Name Your Poison

rainbow of sea glass

By Paula Newman

One of the biggest mysteries for anyone collecting sea glass is when they find a piece of glass that has a shape, pattern, or some other anomaly that doesn’t fit with the smoothed, rounded pieces that are usually found. It took me a while to work it out, but eventually I discovered that these strange shapes were nearly always in colors that relate to two sources: poison bottles and perfume bottles.

antique poison bottles

In the 1800s and early 1900s, Victorians were obsessed with science of all kinds. Chemistry was becoming a major industry that could produce new ways to deal with cleaning, and carbolic acid soon became a household necessity. Similarly, pharmacy was a growing field with cures for all kinds of ailments being produced and sold in ever-growing quantities. Sadly there was a problem. Bottles at the time were clear glass, unless they were for beer, oil, or wine, all of which used dark coloured glass to protect against damage from UV light.

poison and perfume bottles

For many years, accidental ingestion of acids, medicines, or other dangerous liquids was common. However, in 1854 a transatlantic agreement defined the use of coloured glass to both identify dangerous liquids and to warn against consumption. Having the poison bottles in set colors wasn’t enough to prevent accidents. The arrival of molded glass solved the problem with glassmakers able to make shaped bottles, embossed patterns, raised lettering, and in some cases, bottles shaped like coffins, skulls, and other similarly alarming designs.

blue antique poison bottles

Learn more in What's Your Poison? from PeblsRock

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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2019 issue.

Poison bottle images are illustrative and some may be reproductions made using original molds by companies such as Wheaton Glass Company in the 1960s.

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