Businessman collects historic pharmaceuticals

Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series profiling the various personal collections of residents of Marshalltown and the surrounding area.

Local businessman Jonathan Hull says he’s always had the “collecting bug” in him ever since his days collecting coins and stamps as a kid. After his older brother brought home an old bottle after a trip to Wyoming, a then 12-year-old Hull got interested in conducting his own “archaeological digs” in the hunt for similar pieces.

“I used to go to the old dumping grounds at the Iowa Veterans Home,” Hull said. “They were very old and it was hard work digging out the bottles.”

Another favorite destination was taking road trips with his father to the town of Colfax, which had once been home to several sanitariums that touted the virtues of the town’s mineral water, sold for its healing purposes.

“Every old facility had these dumping grounds and you would go out there and just find bottles everywhere,” Hull said.

While digging in the dirt proved exciting for father and son, it could also be time-consuming and strenuous. They got the idea to travel around to area drugstores and explain to the owners their interest in collecting old pharmaceutical bottles.

“Every Saturday, we’d go to towns within an 80 mile radius of Marshalltown, and go into the old drugstores,” Hull said.

Some businesses gladly parted with their old bottles, which due to age and changes in health regulations, were unsalable. Other places offered the pair a box full of goodies for a few dollars in return. These bottles would come from shelves and basements of these establishments. The Hulls would also ask residents of these communities if they had any bottles they would be willing to part with, hidden away in an attic.

“I was picking before the ‘American Pickers’ were born,” Hull joked. “My kids don’t have much of an interest in this; it’s probably more for people who remember the old-time drug stores.”

His collection contains medicine bottles from local pharmacies and bottles from companies out East that promoted their products as “cures” for many ailments.

“Sometimes, the only active ingredient in some of these ‘patent medicine bottles’ was alcohol – 40 percent in some cases,” Hull said. “Many products even contained heroin and opium.”

His collection spans the period of 1900-1910.

One bottle Hull has on display in one of his glass cabinets is for a fruit tonic called “Fruitcura,” which was popular at the turn of the last century. One advertisement claimed: “It cures the many complaints of women that only women know of … It cures their complaints and nervous troubles of any nature and revives the vitality which is lacking in all such cases for women of all ages. A discovery by a woman to cure women.”

In addition to bottles, Hull has accumulated some aged pill tins and boxes of cough drops. On the label of Dr. Edward’s Dandelion pills, the product was promoted as a “treatment for constipation, stomach, liver, kidneys and bowels.” Hollister’s Golden Nugget Tablets treated constipation.

In 1906, the FDA outlawed the word “cure” to be used on the packaging of patent medicines – a game changer for the pharmaceutical industry.

Hull has bottles that originally came from local pharmacies, including A.R. Townsend and Co., McBride & Will Drug Co., Peter Mayer & Son and Bibbins & Kelley Co. – all from Marshalltown – and Brimhall’s Pharmacy in State Center.

In the bottle collecting world, bitters bottles are some of the most popular, known for their colorful bottles and use for every malady. In actuality, the products were alcohol packaged as medicine through the practice of adding a small amount of herbal bitters to the mix. Hull also has a supply of Apothecary jars, many still filled with their original compounds, complete with labels written in Latin. An apothecary was a medical professional who prepared and dispensed drugs to physicians, surgeons and patients – regarded as the forerunners to pharmacists.

Accumulating pharmaceutical bottles led this collector to expand his horizons to include drugstore memorabilia, such as old posters and advertisements for cigars and sodas. He owns McBride & Will Drug Co.’s cash register as well. Hull also has an extensive collection of products and materials that were made in Marshalltown.

If he didn’t run his family business, Willard’s Furs and Fashions, Hull said he would liked to have become an archeologist.

“It’s hard to name a favorite piece, because they’re all my favorites in their own way,” he said. “I keep my collection at the shop so I can enjoy it while I work.”

He adds to his collection by shopping online auctions and through private collections.

“It’s fun. You don’t see them around very much, and its part of American history,” Hull said.

If you collect something interesting or unusual, contact this writer at the information below.

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Contact Sara Jordan-Heintz at 641-753-6611 or sjordan@timesrepublican.com