U.S. Army Hospital Department Bottles

By Robert J. Dalessandro

One of the more intriguing areas of Civil War medical antiquities involves the collecting of U.S. Army Hospital Department bottles.  These bottles, simple in shape, and often unappealing in color, have been popular with collectors for decades.  Their popularity springs from the fact that these bottles were produced during a very narrow period of time (circa 1862-1865).  Additionally, they remained in use well into the post war years causing their survival rate to be quite low.  

 b6.jpg (68112 bytes)

Much of the history of bottles marked simply “U.S.A. Hosp Dept” is clouded in time. However, we do know something of their origin.  Following the Federal defeat at First Manassas and the grim realization that the war may last years and not months, the Army Medical Department, under the auspices of the Quartermaster Department, (the agency responsible for procuring supplies) began purchasing standard medicines for the army.  These medicines were normally packaged in several ways: in bottles, tins, papers, and boxes.  Army officers seemed to prefer packaging in tins and bottles as these were more robust, holding up to the rigors of the field better than packaging in fragile papers or boxes.

For example, E.R. Squibb, a New York contractor, provided a medical pannier for field use to the Army with 52 standard medicines all packaged in Japanned Tin containers at a cost of $100.00 per pannier.  This item allowed the field surgeon access to necessary medicines protected in a bound chest and packaged in unbreakable tins.  Large numbers of surviving tins clearly illustrate the popularity of this form of packaging.

Bottles, however, remained a popular form of container for medicines throughout the war.  The Army used both plain civilian bottles and the rarer Hospital Department bottle.

According to Civil War bottle authority Mike Russell, research indicates that Hospital Department bottles were manufactured at factories in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Baltimore, Maryland, although archaeological evidence may point to a third manufacturing plant at St. Louis, Missouri.  Clearly, the principal manufacturer was at Pittsburgh with the secondary manufacturer at the Baltimore Glass Works. 

Examples blown at the Pittsburgh factory exhibit concave, slightly recessed, bases with a star design, initials, or a simple dot. Occasionally, some bottles from this firm are seen with an iron pontil scar (a result of an older glassmaking technique that used a rod dipped in iron oxide to hold the bottle base during the manufacturing process).  Baltimore Glassworks examples are flat based and exhibit weak embossing.

Civil War period bottle embossing styles fall into several major types: (1) Two Straight Lines; the top line is “U.S.A.” printed in raised letters.  The second line reads, “Hosp. Dept.” (2) “U.S.A Hosp. Dept.” embossed in an oval.  In this pattern, the “U.S.A” curves along the top of the oval and “Hosp. Dept.” curves below (3) “United States Army Hospital Department” spelled out in a straight line (4) “U.S.A” arching over “Med’l Dept.” (This is the only style incorporating the abbreviation for USA Medical Department dating from the Civil War era.

Numerous bottle colors exist.  The most common color is clear followed by aqua.  Rarer colors include cobalt (the most popular color with collectors), emerald green, apricot and dense purple or puce. Hospital Department Bottles range in size from a 2 inch high oval shaped vial to a quart size 9 inch tall cylinder.  Neck styles vary from narrow openings to a wide mouth.  Whether the coloring or shape had any relation to contents is a matter of conjecture, although bottles have surfaced with paper labels indicating their original contents. Wide mouth bottles were probably used for pills.

Regardless of color, all original bottles contain flaws in the glass, resultant of mid-nineteenth century manufacturing processes.  Bottles often contain numerous bubbles, sand and some examples even show a primitive whittled look.  Lips are often crude and appear hand tooled.

Archaeological finds confirm that Hospital Department bottles were commonly used in the field after 1863 and that they remained in use on the frontier until the 1870’s. 

The Hospital Department bottle was slowly replaced by one of similar design in the post-Civil War years.  The more modern bottle employs various abbreviations of U.S. Army Medical Department.  Medical Department bottles remained in issue until WWII and are easily distinguished from their Civil War cousins by the quality of the glass, more refined lip and a base often designating the bottle capacity.  The colors of post-war bottles are more standard with dark brown/amber being the most frequently seen on the market.

Some illustrations of various USA Hospital Bottles (click image to enlarge):

b1.jpg (45808 bytes) This is a quart sized (9 1/4" tall) cylinder bottle.  It is a product of the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania works.  The bottle is of the two line type with "U.S.A." above "Hosp. Dept." The color is olive amber color.  This bottle was recovered from a U.S. Army site in New Mexico.  Collection of Robert Dalessandro.
b2.jpg (47750 bytes) Once again a Pittsburgh factory product.  Notice the slight color difference from the previous bottle.  This bottle was recovered from the James River at City Point, Virginia.    Collection of Rebecca S. Dalessandro
b3.jpg (41675 bytes) This is a wide mouth cornflower blue or aqua.  Note the oval verses line marking. Collection of Robert Dalessandro.
b4.jpg (34415 bytes) This is a smaller aqua Hospital Department Bottle with the original glass stopper.  It is interesting to note that all bottle stoppers were manufactured of clear glass.  There was no attempt to match the bottle glass color.  This mismatch of stoppers and bottles has been frequently validated by archaeological finds.   Collection of Robert Dalessandro.                       
b5.jpg (42515 bytes) This is a rare apricot colored cylinder.  Note the difference in the embossing on this bottle.  Possibly a product of the St. Louis, Missouri manufactury as glass shards of this rare color have been reported as found in the city. Collection of Rebecca S. Dalessandro.


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