I've learned that collecting medical bottles can be a "game of thousands":
Between the mid-1800s and early 1900s, there were thousands of different manufacturers of patent medicines, some of them offering more than one product, and the single product might have been offered in bottles of different shapes, sizes, and colors, generating many more thousands of possibilities. Now some of those bottles are very common, going for a few dollars at an antique store, online, or at a bottle show...others are very rare and are worth thousands of dollars.
How to make sense of it all in valuing your own collection and making sure your buying and selling prices are fair? Especially for a relatively new collector like me?!
A good collecting guide is a great way to start...and as the quote that begins this post demonstrates, a good guide can sometimes be hard to find. Matthew Knapp of Frederick, Maryland, was in that situation so a few years ago he decided to create his own guide. Now that guide has been through several versions and is relied upon by many people in the bottle collecting community, so much so that on many forums you will see it referred to as "Matt's CD"!
In this post I provide a review of Matt's "Antique American Medicines - 2010 Bottle Price Guide and Trade Cards" CD-ROM and an interview with Matt!The Guide consists of two principal parts:
1) A 1000-page plus (!) bottle guide with almost 7,000 listings, as a PDF file.
2) A guide to more than 700 patent medicine trade cards from more than 200 companies, as an HTML file that can be opened in any web browser.
Matt also maintains an excellent website at antiquemedicines.com (here), which - as you will see below - makes an excellent companion to the CD-ROM.
Given this amount of information, the Guide is a BARGAIN at only $20 (see ordering details at the end of this post).
As you will see in our interview below, there is always friendly debate over whether a printed guide or electronic guide is more user-friendly...I haven't purcahsed an e-reader yet (Nook, Kindle, iPad, etc.), but I believe most of them do accept PDF files (and also, perhaps, local HTML files) so it may be that the CD-ROM is even more versatile than it already is!
The Trade Card HTML file opens up easily in your default browser, with a front page that looks like this:
I noticed that at least one of the companies had an additional hyperlink to a Wikipedia entry, which is a useful feature...it's possible that most do not have that feature because it is hard to find information on all but the most well-known manufacturers.
Clicking on any of the more than two hundred companies represented gives examples of the front and reverse of some trade cards...some of the companies have only one and others have as many as a half dozen or more:
ed view of the front or reverse. There were a just a few cases where clicking on the front of the card actually produced a duplicate image of the reverse, but this happened in only a handful of the more than 700 cards that Matt has provided on the CD ROM.
As you will see in the interview below, these trade cards are more than just great art and entertainment: they sometimes contain valuable information (cities, addresses, years, etc.) that can aid you in dating your bottles or learning more about the company!
The PDF of the actual Bottle Price Guide also opens easily on the computer. Matt also provides a helpful link to the Adobe website if you do not have Adobe Acrobat Reader already installed on your computer.
The first pages of the Guide includes an Introduction to bottle types, molds, lips, and colors, in...well...color! This is very helpful for a new collector like myself who is just learning some of the terms:
The next almost 1000 pages (!) is the meat of the Guide: a listing of almost 7,000 (!) different bottles...some firms have a single one listed...others have multiple bottles of a single medicine listed...others still have multiple bottles of multiple medicines listed.
As I stated earlier, Matt also maintains a terrific website at antiquemedicines.com (here)...one of the BEST features of that website is his "Medicine Bottle Nexus" (here) which has images of thousands of bottles:
I found that it was very useful to have both the PDF and Matt's website open at the same time...since "a picture is worth a thousand words" it really helps in bringing the bottle descriptions in the Guide to life.
here). There were very few bottles that were not listed in Matt's Guide from the limited search that I did. The Guide was most useful in cases where several sizes, shapes, or colors of bottles are available, and even more useful when there are significant price differences among those bottles.
The "beauty" of the PDF and CD-ROM, of course, is that keywords (company names, cure names, etc) are easily searchable and the search engine works really well and fast (the first search takes some time, but this perfectly natural for a 1,000-plus page document).
I can already see that this Guide is going to be a wonderful resource for me. Matt readily admits in the Introduction that not all bottles or firms are listed but as you will see in the interview below, he encourages collectors to send him information so that he can make the next version of the Guide even better.
I want to congratulate Matt on the accomplishment of this compilation and thank him for the contribution he has made to the hobby.
Now...on to our interview!Matt was kind enough to answer some questions about his collecting interests and the Guide:
Jim (J): So tell us a little about yourself – where are you from, what do you do for a living, when did you started collecting bottles, etc.
Matt (M): I was born in Johnstown PA, grew up in northern VA. I am an electrical engineer, I design embedded microprocessor systems. I collected everything as a kid: rocks, fossils, bottles, arrowheads, etc. I grew up living next to a Confederate winter camp so I got into Civil War relics in the 1970s. I had a pretty good collection until a few years ago when I sold most of it. The Civil War market was being eroded by a multitude of fakes from places like India, Pakistan,and the USA. I decided to get back into bottles about 12 years ago.
J: Everyone has their own reason for collecting bottles – some people appreciate them as pieces of art (which they are) and craftsmanship, others for their connections to local history…others – like me – appreciate them for the company histories and for what was in the bottle…why do you to collect bottles?
M: I like the look and artistry of glass in general. I gravitated to patent medicines because I am a skeptic by nature and find it amazing how many people were (and still are) duped by quack medicines. Unlike bitters and flasks, it's cheap and easy to put together a decent collection of patent medicines. I like visiting fleamarkets and antique shops, you see more medicines than probably any other bottles (except for sodas). I also like the fact that mold blown medicines are difficult to fake. There are only a handful of fakes or reproduction medicines known. This is a benefit to the hobby as many other collectible categories are overrun with fakes. About half my collection is local bottles from Frederick and Hagerstown. I hope to make a small book at some point documenting these local bottles.
J: You live near Frederick, MD, which will be very familiar to my Civil War readers, as it was a significant hospital site following the battle of Antietam and is home to the Nat’l Museum of Civil War Medicine. Are you a Civil War enthusiast, and – if so – why and what’s it like to live in a historic area and so close to Gettysburg and Sharpsburg?
M: I have studied the Civil War a good bit. Gettysburg is neat but a bit of a tourist trap. Sharpsburg? Never heard of it :) we do have a neat battlefield to the south called Antietam. The Monocacy battlefield is a few miles from my house and was a pretty significant turning point in the war. The battle of South Mountain was also of some significance. As for relic hunting I find this area more difficult to hunt in than Northern VA. Its harder to get access to sites.
J: The “Antique Medicine Guide” is a tremendous resource and obviously required a lot of time to compile. Why did you embark on the project and when did the first edition come out.
M: When I first started collecting medicines I looked for price guides but could only find books like Kovels which was very generic and not very reliable or books like O'Dell's which was great but mostly covered high end bottles I never found at flea markets and couldn't afford. I just wanted a way to know what price I should expect to buy or sell medicines for. I started keeping my own database of bottles I saw sell around 1999. I think the first version was around 2004 but not positive. I did CDROM versions because they were obviously cheaper to make and distribute. In 2006 I printed a paper book version of the guide. A limited run of 100 with the profits going to Habitat for Humanity.
J: I looked at the 2010 CD version…you have mentioned that you are working on a 2012 printed edition. Personally, I like the CD but I imagine the printed edition might be more portable for folks visiting flea markets, antique stores, bottle shows, or digging…what do you think are the pros and cons of both.
M: A lot of people have told me they want a paper book version. I have always been a fan of the RED BOOK of Fruit Jars. My goal would be to make something equivalent to that for medicine bottles. The CDROM has one HUGE benefit over a paper version. The PDF format allows it to be searched easy.
J: You readily admit in the Intro to your Guide that there are other guides for more specific needs or collections (bitters, Warner’s, etc.)…what are some of your favorite medicine bottle collecting resources?
M: O'Dell's books are great , both his pontil medicine encyclopedia and his medicine guide. I have an old copy of PATENT and PROPRIETARY MEDICINE BOTTLES by Baldwin, its an amazing reference. There are some other excellent CDROM resources, Jim Holst's Pontil Medicine guide and his newer guide for Liniment bottles which I was fortunate to be able to contribute to. Another must have is the Greer auction catalog documenting probably the best pontil medicine collection ever sold.
J: I don’t want to make you give away any secrets, but how did you go about compiling information for the first version and how do you compile data for the updates?
M: I use a Microsoft Access database that I setup for bottle data. You just have to decide what info you want to save. The hard part is deciding what data you MIGHT need in the future since it hard to go back and fill in holes if you dont save it from the start.
J: One of the best parts of the CD is the images of hundreds of trade cards...some of my favorites are the puzzle cards from folks like Seth Arnold's Balsam or the cheeky and fairly risqué (for the time, anyway) ones from folks like Pond’s Bitters…besides the entertainment value though, there is a lot of important company information on those cards – changes in address, company names, etc. What is your favorite part about trade cards?
M: I currently have about 700 medicine trade cards in my collection. Trade cards were basically premiums that were given away by stores. People put them in albums (mostly kids) and looked at them for entertainment before the days of radio and TV. Cheap chromolithography was fairly new in the late 1870s and the artwork is amazing. The trade cards use peaked in the 1880s-1890s. That form of advertising dropped off as radio became popular and printed half tone photography became cheaper. As you say , I like trade cards for the extra information they provide about the medicine products.
J: I have seen your guide referred to as “Matt’s CD” many times on various forums, etc…it must be very gratifying to be so familiar and trusted in the bottle community… can you comment? I’m just a beginner but I have already found other collectors to be very generous with advice, etc… why are all these factors – trust, generosity, etc. - so important for collectors of bottles (or any kind of collection, really)?
M: Its well known on the major bottle forum www.antique-bottles.net since I post on there a lot. Not sure how well its known across the bottle collecting community in general. I don't really promote it much. People mostly seem to find it when researching stuff on my website. I have always received good feedback from the people who have bought it. I mostly did it to help enhance the hobby so I'm glad when people use it.
J: Do you have any advice for someone thinking about starting a collection?
M: Always buy quality over quantity. A collection of 50 nice bottles will be better in the long run than a collection of 500 mediocre bottles. Dont buy damaged bottles unless they are very rare. Specialize: its easier to gather reference materials, you will learn about the bottles faster, and you will end up with a more impressive collection. Dig your own bottles if you can: ones you dig yourself always have an extra value.
J: Is there anything other collectors can do to help you make the next guide even better than the already-terrific guide that it is?
M: People can always help by sending me any info for bottles that are not listed on the CDROM or the online Medicine Nexus.
12) What’s the best way to get a copy of the Guide?
M: Just go to the CDROM area of my website (here)