Dr. Wonser’s USA Bitters Square

Provenance: Richard T. Siri Collection

After looking at the masterful mold design for Dr. Wonser’s U.S.A. Indian Root Bitters in a cylinder form (we have three examples in our museum), we now look at a square bottle embossed ‘DR. WONSER’S BITTERS’. The bottle also is embossed ‘USA’ on a second side panel. The third and fourth sides are blank and are where the label would have gone. The square bottle came after the cylinder bottle.

See the museum example of a Dr. Wonser’s U.S.A. Indian Root Bitters in aqua

See the museum example of a Dr. Wonser’s U.S.A. Indian Root Bitters in amber

See the museum example of a Dr. Wonser’s U.S.A. Indian Root Bitters in green

Dr. Wonser’s U.S.A. Indian Root Bitters was the invention of Dr. I. H. Wonser who lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1863 he was listed as Issac H. Wonzer (sic), Indian Root Bitters, s w c Spring and W. Water in the 1863 Milwaukee, Wisconsin City Directory. The spelling is odd because the 1868 Milwaukee directory lists an Israel H. Wonser, Bitters Manufacturer, rear 47 2d. In 1864, there is a news clipping mentioning I. H. Wonser and his American Indian Root Bitters. This all is in reference to the predecessor of Dr. I. H. Wonser’s U.S.A. Indian Root Bitters.

It was in Milwaukee that I. H. Wonser met William Hawkins. While they initially operated as partners, Wonser took more of a silent partner position and is not well documented historically. Their Dr. Wonser’s U.S.A. Indian Root Bitters advertisements first appeared in November 1870. This was the same year they entered the product in competitions in California.

William Hawkins was born in 1814 in Rhode Island and moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1840 where he established himself as an accomplished machinist. He left his wife and family and moved to San Francisco somewhere around 1861 where he worked for the Union Foundry. Hawkins then went to the Reese River region of central Nevada for a period of time but soon returned to San Francisco and took up the machinist trade again until he partnered with I. H. Wonser to sell bitters. By 1875, he had returned to his old profession of machinist until he died in 1884. He was buried in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. One has to wonder if he actually made the mold and took it west.

The Turner Brothers advertised in the October 1858 Nevada Journal newspaper that they were the manufacturers of Turner’s Ginger Wine, Forest Wine Bitters, syrups, cordials, and an unrivaled Vegetable Bitters. Sometime in 1865, the Turner Brothers sold the business to the firm of McMillan & Kester. Thereafter McMillan & Kester started advertising that they were the proprietors of the Turner brands. 

See the museum example of a Turner Brothers square.

Dr. Wonser’s U.S.A. Bitters, our subject square bottle, is a result of Donald McMillan and Levi B. Kester, of McMillan and Kester, buying out the Wonser brand and putting it under their flag. The mid to late 1870s San Francisco City Directory advertisements state that McMillan & Kester were the Successors to Turner Bros. and Manufacturers and Dealers in Syrups, Cordials, Bitters, Essences, California Wines, Etc., and Sole Proprietors of Dr. Wonser’s U.S.A. Bitters. They were addressed at 714 Front Street in San Francisco.

According to newspaper notices, Donald McMillan was from a famous Scottish family of that name in the western highlands. He arrived in San Francisco in 1852, engaged in the liquor and syrup business, and founded McMillan & Kester at 714 Front Street.

McMillan & Kester also put out Essence of Jamaica Ginger and many bitters such as Wine Bitters, Orange Bitters, Tansy Bitters, California Wine Bitters, Stomach Bitters, Stoughton Bitters, Pure Wormwood Bitters, Wormwood Bitters, Vegetable Bitters, and Cocktail Bitters which is listed as C 184 in Bitters Bottles. The brand was advertised in 1869 through the 1870s.

The Carlyn Ring and W.C. Ham listing in Bitters Bottles is as follows:

W 145 DR. WONSER’S / BITTERS // USA // f // f //
McMillan & Kester (successors to Turner Bros.) Sole Proprietors
714 Front Street near Broadway, San Francisco
9 x 2-7/8 (6 ¾) ¼
Square, Aqua, LTCR and LTC, Applied mouth, Very rare

Read More: Dr. Wonser’s U.S.A. Indian Root Bitters – Looking at Some Information and Colors at Peachridge Glass

Support Image: Dr. Wonser’s USA Bitters, Applied top. Nice bubbles and some good light crudity. Corners having a brown tint to them. Light cleaning would render this bottle spotless. Grade 9. Sold at the Denver Federation show in August 2000. American Bottle Auctions – Grapentine II Auction 42 – Lot #466 – Ferdinand Meyer V collection.

Support Image: Auction Lot 30: DR. WONSER’S BITTERS USA square in aqua with applied top. W 145. Circa late 1870’s and 80’s. The square Wonser bottles are probably the bottles McMillan & Kester used after purchasing the product from the Hawkins brothers. We don’t know for sure but since the product was only produced for a few years by the brothers, it could be that the new owners opted for a less expensive container and this was it. It is also thought that later they went with a label only bottle. At any rate, whatever the case it’s a good thing these bottles made their way into the bitters market as they are seen in different shades of aqua and have that very famous name among bottle collectors. We’ve seen some examples cruder than others, but they often aren’t super crude, at least that we’ve seen. This is a blue aqua and is generally in great condition. There is just a tad of haze in one corner and it was most likely professionally cleaned. Grades and 8. – Jeff Wichmann, American Bottle Auctions, Auction 70, Part 1 of the Don Dwyer Collection

Support Image: Four McMillan & Kester Essence of Jamaica Ginger bottles – Utah Antique Bottle Cliche

Support: Reference to Bitters Bottles by Carlyn Ring and W. C. Ham. Use of Dr. Wonser’s USA Bitters illustration courtesy Bill Ham.

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