December 27, 2017

In my continuing study of historical quackery, I recently acquired an antique sarsaparilla bottle that is especially interesting for the clues to its age that have been captured in the glass—analogous to ancient insects preserved in amber.

The bottle (see photograph) is embossed “SANDS’S/ SARSAPARILLA/ NEW YORK,” identifying it as produced by the Sands brothers (Abraham, William, and David), who established themselves as chemists and apothecaries in New York City about 1835 and who opened a retail drug store about five years later. One of their first products was sarsaparilla (a remedy from varieties of the herb smilax).

This aqua glass bottle (about 2” by 1-3/8” by 6” tall) was blown in a two-piece embossing mold (evident from its seams and raised lettering). The top has an “applied lip.” For this finishing step, the bottle was removed from the mold, held by an iron “pontil rod” with one end attached to the bottom of the bottle using a blob of molten glass. When the rod was subsequently disengaged (broken free), it left a jagged, circular “pontil scar” like the one on this bottle. Its presence alone would suggest a pre-Civil War date, since later bottles were held by a “snap case” (an enclosing set of tongs on the end of a rod) which began to be used in the 1850s (Kendrick 1971, 25-29).

The bottle also bears wavy surface markings popularly called “whittle marks,” although they are not that at all. They do not yield proof of the use of carved wooden molds as once thought, but of cold molds (whatever those were made of) contacting the hot glass. Considering all aspects of the bottle’s morphology (together with what is known from its style, its poor embossing, and the company’s marketing history), I would date it to the late 1840s or early 1850s. (See Fike 2006, 179, 220; “Sands’” 2013.)

It does compare favorably with the earliest known “SANDS’S SARSAPARILLA NEW YORK” bottles. Interestingly, just such “open pontil” examples have been unearthed at the various historic settlements of the Sierra County, California, gold rush. A very different bottle (which dropped the extra “S” of “SANDS’S”) “was produced sometime after 1858”(“Sands’” 2013).

A contemporary advertisement (appearing in the New York City Directory of 1852) introduced the product in quart bottles—then pricey at $1 each. The ad promised: “It purifies, cleanses, and strengthens the fountain springs of life, and infuses new vigor throughout the whole animal frame.” It was sold wholesale and retail by “A. B. & D. SANDS, Druggists and Chemists, 100 Fulton-st., corner of William, New-York.”

A later, 1857, ad gushed: “This unrivaled preparation has performed some of the most astonishing cures that are recorded in the history of medicine, thus proving conclusively that it is capable of fulfilling the high aim and purpose for which it is designed. Chronic Rheumatism, Scrofula, or King’s Evil, Salt Rheum and Ringworm, Ulcers and painful affections of the Bones, Ulcerated Throat and Nostrils, Scurvy, Boils, Chronic Sore Eyes, Blotches, and various cutaneous Eruptions, Glandular Enlargement, Hip Disease, &c, are effectively cured by its use.” Indeed, the ad claimed it was “The Very Best Remedy for Purifying the Blood” (“Sands’” 2013). In other words, it was a typical cure-all of the time.


Fike, Richard E. 2006. The Bottle Book: A Comprehensive Guide to Historic, Embossed Medicine Bottles. Caldwell, NJ: The Blackburn Press.

Kendrick, Grace. 1971. The Antique Bottle Collector. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Sands’ Sarsaparilla—New York. 2013. Online at http://www.peachridgeglass.com/2013/10/sands-sarsaparilla-new-york/; accessed Novemebr 27, 2017.