A delightfully dangerous collection.
Poison bottles (c. 1894) from the collection of Joan Cabaniss.
Joan cabaniss is dead serious about antique poison bottles. The editor of the Antique Poison Bottle Collectors Association Newsletter, Cabaniss has collected the ornate toxin containers for 33 years and amassed a collection of over 500 at her home on Smith Mountain Lake. Her interest was first piqued when she spotted a clear glass medicine bottle at a dump site in Northern Virginia. Then she saw eight cobalt blue bottles lined up with the sun pouring through at the Hillsville Flea Market in Carroll County: “I thought that was the prettiest thing I ever saw,” says Cabaniss, who purchased the set on the spot. She now travels the country to antique shops, flea markets, old drugstores and bottle shows gathering up her poisonous prizes.
What makes these bottles so desirable? An 1850 law required bottles containing poison to have distinguishing characteristics: they had to be identifiable in the dark as well as by the illiterate to prevent their contents from being consumed. As a result, poison bottles are among the most intricate of all antique bottles, manufactured in striking colors such as cobalt blue, amber and emerald, and fashioned into unusual shapes and textured with latticework, ridges, dots and diamonds. “Each of them is different,” says Cabaniss. “And they are all old because they stopped making these bottles in the 1930s,” when the elaborate safety requirements ended.
Cabaniss keeps her bottles, including both skull and coffin-shaped sets, in the ideal cabinet—an old wooden casket (it was never used for its intended purpose). “The skull is one of the most desirable of all the poison bottles,” says Cabaniss. “All of my cabinets are locked because some of the bottles in my collection still contain the actual poisons.” These poisons include antiseptics, insecticides, vermin poisons and cleaning compounds.
If you are looking to start your own skull-and-crossbones collection, the Richmond Area Bottle Collectors Association, which has been active since 1970, will stage its show Oct. 5 at Chesterfield County Fair Grounds. After all, one man’s poison is another man’s treasure.