Walker’s Vinegar Bitters bottled in Pastel Shades to “conceal the mess”


Color Run of Dr. J. Walker’s Vinegar Bitters – Dale Mlasko

Dr. Walker’s California Vinegar Bitters

“This ‘Bitters’ is one of the nastiest nostrums, introduced and largely sold by the most extensive and brazen advertising under the false pretense of being free from alcohol.”

Newspaper advertisement: Dr. Walker’s California Vinegar Bitters – Spirit of the Age, Wednesday, July 5, 1871

Walker’s Vinegar Bitters bottled in Pastel Shades to “conceal the mess”

03 January 2013 (R•081714- labeled Walkers) (R•110814 – Triangular Sign) (R•041919 better ad above)

Fully labeled Walker’s also conceals the concoction – Etsy

Apple-Touch-IconAThere are a number of accounts of how Walker’s Vinegar Bitters got its start in California, one being that the so-called “Dr.” J. (Joseph) Walker started out as a charcoal peddler in the streets of New York and followed miners west as a cook around 1849. With no luck mining, he probably concocted the basics for his original formula during his ‘cooking’ days. He next appears as a penniless inhabitant of Stockton, California in the 1850’s.

It looks like ‘three times’ is the charm here with his development and marketing of the Walker’s bitters product which he patented in 1861. He also, somehow magically, becomes a “Dr.” during the 1850’s.


The second interesting note is from a Dr. Gibbon’s account of the origin of Walker’s Vinegar Bitters, a specimen of which we analyzed several years ago, and found to contain 5 per cent of alcohol!: –

“This ‘Bitters’ is one of the nastiest nostrums, introduced and largely sold by the most extensive and brazen advertising under the false pretense of being free from alcohol. It originated with a cook of a party which traveled overland as a mining company to California in 1849; he settled in Calaveras county, and having no success as a miner, he turned his attention to the bitter qualities of the herbs growing about him, and came to San Francisco with the idea of making and vending a nostrum to be called ‘Indian Vegetable Bitters.’ He fell in with a an enterprising druggist, who saw money in the project, and joined him. At the suggestion of the latter, the ‘Indian’ was struck out, and the concoction got sour by fermentation, it was concluded to call it ‘Vinegar Bitters’ and to identify it with the temperance movement. The native herbs which became rather troublesome to collect, were discarded, and aloes, being cheap to bitter, were substituted. “nine sick people out of ten’ said the druggist, ‘will be cured by purging.’ Wherefore the aloes and Glauber’s salt. So the cook turned doctor, the decoction became sour and of California instead of Indian paternity, and ‘Doctor Walker’s Vinegar Bitters; began its career in the newspapers and on the shelves of the drug-stores.’” The statement has recently been made that “Vinegar Bitters” is now manufactured of sour beer and aloes. (The Household Monitor of Health by John Harvey Kellogg – 1891)

“initially peddled the bottles out of a basket on various streets. Only a dozen years later, Walker is worth between one and three million dollars.”

“Dr.” Walker started his bitters business located at the corner of American and Channel Streets in Stockton, California. It was here that he concocted the mess which he called Vinegar Bitters. Apparently a Mrs. Brenton who had an interesting relationship with Walker, initially peddled the bottles out of a basket on various streets. Only a dozen years later, Walker is worth between one and three million dollars. “Dr.” Walker was not ungrateful and Mrs. Brenton became the face of Vinegar Bitters, although whether she contributed to the vinegar or the bitters to the composition does not appear.


“Vinegar Bitters”, New Bedford Harbor, METEOR and SUNBEAM, photograph by Joseph S. Martin, circa 1870

While “Dr.” Walker devised his fermented Vinegar Bitters in San Francisco in 1849. Richard H. McDonald, a San Francisco druggist, promoted the medicine nationally, and went into partnership with John Campbell Spence to form R.H. McDonald & Company to produce and market it. This company had London, New York and San Francisco offices. Later Walker apparently moved to New York. Earlier he actually had Indians gather herbs in Knights Ferry and shipped to him in Stockton. He advertised his bitters ‘free from alcohol’ but used brandy as a preservative. He was struck by a locomotive and killed around 1877. His estate was valued at several million dollars.


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

L…Dr. Walker’s California Vinegar Bitters
// b // J. WALKER’S / V.B.
8 3/8 x 3 (5 3/4)
Round, LTC, Applied mouth and Tooled lip, Aqua Common: LTCR Green Scarce
An American bitters exported for sale to the Canadian Province of Quebec in 1897.

As far as collectibility and desirability, the Walker’s bottles are simple, sexy and come in stunning pastel shades. I suppose “Dr” Walker needed something ‘pretty’, for the women, to conceal the foul tasting mess, as some called it. within the bottle.

Devoted to Temperance, Health and Economy


Label Under Glass Sign, ‘Dr. Walker’s California / Eureka / Vinegar Bitters / The Great Blood Purifier’, (Ring/Ham pg. 560), American, ca. 1885 – 1910, white background with multicolored paint decoration, 21”h by 24″ wide triangular form, original wood with gold trim frame, replacement backing. – Glass Works Auction 105


A private die stamp for Dr. J. Walker’s California Vinegar Bitters was first issued in July of 1870 and last delivered on February 23, 1883. 1,149,024 were produced on old paper, – 5,088,677 on silk paper and 492,760 on watermarked paper. This example is on watermarked paper. – rdhinstl.com


Original 1-1/2″ Dia. Brass Pocket Mirror. J. Walker’s California Vinegar Bitters – The Great Blood Purifier, Give it a Trial. Sold by All Druggists. Pat. June 15, 1861. – ebay


A check used by R.H. McDonald & Company in 1871. It has a Type C22a imprinted revenue inverted on the back, making it an example of one of the rare types of revenue stamped paper. – rdhinstl.com


A  Dr. Walker’s California Vinegar Bitters Almanac of 1872. – rdhinstl.com


Another Dr. J. Walker’s California Vinegar Bitters Almanac cover. D.H. Harris & Co., Jonesboro, Tenn.


The back cover of the 1872 almanac showing a reproduction of the Walker private die stamp. This was against government rules. – rdhinstl.com


A clipping from the Adrian, Michigan Times of December 21, 1872. – rdhinstl.com


An 1885 McDonald & Company cover showing the Walker logo. – rdhinstl.com


Walker’s Vinegar Bitters Trade Card Back – Meyer Collection


Dr. J. Walker’s Vinegar Bitters Advertisement – Only Temperance Bitters Known


Dr. Walker’s California Vinegar Bitters Testimonial Advertisement


Pacific Medical Journal, Volume 2; Volume 11 By David Wooster, Charles McCormick, Henry Gibbons, John Frederick Morse, James Blake – 1869


A wonderful photograph of a Dr. Walker’s Vinegar Bitters – Utah Antique Bottle Cliche


Killer, whittled Dr. Walker’s Vinegar Bitters – Western Bitters News


Base embossing on a Dr. Walker’s Vinegar Bitters – Meyer Collection


A later, labeled Dr. J. Walker’s Vinegar Bitters – Smithsonian National Museum of American History


Two gorgeous green, Dr. J. Walker’s Vinegar Bitters – Rick Hall

Example Dr. J. Walker’s Vinegar Bitters from theGardnerCollection – Steve Jackson

About Ferdinand Meyer V

Ferdinand Meyer V is a native of Baltimore, Maryland and has a BFA in Fine Art and Graphic Design from the Kansas City Art Institute and School of Design. Ferdinand is the founding Principal of FMG Design, a nationally recognized design consultation firm. Ferdinand is a passionate collector of American historical glass specializing in bitters bottles, color runs and related classic figural bottles. He is married to Elizabeth Jane Meyer and lives in Houston, Texas with their daughter and three wonderful grandchildren. The Meyers are also very involved in Quarter Horses, antiques and early United States postage stamps. Ferdinand is the past 6-year President of the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors and is one of the founding members of the FOHBC Virtual Museum.
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