What can glass tell us?

Swift’s Pharmacy bottle – courtesy the Burke Museum

One of the things I love about archaeology is how a single artifact can open a window into time. This unassuming, small Blake style medicine bottle with a prescription lip belongs to the Burke Museum and is approximately 100 years old. There is still residue of some kind within, but it is difficult to tell what kind of medicine it may have once contained. However, with a little bit of research into historical records, it is possible to find some information.

The narrow mouth and neck means that it was likely not for tablet medication, and instead once held a liquid. Though difficult to see in the photograph, this bottle’s inscription provided a wealth of knowledge and allowed for the possibility of a more precise date. The embossed face of the bottle reads: “Swift’s Pharmacy 2nd Ave. & Pike St. Seattle Wash.” Swift’s Pharmacy was not as widespread as Seattle’s famous Bartell’s throughout the city, but it did have multiple locations through at least the 1940’s.

Seattle Star April 1907 –  courtesy University of Washington libraries

This advertisement from the Seattle Star in April 1907 indicates the recent move to the corner of 2nd and Pike, allowing us to infer that the bottle was not manufactured before Swift’s Pharmacy completed this relocation. Furthermore, the markings on the bottom of the bottle W.T Co. C U.S.A. means that the bottle was manufactured by the Whitall Tatum & Co. of New Jersey. The particular mark was in use until 1924. In addition, George Bartell eventually bought this location from Swift’s Pharmacy owner Louis Swift. A photo from the MoHAI’s digital collection dated 1926 shows Swift’s Pharmacy gone from the northwest corner of 2nd and Pike, and a Bartell Drugs in its place.

So what can this bottle tell us? It can show that sometime between 1907 and 1924, a customer may have walked into Swift’s Pharmacy in the Eitel building on the northwest corner of Pike Street and 2nd Avenue in Seattle. Perhaps the pharmacist who prepared the medication was Ed W. Smith, who was Swift’s head prescription clerk in 1911. Whatever the scenario may have been, it provides an example as to how a single artifact can produce an image of time, place, and behavior.


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