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EP4: An Unnatural Obsession with Bottles

by Jemma Houghton and Linnea Kuglitsch, University of Manchester


· What is the materia medica collection?

· Overview of glass manufacture

· Glassware of the materia medica

· Community Curators

· References and links

What is the materia medica collection?

Materia medica display in the Manchester Museum. (C) Jemma Houghton. No re-use of images without permission.

The materia medica collection is essentially another name for an assortment of plants, animal and minerals that were used to make drugs. The Manchester Museum’s specimens date back to the nineteenth century and were originally used for educational purposes. The collection had its own museum space at the medical school of Owens College (which eventually became the University of Manchester) and was used in the teaching of pharmacy during the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Unfortunately, very little archival documentation on the collection has survived. Brief mentions of additions to the collection were made until around the 1930s, but after this decade there are almost no references made to the collection and its contents. This has made studies into the history of the materia medica collection, particularly after 1900, a challenge.

To address this, we turned to an understudied element of material culture in the collection—the glass jars themselves. By approaching the collection as a set of multiple ‘events’ in which jars were successively added or replaced, we gain unique insights into the history and use of the collection. Since the contents would have been continually used and replaced as part of teaching, the glass jars became the focus of the study. By looking at the glass manufacture techniques we determined the approximate date for when specimens could have been first added to the collection. The presence of several jars that were manufactured in the twentieth century, and especially after the 1930s, demonstrated the collection was still in use after the archival records went silent.

Materia medica jar containing belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade. (C) Jemma Houghton. No re-use of images without permission.

Overview of glass manufacture

While clear evidence of glassblowing dates to early the middle of the first century BC, the techniques and technologies used to produce glass vessels have changed over time (Honour and Fleming, 2005). One of the most long-standing and iconic forms of glass vessel production, which remains in use among artisans today, is the free hand, mouth blowing of bottles. In this process, a blob of molten glass on the end of a hollow pipe or rod. This molten glass blob or “gather” is shaped on the end of the rod using a marble or metal slab known as the marver. At this point, the “gather” had transformed into the “parison”—that is, a lump of glass that was ready to be inflated and worked into a vessel. Once shaped, the gather is inflated by the “gaffer,” who blows into the opposite end of the rod, rotating it to keep the bottle in an even shape.

Description of the parts of a bottle

Once the body of the bottle had been shaped, the mouth—or “finish”—of the bottle needed to be completed. In most vessels, this area required delicate and deliberate shaping. To keep control over the bottle before the blowpipe (which was inserted in what we would consider the ‘top’ of the bottle) could removed, a heated or coated metal pontil rod had to be attached to the base of the vessel. This allowed the glassblower to move and manipulate the bottle as he completed its finish.

The marks of the mouth-blowing and hand shaping process can be seen on bottles produced in this manner. These bottles have an asymmetrical, fluid body shape. Some have a pontil mark at the base. The appearance of these bottles is generally quite organic—some of the more poorly made examples appear as if they are melting in place!

By the 19th century, free-blowing was losing ground to a new time-saving technology—mould-blowing. In mould blowing, the gaffer inserted or enclosed the parison in a specially mould. By mid-century, a wide variety of moulds were in use, allowing bottles to be produced in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Advertisement showing mould-blowing. Source:

Like free-blowing, the mould-blowing process left its own distinctive marks on the bottle. Bottles produced using multi-part moulds often bear seam marks that match where the mould closed. As with free blowing, the finish of the bottle still needed to be completed separately from the moulding process. This element was completed either by hand (with the bottle being held stationary by using a pontil rod or, after mid-century, a tool known as a snap case) or using a lipping tool. The lipping tool, which was closed and rotated around the neck of the bottle, produced a relatively uniform finish.

Lipping tool. (C) Science Museum

In the twentieth century, mechanised production was introduced via the automatic and semi-automatic bottle machines. Around 1900, the semi-automatic bottle machine improved the speed of production and increased the uniformity of the resulting jars. Less than a decade later, the automatic bottle machine was patented. These machines were fairly similar, though the semi-automatic bottle machine required someone to add the molten glass by hand whilst the fully-automatic machine could do this part of the process on its own.

Base of a jar possessing a circular machine scar. (C) Jemma Houghton. No re-use of images without permission.

Machine produced bottles can be identified using several characteristics, but the clearest include the presence of seams (which are often finer than in mould blown bottles) in the glass that run vertically along the body and entirely through the finish of the bottle. The presence of a suction scar (a feathery, circular mark that appears to be ‘cut’ into the glass, when an automated machine ‘cuts’ a batch of glass away from the rest to be made into an individual bottle) or a valve mark (a small ripple produced during the ejection of the bottle from a press-and-blow type bottle machine) are also indicative of mechanised bottle production.

Glassware of the materia medica

Selection of materia medica specimens. (C) Jemma Houghton. No re-use of images without permission.

The Manchester Museum’s collection of materia medica consists of over 840 bottles. These cover a range of styles and manufacturing techniques, from free-blown across to automatic bottles. Though there is huge diversity in the glassware, the collection largely has jars that fall into three types: specimen jars, shop furniture (which have well defined shoulders and distinctive finish), and bottles (including automatic bottles).

Above: (Left) Specimen-type jar; (Middle-Left) Shop-furniture with tincture-mouth for liquids; (Middle-Right) Shop-furniture with salt-mouth for solids; (Right) Automatic botttle. (C) Jemma Houghton. No re-use of images without permission.

This collection provides a unique set of challenges. Firstly, most of the jars have had their seams polished away – making it hard to identify those involving moulds. This means that we have come to rely heavily on faint striations on the glass to provide indications of where seams would have been. Secondly, very small minority of jars have institutional affiliations on their labels – indicating which in previous incarnation of the University of Manchester they were acquired – that enable us to narrow the date range. This means that the bulk of the collection has a significant period during which they could have been added (for example some we can only date to being sometime after 1890 but a more specific range is challenging).

However, some of most exciting finds have been the jars added to the collection after the archive stopped in the 1930s. These jars have shown that not only did the collection still exist after this time but that the collection was also still actively being added to.

Community Curators

Given the large number of specimens and the interesting interdisciplinary nature of the work, we decided that this would be a fantastic project to get the public involved in. We have so far run five sessions for members of the public to come behind the scenes of the Manchester Museum and help us investigate the jars. The feedback from these events has been overwhelmingly positive, with a large number of our “community curators” seeking out opportunities to spend more time working with the collection. More of these events are currently being organised, so if you will be in the Manchester area and fancy a go - keep an eye out on the Manchester Museum events page! As one of our participants brilliantly stated, you will leave with “an unnatural obsession with bottles”!

Above: Photographs from the Community Curators event. (C) Jemma Houghton. No re-use of images without permission.

Useful links

Glass manufacture:

  • Historic Glass Bottle Identification & Information Website:

  • Peter Schultz’s (2016) Baffle Marks and Pontil Scars: A Reader on Historic Bottle Identification

  • George Griffenhagen and Mary Bogard’s (1999) A History of Drug Containers and Their Labels

  • Richard Fike’s (1987) Bottle Book: a Comprehensive Guide To Historic Embossed Medicine Bottles

Materia medica:

  • More information about some of the jars in the collection can be found on the Manchester Museum Herbarium blog: (type materia medica into the search bar for posts specifically relating to the collection).

  • Honour, H., & Fleming, J. (2005). A world history of art. Laurence King Publishing.

  • Jane Eastoe (2010) Victorian Pharmacy

  • Stuart Anderson (2005) Making Medicines: A brief history of pharmacy and pharmaceuticals

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