Apothecary glass

Apothecary glass featuring Glass Apothecary Vials by W.Rigling and English Apothecary Vials by D.W.Barker Apothecary glassfrom the Glass Encyclopedia and the Glass Museum

Apothecary glass
Apothecary glass:
Roman vials


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Apothecary glass
Apothecary glass
Apothecary glass: A short explanation:

Apothecary glass is glassware used for storing and transporting medicines and the ingredients for medicines. Tiny blown glass bottles have been used in this way since Roman times. The bottles shown on the left are very early Roman apothecary vials, sometimes called "tear-drop bottles" from the belief they were sometimes used to hold tears. Small bottles like these were made in large numbers once the skills of blowing glass were spread through the Roman empire. Walt Rigling's article, below, gives a detailed history of apothecary glass.

glass apothecary vials 2a


Glass blowing almost became a lost art with the demise of the Roman Empire. Very few apothecary glass vials were made during the "dark ages" and through medieval times. They reappeared during the "Renaissance" period, and from the 15th to 18th centuries small globular "footed" vials for medicines were made, on average about 8 to 10cm tall. The next shape to appear was the small cylindrical medicine bottle, popular from 15th century onwards. Walt Rigling's article (below) gives a detailed account of apothecary vials from Roman times up to the eighteenth century. And further down this page is another article on English Apothecary Vials by David Barker.


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Glass Apothecary Vials

by Walt Rigling

photos by Ron Saylor
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glass apothecary vials 1

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 on the right 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.

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Glass Footed Vials of the 15th to 18th Centuries

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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).

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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.

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Globular glass bottles

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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.

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Small Glass Cylinder vials of the 15th to 17th centuries

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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.

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Early medicinal glass containers


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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.


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English Apothecary Vials

author: David W. Barker

English glass vials
Early English glass apothecary vials 16th - 17th century

Glass items in this article are from David W. Barker's private collection

Walt Riglings' article (above) pictured a delightful world of miniature vessels full of charm and character, mainly from Europe and including free blown forms from the Roman Empire. The introduction of glassmaking to Northern Europe through the spread of the Roman Empire started a tradition that maintained its hold both culturally and economically for over a millenium and a half, long after the demise of the Romans.

Glassmaking in the British Isles may have taken place during Roman times. It was certainly established in the weald of Kent by the 14th century, initiated by continental European glassmakers who brought with them a store of useful knowledge, ideas, and designs. Amongst this variety was the common small vial used for medicinal and other utilitarian purposes. These early vials and small bottles are extremely rare and known mainly through fragmented remains.

English glass vial, early The unusual vial on the left is an early example of an English apothecary vial, made possibly as early as the 1550's or even earlier. The tall conical basal push up (in the bottom) and the lip shape testify to an early provenance. It is two and five eigths inches tall, dark aqua glass with the iridescence of age.

By the mid 16th century the forms of these vessels were stylistically moving away from continental patterns and developing characteristics that would identify them as specifically English. By the 17th century a distinctly Anglicized and diverse range of vial shapes were being produced in English glasshouses. Certain similarities remain between English and European forms, notably the basal profile and kick-up, where were often conical or dome shaped with a similar pontil scar.

English glass vials 17th C
On the left are two early 17th century English vials, the first from around 1620 - 1640; the one on the right a little later from around 1650-1680. The lip form on the second one is more distinctly flared into a horizontal profile. The sizes are three and five eighths inches and two and three quarters inches; colours aqua on left, pale olive green with a subtle iridescent patination on right.

Early European forms have lip and mouth profiles very similar to Roman unguentaria or balsamaria: they have a flared or everted top with an inner folding over the lip. In later European examples the lip form is clearly everted without any folding over, and this became a constant characteristic of continental vials. A distinctive trait of the lip of English vials was this nearly horizontal, flattened, flared-out disc shaped profile, like the olive green bottle above. Although there are atypical examples, most 17th century English vials have this feature. Their shapes display a wide variety whilst colour ranges from pale to dark; olive green to aqua green to blue. They are often rather crudely shaped, although some examples display extraordinary delicacy and skill in their creation.

Although hundreds of these small common purpose vials must have been made over the centuries few have survived. In this respect they are rare.

There was a practice in Britian of planting a bottle underneath the stone flags of a doorway to ward off evil or mischievous spirits. It probably contained some special ingredients for the purpose. For similar reasons, vials have been found hidden underneath hearthstones and beneath windowsills, behind old fireplaces and in crevices and niches in old buildings. This is a fortunate source of some of the bottles pictured in this collection. The others came from excavations, collected by the author over the past thirty years.

The collection represents my personal fascination for these enigmatic small vessels. They have a special place in the history of post-Medieval glassmaking, linking ancient forms from a long tradition of wood-fired furnaces, to new methods using English coal that originated in the early 17th century. In this respect they retain a sense of their truly ancient origins in the glass vessels of the Roman Empire. They compliment their larger black glass cousins: the utilitarian bottles of the 17th through the 19th centuries.

Here is a set of pictures of a selection from my collection, covering the 16th to 19th centuries.

English glass vials
Above: Figure 2: 17th-18th century apothecary vials. From left to right:

1: Tiny crudely-formed vial in darkish aqua glass, from circa (about) 1690-1700. Height 1.625"
2: Exceptional condition dark olive green vial from around 1740-1750, regular body with small conical kick-up and horizontal flared lip. Height 2.25 inches.
3: Very crudely-made dark green vial from around 1700-1720 with an unusual shaped lip. Three inches high.
4: Mid-olive green glass vial from around 1720-1730, unusual square shouldered form with a rather stocky neck and flared lip. 2.75 inches high.
5: Small vial in aqua glass from around 1740 - 1750, 2.625" tall.

English glass vials
Above: Figure 3: 17th century apothecary vials. From left to right:

1: Small globular bodied vial in dark olive-green with flattened sides, forming a rather square cross-section. From about 1650; 1.375" high.

2: Exceptionally rare miniature shaft and globe form in dark aqua green glass with contents residue and original cork, from about 1650. 2.625" high.

3: Small globular bodied vial, similar to number one, but in a paler aqua green glass, from circa 1650. 1.625" high.

English glass vials
Figure 4: 17th century shaft and globe form apothecary vessels. From left to right:

1: Rare Shaft and Globe form in dark aqua green glass from circa 1650. Height 2.625"

2: Rare Shaft and Globe form from about 1680 or perhaps earlier, in darkish aqua glass 3.5" high. This exceptional bottle was recovered from a ploughed field in County Durham, England in the early 1980's.

3: Rare aqua glass Shaft and Globe vessel possibly from about 1670. Height 4".

English glass vials
Figure 5: 17th - 18th century glass bottles. From left to right:

1: Unusual dark aqua glass vial with tapered body and conical kick-up, distinctive horizontal flared lip. from around 1720-1730; 3.625" high.

2: Exceptionally good condition tall tapered vial, mid to dark olive green colour from circa 1740. 5.5" high.

3: Tall tapered-bodied vial in exceptional condition; slightly earlier in date than number 2, circa 1720 - 1730. Height 5.25".

4: Bulbous dark aqua vial - possibly a section of an hour glass from circa 1690 - 1700. 3.375" tall.

English glass vials
Above: Figure 6: 17th - 19th century small bottles and apothecary vials. From left to right:

1: Unusual form small vial in dark olive green glass from 17th-18th century. A difficult vessel to date as I have never seen another example like it. 2" high.

2: Rare and unusual small vial/bottle from around 1620 - 1640, in very dark olive green glass. Height 2".

3: Cylindrical bodied vial from circa 1650 - 1670 height 3".

4: Small crudely-formed 17th century vial from circa 1640 with unusual lip form. 2.375" high.

5: Small vial from around 1790 - 1810. Height 2".

English glass vials
Above: Figure 7: 18th - 19th century square section vials. From left to right:

1: Darkish green glass with square section body from circa 1810-1820. Height 3.75".

2: Late 18th century aqua glass square-section body vial from circa 1780. Height 4.625".

3: 18th century square section body from circa 1780. Height 4.125".

English glass vials
Above: Figure 8: 17th century vials. From left to right:

1: Late 17th century (1680-1700) darkish aqua glass vial with horizontal profile flared lip, slightly tapering body, and tall kick-up. This was an excavated bottle.

2: Late 17th century (1680-1690) aqua glass vial with flared lip and slightly tapering body, in exceptional condition. Height 2.375".

3: Mid 17th century (circa 1650) exceptionally fine vial, height 3.125". It was recovered from a timber-framed Manor House during restoration work.

4: Late 17th century (about 1690-1700) dark aqua green glass, exceptionally fine small vial. Height 2".

English glass vials
Above: Figure 9: 17th - 18th century vials. From left to right:

1: Late 17th century vial (1680 - 1690) tapering from base to shoulders. The flared lip is almost as wide in diameter as the widest part of the body; exceptional. Height 2.75".

2: Fairly large cylindrical bodied vial in dark aqua green glass, exceptional condition with a deep kick-up, from circa 1730-1740. Height 4.75".

3: Tall tapered vial in pale olive green glass (an unusual colour) from circa 1740-1750. 5.5" high.

4: Cylindrical bodied vial in dark aqua green glass with distinctive kick-up, from circa 1725 - 1730. Height 3.5".

English glass vials
Above: Figure 10: 17th - 16th century vials. From left to right:

1: Tiny late 17th century vial (circa 1690) in darkish aqua glass. 1.625" tall.

2: Small aqua green glass vial from circa 1760 - 80. Height 2".

3: 18th century cylindrical-bodied vial from circa 1740 - 1750. Flared lip and deep conical kick-up. Height 3.25".

4: 18th century cylindrical-bodied vial circa 1750 - 1760, height 3.5".

5: Small vial in pale olive green glass from circa 1740-ish. Height 2".

6: Small vial in pale aqua glass from circa 1770-1780. Height 1.625".

English glass vials
Above: Figure 11: 18th - 19th century vials. From left to right:

1: Pale olive green glass vial from circa 1780. 2.75" tall..

2: Cylindrical-bodied vial from circa 1740-1745. Height 3".

3: Cylindrical-bodied vial from circa 1740 - 45. Height 3.375".

4: Pale olive glass vial from circa 1800-1810. Height 3.625".

5: Cylindrical-bodied vial with high conical kick-up from circa 1760. Height 3.75".


David W. Barker of Elsecar, South Yorkshire, England has been collecting glass and stoneware bottles since the 1970's. He is a practising artist exhibiting his paintings internationally, and Course Leader in Fine Art Painting at Bretton Hall College, University of Leeds. He trained at the Royal College of Art in London.


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