Bitters Bottles History

Digger Odell Publications 2010

Digger Odell's Antique Bottle & Glass Collector Price Guide Series, Volume 2 Bitters 2010 lists 1200 bitters bottles that have sold at auction. You'll find a picture of every bottle listed along with accurate descriptions and up-to-date prices. Don't let thousands of dollars slip through your fingers. Get your copy today


The first book on bitters was written by James H. Thompson in 1947. In his book he listed 456 "marked in the glass bitters", making bitters one of the older bottle collecting categories. Bottles in this category must be embossed with the word "Bitters" or have a label which has the word "Bitters" printed as part of the trade name. Today, bitters bottles may sell anywhere from a few dollars for common clear or aqua examples to over ten thousand dollars for unusually colored figural varieties..

Bitters were alcohol disguised as medicine. The practice of adding a small amount of herbal bitters to gin in order that it might be sold without taxation under the guise of medicinal liquor .appears to have originated in England. Bottled bitters became popular in this country in the period from 1850-1870, when a bitters binge was spurred on by laws which taxed liquor, the popularity of various temperance movements, and local restrictions on the liquor trade. The civilized man of the 1870’s could sate his desire for strong drink without bringing condemnation down upon himself from the temperance union or from his neighbor for squandering his family’s money by taking his libations in the form of bitters. Everyone knew that a dose a day of Hosttetter’s Stomach Bitters was not only respectable but would keep one in good health as well.

The bitters trade reached its zenith in the 1860 to 1880 era. Competition was tremendous. Thousands of brands were introduced creating a climate in which proprietors needed to go to great lengths to capture the public’s attention. Bottles of every description and for every malady appeared on the market as entrepreneurs vied for a share of the multimillion dollar industry.

Stomach bitters were among the most popular and Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters was among the most successful of all brands. The formula for this bitters was devised by Dr. Jacob Hostetter and while is contained small amounts of chincona bark, quinine, colombo and gentian root it consisted primarily of water and alcohol. It was asserted that Hostetter’s Bitters was a success "chiefly because it contained more alcohol than any other nostrum," 47% by volume. Jacob’s son, David, after the failure of a business in San Francisco returned to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and with capital from one George W. Smith they opened the Hostetter & Smith Company in 1853 and began producing the stomach bitters. The product was purchased by the Union army during the Civil War by the box car load. It was supposed to treat diarrhea, but probably had a more salutary effect on moral than on the diarrhea. Nonetheless this had great effect on the sale and the stature of the product in the public’s eye soared Smith died in 1874 and the company became the Hostetter & Company. The company successfully used the Hostetter’s Almanac to both entertain the public and promote the bitters. By 1867 more than 6,000 bottles a day were being sold in the United States and abroad. The almanac was being printed in seventeen languages with an annual circulation of fifteen million copies. Rising prices forced the company to cut the alcoholic content. Nevertheless, in the 1880’s when alcohol was banned in Alaska, many saloon proprietors there took to selling Hostetter’s by the drink.

The company continued to prosper through the turn of the century under the guidance of David and his son David Herbert Hostetter. More than half a million bottles were sold in 1920 alone. After David Herbert died in 1924 the company began to wither. From 1924-1933, David Herbert Jr., ran the business but then sold the company while retaining a small royalty on every bottle sold. Lack of interest by the family, Prohibition and restrictions on advertising had hurt sales severely In 1936 there was a brief attempt at reorganization. The company went public and offered 102,000 shares of a $1 par stock. The company never recovered.

Hundreds of other brands vied for similar recognition: Dewitt’s Stomach Bitters, Dr. L. G. Bertram’s Long Life aromatic Stomach Bitters, Roback’s Stomach bitters and West India Stomach Bitters were but a few of the competitors. Still other entrepreneurs offered kidney and liver bitters, tonic wine bitters, rye, bourbon or whiskey bitters to the gullible public. There were herbal bitters, root bitters and bark bitters. One of the more successful companies sold a Jaundice Bitters under the name of Atwood’s Jaundice Bitters. Other manufacturers produced sarsaparilla bitters, hop bitters, wild cherry bitters, Indian herb bitters, cathartic bitters, blood bitters, and even a clover bitters. After the passage of the Food and Drug Act of 1906 the industry was mortally wounded. The government cracked down on the sale of medicinal products whose efficacy was questionable. The bitters trade was briefly resurrected with the introduction of prohibition but never reached anywhere near the scale it enjoyed before the turn of the century.

Bitters manufacturers utilized a wide variety of advertising gimmicks to put their product before the public. There were almanacs, trade cards, signs, trays, tokens, stamps, clocks, decanters and give-aways of all sort.