What does the phrase “to sit like a Stoughton bottle” mean and Where does it come from?

The phrase “to sit like a Stoughton bottle” means to sit (or stand) dumbly apathetic, stolidly, without expression, stupidly, like a bump on a log.

I know well its meaning, as my wife’s father, a New England country doctor, used it frequently during his lifetime in referring to anyone, member of his family or not, who appeared to be thus blankly uninterested in whatever was being said or done.

Furthermore, the expression has been defined similarly in the Funk & Wagnalls New Standard Dictionary since 1913 and in the Merriam-Webster New International Dictionary since 1934. But it did not occur to me to ask my father-in-law, until too late, why a Stoughton bottle, presumably a bottle containing a tonic or bitters originally compounded at some undetermined time by a “Dr.” Stoughton, acquired such a metaphorical meaning.

The lengthy search for a bottle, which by dictionary account was of glass, that would meet the conditions indicated by the figurative meaning is related in the foreword. It entailed much correspondence.

The mysterious “Dr. Stoughton” turned out to be an English apothecary of Southwark, London. I had been seeking an American; our metaphor is of New England origin, wholly unknown in England. Stoughton’s compound was the second medicine to be granted “letters patent” in England.

That was in 1712, a hundred years earlier than I had supposed. Its full name was Stoughton’s Great Cordial Elixir. In the early advertisements, according to The Quacks of Old London (1928), by C. J. S. Thompson, to which I owe this information in part, this elixir was a remedy “for all distempers of the stomach”; fifty or sixty drops of it “more or less as you please” were recommended to be taken “as often as you please” in a glass of “Spring water, Beer, Ale, Mum, Canary, White wine, with or without sugar, and a dram of brandy.” (Can you not see how our great-great-grandsires would welcome this tonic for “distempers of the stomach”?)

The prospective purchaser was further told: ” ‘Tis most excellent in Tea, in Wine, very pleasant and proper, and in Beer or Ale, makes the best Purl in the world, and Purl Royal in Sack, giving all of them a fragrant smell and taste, far exceeding Purl made with wormwood and now used to drink in their wine at Taverns.” (Purl was a spiced malt beverage popular at that period.) Then Stoughton added, the elixir “has now obtained a great reputation throughout England, Scotland, Ireland and the plantations beyond the Sea,” and he concluded his, bill with the offer, “If any Captain or Seaman, Book-seller, Stationer, Coffee-man, or any keeping a Pub-lick House, wants any quantities to dispose of or sell again, they may be furnished with good allowance by letter or otherwise.”

It would appear that New England was one “plantation beyond the Sea” where Stoughton’s elixir had “obtained a great reputation,” and that some unknown Captain, Seaman, or, most likely, a keeper of a “Publick House” profited favorably from its importation and resale. But it is not remotely probable that glass bottles of any size, nature, or description were used in the eighteenth century for shipping this liquid, either by sailing vessels or by carts that may have carried it throughout England and Scotland. On the contrary, it is almost certain that the bottles were glazed earthen-or stoneware, of the same nature as the pottery bottles in which Holland gin has been shipped until recent years. And just as these latter bottles are spoken of as “Holland gin bottles” because of the original contents, so must the older bottles have been known .as “Stoughton bottles.”

I do not know either the shape or the size of those eighteenth-century bottles nor whether any may have been preserved in any collection of ceramics. But they were evidently of sufficient size to justify the housewife or grandmother in saving them when empty. In the unheated bedrooms of both England and America they made excellent foot warmers, when filled with hot water and stoppered well. And in summer, filled with sand, they were again useful as doorstops. In one capacity or another a Stoughton bottle was always in evidence. Even when not in use it probably stood in a corner somewhere, and it is likely that the housewife had several of them. It never talked back nor participated in any activity. Whether standing on its unglazed end or lying (sitting) on its side it was expressionless, stupid, apathetic.

It may be that production and importation of the famous elixir died with Richard Stoughton, the twenty-two ingredients, according to his advertisement, were unknown to anyone but him. Or it may have been that events following the Revolutionary War shut off its importation. But so persistent was the repute of this elixir that an American product, under the general name “Stoughton bitters,” began to appear, probably about the turn of the century. And as neither the name nor the ingredients were now protected, I have no doubt that several makers produced their own versions of the compound and put them on sale in glass bottles of their own selection, thus accounting for the wide variety of bottles described in the foreword.

Moreover, the stoneware bottles also ceased to arrive from England. However, that was not long a matter of concern. American potteries began to supply that want of the housewife and to turn out foot warmers of better design, and these, because of long association, were still called Stoughton bottles.

I do not know to what extent these American “bottles” may have differed from those that formerly had come from England. Of the first two shown in the accompanying illustration, the one on the left, bearing no label nor maker’s name, was lent to me by its present owner, Mrs. Elizabeth H. Brown of Vermont, who, after purchasing it at an auction, was told by a nurse that it was a Stoughton bottle.

From the evidence of other letters and various persons to whom I have shown it, I think bottles of this type were the more common. Note the broad flanges on the lower side to check the bottle from rolling, also the firm base on which it may be stood. The bottle in the center, with decorations baked in, labeled “Boss Foot Warmer” and made in Portland, Maine, was presented to me by Kenneth Roberts and comes from other ancestral relics in the cellar of his home in Maine.

The stopper, also stoneware, screws into the filler opening upon a rubber washer. The third bottle, of which detail drawings were sent to me by Russell Thornquist of Palmer, Massachusetts, whose sister owns it, was made or sold by P. L. Pride, Worcester, Massachusetts, and is of unusual design, as shown by the right-hand sketch.

This bottle, also known as a Stoughton bottle, may be called a modern version, for it was purchased for use in the Rutland, Massachusetts, sanitarium as recently as 1926. Each of these three bottles is eleven or twelve inches in length and fifteen inches in circumference. The knob at the end of each was for convenience in lifting or carrying.

A fourth bottle, which its present owner says was just called a hot-water jug, but does not describe, was made, according to imprint, by “Dorchester Pottery W’ks, Boston.” A fifth one, described only from girlhood recollections, was said to have been twenty-four inches long, though only fifteen inches in circumference, resembling “a very large piece of bologna.”

I have not been able to obtain a description of the Stoughton bottles which, until recent years at least, were in use in England. Information concerning use there is from isolated sources, Yorkshire, Northumberland, London, but details are lacking.

Incidentally, if the reader is seized with an urge to own a Stoughton bottle, he stands a better chance of success if, in browsing around a New England antique store, he asks the dealer if he happens to have a stoneware “pig.”

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

1 thought on “What does the phrase “to sit like a Stoughton bottle” mean and Where does it come from?”

  1. There is an earlier reference to the bottles June 3, 1899 In the Warwick examiner and times paper Entitled a new Utopia. Quite a comical read when you understand the history of the time. From John Keeley’s motor that never was to Joe Miller’s jokebook Of original thought compiled by other authors, William Wallace Cook has revealed history with in this small article. Perhaps his suggestion of the book title The Stoughton Bottles is a dual parallelism of ‘a race of dummies’ and the cut glass bottle labeled “Elixir of Life”. A clearer copy of the article can be read at North Otago Times April 28, 1902.

Leave a Comment