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Omaha Magazine

A Tonic for Fun: Medicine Bottle Collection Fascinates and Educates

Dec 27, 2020 03:20PM ● By Jeff Lacey
vintage mandrake and strychnine bottles closeup

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Those walking through the Springfield Pharmacy will notice the bottles: hundreds of them, in various colors, shapes, and sizes, sitting along shelves in a quiet line stretching from the pharmacy counter in the back of the shop all the way down the left side wall. 

A closer look reveals antique medicine bottles. Pill bottles, tincture bottles, and apothecary jars; some blue, some brown, some clear, and some yellow; an entire gallery of them, punctuated in places by clusters of mortars and pestles of various materials and sizes. Some bottles bear recognizable names like “eucalyptus extract” and “peppermint soluble.” Other names resemble what a person might find in the potions store in Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. The label of one small, delicate, graying cardboard box sitting quietly in the corner of an old cabinet reads “Horehound.” A clear glass jar sitting on the pharmacy counter is simply labeled “Gambog.” There is a mindboggling amount of fonts and shapes. It appears that these antiques watch over the modern medicines on the store’s floor shelves like so many pondering ghosts, but to head pharmacist/owner Keith Hentzen, they are more than just ghosts.

These artifacts are all part of Hentzen’s pharmacy bottle collection, which he estimates to contain thousands of pieces. Hentzen has been the owner and head pharmacist of Springfield Pharmacy for 43 years. He began the collection around 1976, shortly after he opened the pharmacy, and owns pieces that date back to the 1880s. Many of the pieces predate the 1908 Food and Drug Act, the first major push to regulate the sales of drugs for medical purposes.

The  collection is also representative of a slice of Nebraska history, as a majority of the pieces come from Nebraska pharmacies. When a pharmacist retires, they often ‘sell their basement,’ which includes treasures like the ones Hentzen has collected. This is one of the primary ways he has gathered his collection. 

Hentzen attributes this decades-long love of these medical artifacts to a couple of factors. “Dad was a really big fan of history,” Hentzen explained. “He would take us to lots of museums when we were growing up, and then, when I became a pharmacist, I saw how rich in history the profession was, and a lot of places I would work at would have old drug bottles, so I’ve started collecting them. The ones I seem to like the most are the gold-label apothecary jars.”

Hentzen revels in his old medicine bottles. His eyes illuminate when he explains the histories of some of the pieces, and he enjoys the comedy some of them suggest. “Here are some cigarettes to smoke to cure your asthma,” he said with a smile, pointing to an aged box of Requa’s Cubeb Cigarettes. “And here’s pills for pale people, in case that is your problem,” he explained, referring to a lifesavers-shaped package labeled “Pills for Pale People/Tonic for the Blood and Nerves.”

The medicine bottle collection is also good for business. One of the draws to the pharmacy is the vintage soda counter, around which Hentzen has curated a sizable collection of antique soda counter paraphernalia. Hentzen sees these two collections as a way to entertain customers running errands to the drug store, or enjoying fare like old-fashioned phosphate drinks. “People seem to like looking at all of it when they come, and I really love collecting all of it and showing it to people who are interested.”

Hentzen and his pharmacy are a valued staple in the community of Springfield. Kathleen Gotsch, Springfield’s city administrator, said that Springfield Drug has been a pillar of the community for many years. “The old-fashioned soda fountain is a hit with locals and visitors alike,” she explained, “and Keith is a strong supporter and promoter of the Springfield community. He is very active with many organizations, including the school foundation and Springfield Days Committee. His leadership and character are truly one-of-a-kind. Springfield is lucky to have him.”

A few standout pieces are the brown bottle of arsenic meant to treat syphilis, the bottle of strychnine with a small burgundy skull pinned to its cork, and the blue container that once held paregoric (a tincture of opium, like oxycontin for the 1900s crowd)—but they, like the rest of the collection, are not for sale. However, a friendly hello to the head pharmacist is always free and welcome. As the collection glows and looks on, so does Hentzen, demonstrating a spirit that is just as much a treasure as his collection.

“I just really like people,” Hentzen says. “There’s something about everybody I can take joy in, or appreciate, or like. Besides knowing families for generations with the pharmacy, I enjoy people who come in and who I get to meet for the first time.” 

Search @SpringfieldOldFashionedSoda on Facebook for more information.

This article first appeared in the 60 Plus section of the January/February 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.