1999 Vanity Vessels: The Story of the American Perfume Bottle

Glass vessels that held perfume have adorned vanities in American bedrooms for nearly two hundred years. Early examples were small, somewhat crude containers that could be carried in pockets or ladies’ handbags. As fashions changed and glass technology improved, the perfume bottle also evolved. Larger, decorative examples with ground stoppers and pewter screw caps became popular. By the Victorian era, rich cut cologne bottles with sterling silver mounts and vibrant, multicolored designs bedecked the proper lady’s dressing table. Iridescent colored bottles and atomizers were in vogue in the early 1900s. Glass companies continued to create perfume bottles well into the 20th century. In the late 19th century, commercial perfume makers had begun marketing their fragrances in their own privately designed containers, which were often patented. The packaging of commercial bottles eventually became so elaborate, it frequently overshadowed the machine-made glass container. Today, only a small portion of commercial perfume and cologne bottles are manufactured in the United States. The most creative designs in fragrance bottles are currently being fashioned by contemporary studio glass artists.

The first containers for perfume in America were called smelling bottles. These tiny containers served a dual purpose. They were not only for perfume, but also for smelling salts that helped revive ladies from “the vapors” and fainting spells. Probably the earliest advertisement for smelling bottles in the Colonies appeared in the South Carolina Gazette on October 29, 1744, which advertised bottles imported from England. The first American glass company to produce smelling bottles was the Manheim, Pennsylvania glass factory of William Henry Stiegel between 1769 and 1774. Stiegel was manufacturing glass in the English style, and his smelling bottles would presumably have been similar to English designs. In 1772, Steigel advertised “enameled smelling bottles, common smelling bottles and twisted smelling bottles.” The twisted examples would be similar to colored and colorless ribbed bottles. By the late 1700s, the word “pungent” was also being used to describe smelling bottles. A sapphire blue bottle with 17 vertical ribs in the collection of the Huntington Museum of Art still bears its original paper label that reads, “Pungent Smelling Bottle Prepared and Sold by Geo. Brinkley Druggist.”

Pattern-molded smelling bottles blown into small carved molds were available from several factories, mostly in New England, between 1815 and 1830. They were produced in a wide variety of shapes in colorless and brilliant colored glass. Free-blown pungents were also sold in the early 1800s. Dolphin or Dolphin tail pungents are called seahorse bottles by collectors today, because of their hollow bodies and spiral tails. Dolphins were blown in colorless glass, or with opal and colored stripes. Small blown smelling bottles with applied rigaree and trailed embellishments were also popular at this time. Many examples were made in South Jersey glass factories. Small pattern-molded smelling bottles with metal screw caps continued to be made well into the 1880s at factories such as the Boston & Sandwich Glass Company.

While pungents and smelling bottles were still available, larger cologne and perfume bottles were in demand as early as 1820. Fancy or figured cologne bottles were manufactured in the United States and France. Druggists and merchants were selling perfume and cologne in the larger American cities, while many housewives made their own colognes using recipes published in helpful books. Thin-walled decorative bottles were produced at several factories, including the Williamstown Glass Works of Williamstown, New Jersey. The Williamstown price list dating from about 1853 lists thirty-one different figured colognes ranging in price from 37 1/2 cents to $1.50 per dozen.

Paper labels are rarely found still applied to late 18th and early 19th century cologne bottles. Those that retain their labels often just identify the contents as “cologne,” “eau de cologne,” or “rose oil.” Rarer still are bottles from this time period with paper labels containing a perfumer’s name. Beginning during the Civil War and continuing for some time thereafter, the Unites States levied a tax on nonessential items, including perfume and cologne. These U.S. Internal Revenue Proprietary Stamps, ranging from one cent to four cents, can still be found on early commercial bottles. By the last half of the 19th century and early 20th century, the number of perfume companies increased and names such as C.B. Woodworth & Sons, Tappan Perfume Co., Solon Palmer, Colgate Co., Eastman (a division of Andrew Jergens Company), B.D. Baldwin, and Richard Hudnut became recognized for their perfumes. The bottles from these companies were simple in shape, with colorful paper labels.

Figural perfume bottles in the shape of objects, people, buildings, monuments, and much more, were also popular in the late 19th century. A perfume bottle in the shape of the Liberty Bell was patented by Samuel C. Upham in 1874, and was sold at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. In 1888, the Bryce Brothers glass company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania manufactured a colored pressed glass slipper that held a clear glass perfume bottle. The Tappan Perfume Company of New York City marketed many of their perfumes in figural bottles. In 1892, Tappan took out patents on two of their most famous designs, Man on a Tricycle and the Street Lamp. Figural bottles continued in popularity and were produced in large quantities by the Avon Company in the 1960s and 1970s.

During the Victorian period in America in the late 19th century, glass reflected this age of prosperity with elaborate designs and colorful innovations. Rich cut glass perfumes and colognes created at this time brilliantly illustrate the ornate fashions desired by Victorians. A wide range of sizes, from small lay-down pungents to larger carved colognes, decorated dressing tables. Bottles with all-over cutting, combined with sterling silver mounts, were available from many cutting houses. Only a few firms manufactured their own silver fittings and cut glass. One of these companies was the Unger Brothers firm of Newark, New Jersey which offered eight colognes with three different silver tops in their 1904 catalog. Only a small fraction of all cut colognes produced were color-cut overlay. Vibrant, multi-hued glass was also popular. Exotic shades, such as Amberina, and the striking contrast of silver overlay and colored glass appealed to Victorian tastes.

The Art Nouveau style in glass in America was introduced by Louis Comfort Tiffany in 1892. His naturalistic themes, shimmering iridescent colors, and organic forms, lent themselves perfectly to perfume bottles. Other factories, such as the Steuben Glass Works, Durand Art Glass division of the Vineland Flint Glass Works, Quezal Art Glass and Decorating Company and the Imperial Glass Company, all produced stunning iridescent perfume bottles or sold glass to perfume atomizer makers.

Atomizers, which vaporized liquid into fine droplets using air, were first used in the medical field about 1859. By the late 1870s, French perfume makers were using vaporizers to scent the air in their sales booths. The DeVilbiss Company of Toledo, Ohio, recognized as the largest producer of atomizers in the United States, introduced their line of perfumizers in 1907. In 1924, DeVilbiss expanded their line and purchased art glass from Steuben, Durand, Quezal, Imperial, Cambridge, and others. Several additional American firms also purchased glass and combined it with their atomizers. They included The Mignon Corporation, Gironde Atomizer Company, Volupte’ Superior Products Corporation, and the S. Langsdorf & Company.

During the 1920s through the 1940s, glass factories continued to manufacture perfume and cologne bottles. The A.H. Heisey & Company of Newark, Ohio had been producing cologne bottles since 1906. Many pieces of the fine quality colorless glass, produced by Heisey, were purchased by silver-overlay firms to form the armature for the silver. The Cambridge Glass Company of Cambridge, Ohio, made superb opaque colored glass which was blown into delicate perfume bottles. Cambridge also produced iridescent colored pressed wares, called “Carnival” today. Their vibrant green iridescent glass made a striking cologne. Design changes in perfumes emerged as Americans slowly rejected the overdone Art Nouveau motifs for the new clean, modern, angular style of Art Deco. No two designs better illustrate the new Deco trends than the Cintra cologne bottles made by the Steuben Glass Works and Ruba Rombic introduced by the Consolidated Lamp and Glass Company of Coraopolis, Pennsylvania in 1928.

After World War II, the number of glass companies manufacturing hand-blown glassware diminished, limiting the production of individually made cologne bottles. Commercial perfume companies had to purchase decorative bottles made by automatic bottle blowing machines. To compensate for the uniformity of the bottles, designers created metal and plastic attachments, enameled colors, and ornate packaging. In fact, the boxes became so elaborate, they often overpowered the bottle. The T.C. Wheaton Company of Millville, New Jersey made the majority of commercial perfume bottles in America just after the war. Bottles were manufactured for Elizabeth Arden, Coty, Dana, Max Factor, Estee Lauder, Corday, Prince Matchabelli, Guerlain, and Schiaparelli. Wheaton also had the capacity to press stoppers, and became the largest stopper pressing firm in the world. Very often, a company would only order the pressed stopper from Wheaton and would have the bottle made elsewhere. Other companies, such as Carr-Lowrey Glass Company of Baltimore also made commercial bottles for many perfumers.

Commercial perfume bottles made in America in the 1990s are manufactured by less than a handful of factories. The majority of commercial perfume bottles are produced outside the United States. The AL-Group Wheaton, a division of Alusuisse Lonza, Ltd. (successor to Wheaton) and Carr-Lowrey still dominate the field. Bottles and packaging have become streamlined. Metal and plastic encasements and caps enhance the sophisticated shapes.

In the early 1960s, artists began to utilize new technology to build small glass studios and create glass art. From these small beginnings, the contemporary studio glass movement was born. During the early years, artists rediscovered the techniques of Tiffany and Steuben which lent themselves to perfume bottles. One-of-a-kind, highly decorative bottle designs were created. The wide variety of perfumes range from delicately carved cameo images by Barry Sautner, or fragile flameworked forms by Milon Townsend, to the bold cut bottles made by William Carlson. Not restricted to the necessary identical form of commercial bottles, glass artists have the freedom to make the most decorative perfume bottles created today.