During the 19th century, many new poisonous substances came onto the market to control plants and vermin, for use as surface cleaners, or as medicines. To prevent mishaps, poison bottles were often given distinctive patterns or marked with certain raised shapes, which were especially useful if you were fumbling with bottles by candlelight. Antique poison bottles were often made in colors like cobalt blue, inky black, and dark green with raised lettering or inlays spelling the words “POISON” or “DEATH” amid patterns of raised latticework, deep grooves, geometric shapes, and, most commonly, the skull and crossbones.
In the early 19th century, porcelain apothecary jars made in Denmark used three large plus signs (+ + +) as one of the earliest standardized markings for containers holding poisonous substances. In the United States, New York became the first state to require labeling with the word “poison” via an 1829 law. A few decades later, in 1853, the American Pharmaceutical Association passed a resolution that recommended using either the word “poison” or a death’s head symbol—meaning a skull and crossbones—to label dangerous contents. In 1872, the American Medical Association recommended both rough texturing on one side and use of the word “poison.”
Joseph Harrison received America’s first poison-bottle patent in 1871 for a cobalt-blue bottle with a raised pattern of quilted-looking diamond shapes. Whitall Tatum began manufacturing a nearly identical bottle the following year, which was made until 1920, thus becoming one of the most common poison-bottle designs. Some of the more unique poison bottles from the late 19th century include a coffin-shaped bottle designed by James Bowles of Louisville, Kentucky; a skull-over-bones shape by Carlton Lee of Boston; and a femur-bone design by Edward Cone of Newark, New Jersey.
Other manufacturers attempted to differentiate the stopper or closure of their bottles, such Henry Lemmermann’s design for a curved-neck bottle whose top was aligned vertically or John Howell’s 1886 patent for a safety closure. However, it wasn’t until the 1930s that the medical community realized colorful and unusually shaped bottles attracted children’s attention rather than repelled them, resulting in a switch to plainer bottles with safer lids.
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