Small hand blown glass medicinal bottles have been in use for nearly 2,000 years. The earliest ones were the Roman "unguentaria", sometimes called "teardrop bottles", seen on the right. These were used by the Romans for fragrant oils used in medicines, perfumes, and cooking. They were made by the thousand from the end of the first century A.D. (when glass blowing was first invented) to around 500 A.D.
The Romans were obsessively enthusiastic about perfumed oils. Medical texts by Pliny the Elder, Dioscorides, and Galen, amongst others, refer frequently to prescriptions containing imported spices such as frankincense and myrrh as well as local ones like saffron. There are many Roman texts which criticise the excess expenditure on perfumes for cosmetic and medical use, and it was one of the major drains on Roman coffers by Nero's days.
On the other hand, it was all good news for the glassmakers. They built their glassworks often in the same districts as the perfumiers, and there was a constant demand for their products throughout the Roman empire. The two vials at centre front of the picture above were the simplest to make, and most common type found during the late 1st century A.D. and the early 2nd century A.D. The skilled glass worker would blow a tiny gather of glass into a bulb, pull the neck with his tools to elongate it, and then shear the vial from the blow pipe leaving a simple flared top. The shapes become more complex in later centuries.
There was a long pause in production of apothecary's vials during the "dark ages" and through medieval times. The small glass medicinal vial re-emerged in relative quantity particularly around Germany and the Baltic regions during the "Renaissance" period.
Through the 15th to 18th centuries we find the crude yet charming "footed" vials seen here and at the top of this page. They average from 8 to 10cm in height. The term "footed" refers to the small disc of glass applied to the base of these bottles, as you can see in the photograph later in this article.
The glass is usually thin and not very good quality. In the 15th and 16th centuries closure was attained with oiled parchment tied to the neck. By the 17th century cork was becoming commonplace for stoppers.
In the picture above, the examples on the left date approximately to the late 15th century and the picture shows our subjective chronology through the centuries, with 17th and 18th century examples at the rear on the right. This form of vial was in use for such a long period that dating them precisely is difficult.
The small dark specimen is a 16th century example that contained mercury, possibly for treating syphilis. This one is an early type of Murano glass from Italy and can be identified by the use of "cristallo" soda glass rather than the less successful potash glass used elsewhere. Murano glassblowers (confined to work on the island of Murano in Venice) were treated well but essentially kept prisoner until the 16th century in order to maintain a monopoly on the cristallo trade (by keeping its formula secret).
The picture on the right shows the base of several examples. The "kickup" on the base is lightly conical with a small shard of pontil glass or a tiny circular pontil ring.
The kickup has two advantages, it takes less content to fill the bottle, and also any sediment in the contents tends to get trapped around the edges of the base.
Later examples tended to be made of clearer and purer glass with flattened horizontal mouths. Earlier specimens usually have an everted or crudely folded over mouth. Market desirability is based on crudeness, patina and postulated age. Prices in 1988 range from about $75 to $150 US, but they are hard to find and values are increasing.
The picture on the right illustrates another variation of the apothecary's vial. Note how these small bottles lack the glass disc on the base and have a much more pronounced conical kickup.
The larger broken example (back left) is a late 15th century type. The small vials range from the late 15th to early 17th centuries. Most bear a small ring-shaped tubular pontil scar.
This form tends to be smaller than the footed type and is comparatively more scarce. They are valued around the same price range as the footed vials.
The historical importance of this shape is that it was the precursor for the "onion" wine and beverage bottles that abounded from the late 17th to middle 18th centuries. These dark olive "onion" bottles became invaluable throughout Europe and England and saw extensive use and variety. Both the footed and the "pre-onion" apothecary vials share features of the long-necked "shaft and globe" wine bottles of the middle 17th century. These tiny vessels offer both a historical significance and a unique aesthetic.
The multitude of small cylinders in this picture span the late 15th through to the 17th centuries. Considerable variation exists with this style and dating can be daunting.
The two cylinders on the left of this picture have features common to the earliest forms found in the 15th and middle 16th centuries. The centre and rightmost bottles have features used throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Typical features are the flared mouths, crude quality, and variation in kickup depth.
Some vials tend to have bases narrower than the shoulder diameter. This was more common from the early to middle of the 17th century. Cylinders tend to cost about a half to three-quarters of the price of globular vials.
This picture shows two other types of early medicinal glass containers. The vial on the left is an English example from around the middle of the 17th century. England was behind Europe in glassmaking skills until about this time.
The little jar on the right is a "salve pot", used to store ointments and viscous lotions. This specimen probably dates from the late 16th century.
The fragmented vessel that looks like a cup is called a "prunted beaker" from the 16th century. These are very rare early drinking vessels.
Early vials and jars can provide an affordable and attractive category of glass collecting. Prices can be high for rare colours and shapes. Roman vials were produced in such quantity and over such a long period, that they are not so rare as the later globular and cylindrical vials.
Apothecary vials sometimes show up in odd places due to their small sizes and nondescript natures. This article covers only a general sampling of the many types that exist. These handblown bottles continued to be manufactured well into the 19th century, demonstrating an ever-increasing sophistication in form and glass quality along with a commensurate drop in price.
If you are looking for collectible glass bottles, you can usually find a selection on offer on ebay.
Click here to see apothecary glass currently for sale on ebay.
You could also check out our Recommended Books on Glass.
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