Losing our bottle

Whatever happened to those fancy dispensary stock bottles that were so familiar sixty years ago, asks Ralph Tapping?

The Whittal Tatum & Co jars and bottles, with their glass labels, painted on their reverse, often using gold leaf and fixed in place in a specially designed recess, were a feature in many pharmacies as sets and looked very neat and attractive.

Other makers of stock bottles presented painted-on labels or specially printed paper labels, but the WT & Co bottles were the most popular.

All of these bottles had ground-glass stoppers for powders and tinctures and special closures for syrups and oils. Oil bottles had an opening with a glass insert that facilitated pouring without spillage, with any excess draining back into the bottle. 

A loose-fitting glass dome covered the opening to keep out any dust. An interesting variation of this feature was reserved for bottles containing highly volatile liquids, such as ether or chloroform.  The glass dome fitted closely with a ground glass seal, thus preventing evaporation.

Syrup bottles had a loose stopper with a wide flange that effectively closed the bottle but avoided sticking.

Bottles containing tinctures of vegetable origin were a particular problem, in that the ground glass stopper tended to stick. In spite of every best effort to release the stopper it often resulted in the top of the bottle being cracked or broken, which made them unusable and hence they fell out of favour, a cork stopper being much more practical.

When Bakelite screw-capped bottles became available, the dispensary stock bottles tended towards plain rectangular 20 fl.oz. bottles ( known as “flats” ) with paper labels. The WT & Co bottles found their way to the front of shop shelves purely as display items.

The decline in compounding in most of today’s pharmacies has resulted in these bottles disappearing out of sight. The age of ready-prepared is well and truly with us!

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  1. Tony Lee

    The blue bottle is probably what was termed a Victorian blue, and usually had a small bump on the bottom from the mould. Window carboys were also popular, and a decorative in many pharmacy windows in the 1950’s- 1960’s.
    I worked in pharmacies in the UK with full sets of blues all still used; usually labelled with gold leaf. The current price on EBay suggests their value at about $50, the same price as 50 years ago (in antique shops).

  2. Anne Todd

    One day I’ll have my custom built display cupboard for all my collection. At the moment they are all tucked away in the shed. My mum was an avid auction hunter and she started buying pharmacy galenicals for me in my first year at Uni in the early 80s. I’ve been quite restrained of late and haven’t bought anything for a while.

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