta, Georgia to meet with the inventor of Coke, John Pemberton. The meeting was arranged to discuss expansion of the business and to set up bottling plants across the United States. This included plans to develop a distinctive bottle that would assist in developing the Coca-Cola brand. It may have been one of the first times a bottle was designed to become a major selling factor for a product. The rest is history as the Coca-Cola bottle is recognized worldwide.


Through the decades other soda bottles became famous. The formula of the early 7 UP contained lithium. If you find a green 7UP bottle it can be dated simply by the small bubbles on it. In later years the formula had to be changed and the lithium taken out and so was the green bottle.


In Canada, one story that may not be very well known is how the famous Canada Dry soda began. The company was founded in 1904 by John (Jack) J. McLaughlin of the famous Buick automobile family. McLaughlin, the son of Robert McLaughlin, was a pharmacist and chemist. He had big plans and wanted to sell his soda water, not only to drug stores, but to a larger market. The early Canada Dry bottles were plain glass with his name embossed on the front. His company had a water plant outside of Toronto in the Hamlet of Cataract in Caledon. It was believed that the deep waters of the Credit River  that flowed through the rocks of the area still sprang from the  Glacial Age and would provide the best water for his soda product.  During the prohibition of the 1920s people complained that the illegal liquor that was available usually tasted bad. Born was Canada Dry Ginger Ale. In the 1920’s a bottle of Canada Dry 35 cents was a lot, but it was the perfect mixer to kill the taste of the available liquor. His next marketing tool was to run ads and put on the bottle that it was the “Champagne of Ginger Ales.”. The green bottle even has a crown on the top.


The famous Orange Crush soda bottle was dark coloured and stated, “This bottle protects the fresh fruit flavor from the harmful effects of light.” The front label had the Orange Crush name. The bottles for Orange Crush were manufactured by the Owens-Illinois Glass Company of Toledo, Ohio.


The majority of the bottle companies were located in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. The simple reason behind this was that the raw materials required in the manufacture of bottles came from silica-based sand and other soils and these were abundant in the areas.  Hazel-Atlas was another famous manufacturer and the company is remembered for making many notable depression glass patterns. One noted manufacturer of soda bottles and other jars and containers was the Glenshaw Glass Company of Pennsylvania. One of the first glass companies in America was the Whitall Tatum Company  (1806 – 1938) of Millville, New Jersey. Their early bottles are highly collectible and, as such, are prized by collectors.


The history of the simple glass bottle is very complicated but can be rewarding to unfold with time and research.  Antique bottles are a wonderful collectible with an extensive and interesting history. They are also easy to display with the diversity of shapes and colours. Maybe 2018 is the time to start a new collection… happy hunting.