Dr. Wonser’s U.S.A Indian Root Bitters in Aqua

Provenance: Richard T. Siri Collection

Dr. Wonser’s is one of the top western bitters according to most collectors. This unusually shaped round cylinder bottle has sixteen flutes on the shoulder and two rings on the neck and comes in some great colors and character. The interesting name and the pronounced embossed copy make these bottles stand out in a crowd. Our museum example is exceptional with its deeper than normal aqua coloration and deep bottom kick-up.

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.

Their Dr. Wonser’s U.S.A. Indian Root Bitters advertisements first appeared in November 1870. The 1871 advertisement below said, “Beware of Counterfeits, Inquire for Dr. I. H. Wonser’s U.S.A. Indian Root Bitters! None genuine without the Trade Mark “U. S. A.” Received the highest Premium at Horticultural Fair, 1870. Principle Depot, 418 Sacramento Street, San Francisco.

Hawkins also entered Dr. Wonser’s U. S. A. Indian Root Bitters in the 1871 California State Fair on September 25, 1871, and received a diploma award. An advertisement appeared in the Wine Dealers Gazette, a monthly publication in the December 1871 issue. The advertisement stated:

By the mid 1870s, the Dr. Wonser’s brand was sold to McMillan & Kester who were the Successors of the Turner Brothers. In 1865, McMillan & Kester put out an aqua square bottle called Dr. Wonser’s U.S.A. Bitters. We have an example in the museum.

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

W 146 DR. WONSER’S ( au ) / U.S.A. / INDIAN ROOT / BITTERS // c //
L … Dr. I. H. Wonser’s U.S.A. Indian Root Bitters, Distributor and Manufacturers, San Francisco
11 ½  x 3 (5 ½ ) LTC, Applied mouth, Amber (Yellow to Olive amber), Rare; Green, Extremely rare.
Deep kick-up, Aqua, Applied mouth, Rare
10 ½ x 3 (5 ½) CM,
Variation in height could be misleading. Other measurements indicate both bottles could have been blown in the same mold. Sixteen flutes on the shoulder, two rings on the neck.
The green color example is considered one of the “Top” Western Bitters. Green examples have been dug on the California-Nevada border and in Carson City, Nevada. A number of undamaged and many aqua examples were dug in Virginia City Nevada in 1998.
San Francisco Chronicle, August 8, 1871

Support: Reference to Bitters Bottles Supplement by Carlyn Ring and W. C. Ham. Use of Dr. Wonser’s U.S.A. Indian Root Bitters illustration courtesy Bill Ham.

Support Images: Various Dr. Wonser’s U. S. A. Indian Root Bitters, Jeff Wichmann, American Bottle Auctions

Support Image: Two amber and one aqua Dr. Wonser’s U. S. A. Indian Root Bitters, Dave Kyle collection

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

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