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French Art Deco Geometric Brooch

Collecting Pieces of the Medicine Show
by Bob Brooke


The practice of pharmacy has undergone tremendous changes since shelves held bottles filled with essential oils and crude drugs like arsenic, strychnine, creosote and chloroform. So why would anyone want to collect such things. For a small group of collectors, it’s a passion–pure and simple.

As national drug chains build cookie-cutter look-alike stores all across the nation, collectors and auctioneers are discovering unsold treasure from old pharmacies—prescription stock bottles, over-the-counter preparations, prescription records, stationery and other items dating as far back as the late19th century—hidden in basements or behind walls.

The Appeal of Old Medicines
Pharmaceutical collectors are especially captivated by patent medicines that predate the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. Medicine at the turn of the 20th century could be deadly serious or a real hoot. The label of Eli Lilly's Elixir No.114 revealed its ingredients included belladonna, a poisonous plant of the nightshade family. The use of belladonna would have had a calming influence on the patient taking the elixir.

And let’s not forget such “miracle cures” as Becks Great Indian Liniment, guaranteed to cure headache, colic and cramps due to gas, coughs, colds and muscular pains. Medicine showmen, traveling around the country in elaborately painted wagons, made and distributed the majority of these magic elixirs during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Alcohol formed the base ingredient in most–Beck’s Liniment was 147 Proof–but many also contained opium and cocaine. The ingredients combined with the outrageous claims on the labels, led to the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act.

What to Collect
Beginning collectors should educate themselves by looking for old medicines at antique shows, knowing the difference between medical antiques and pharmacy antiques, visiting pharmacy museums, reading drug store guides, and developing good relationships with dealers.

Collectors usually collect bottles made before 1920 for their shapes and those made after 1920 for what the bottle may have contained. For example, there’s a market for bottles containing substances with notoriety such as qualudes, which the government outlawed because of their abuse. A bottle that contained them is worth $15 to $50 for the nostalgic value alone.

Most highly prized are the apothecary bottles, especially those containing cocaine, opium, Spanish Fly, Cannabis and even embossed poison bottles with the skull and crossbones. Some people like to collect bottles from specific drug companies, perhaps ones they worked for, especially if the company is no longer in business like Powers & Weightman. Today, the DEA strictly controls the sale of many of these substances.

Collectors love to collect specific medicines, such as those used by women for cramps,. menstrual cramps, hot flashes, and sore breasts. Medical personnel often collect items related to their specific medical field. A respiratory therapist, for example, might collect items such as inhalers, vaporizers, and cough remedies. But patent medicines with interesting or graphic labels, as well as quack remedies or cures also intrigue collectors.

Civil War Era medicines and items are particularly hot with collectors. Dog and cat lovers like veterinary medications, especially those with a picture of a particular breed on the label. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, veterinary medicines were an integral part of a pharmacist’s inventory. More recently, veterinarians, themselves, dispensed them, but that’s changing and pharmacies are once again filling veterinarian prescriptions.

Collectors also gravitate towards the tools of the pharmacist’s trade, including tincture presses, ointment mills, mortar and pestles (especially with advertising on them], signs and advertising. Commemorative items, such as signs and tools with drug company names on them, are particular favorites.

People also collect items related to their town or particular companies, like Whitehall Tatum, which made bottles, labels, show globes and related glass items. But collectors should also be aware of any of the major companies that have roots in early pharmacy but are still operating today, such Merck and Co., Wyeth Labs, and Phizer Company.

Influences to the Collectible Medicine Market
The pharmacy market has been adversely affected by eBay and 911. Before 911, there was a good market for labels on apothecary bottles. Since 911, the price has gone down because there are so many offered on eBay. If it’s a controlled substance on the label, it’s highly collectible.

Generally pharmacy collectibles are hard to come by. While collectors will find the occasional item in antique shops, they’re more likely to find them at antique shows.

Since there are so many different items that are possible to collect in the pharmacy category, collectors should try to concentrate on collecting one or two types of items early on.

Currently, about the only collectors clubs that deal with pharmacy collectibles are bottle collectors’ groups.

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