The neighborhood drugstore, featuring a soda fountain and lunch counter, became a cornerstone of small-town America in the early 20th century. But the history of the pharmacy goes back much further, to ancient times when shamans and apothecaries formulated herbal remedies believed to have magical properties. In medieval times, apothecaries were also known as "spicers." By the 17th century, apothecaries had split from grocers who sold spices with food and formed their own societies, legitimizing their stature and expertise.
It's easy for us, with our knowledge of modern science, to dismiss these early chemists as quacks. After all, it's hilarious that a remedy called Bear's Grease, made from actual bear fat, was prescribed as a treatment for baldness. (Bears have plenty of hair, right?) But these men, who considered themselves serious scientists, discovered the forerunners to many of the drugs we use today.
In their day, pharmacists were revered in their towns and villages. Bell founders cast their decorated mortars from metal, top European potteries made their drug jars in Delftwar...
Mortars and pestles are perhaps the most iconic symbol of the pharmaceutical profession, used on prescription pads, in pharmacy signage, and to decorate apothecary tokens. This is because the mortar and pestle were essential for early apothecaries and chemists to grind up roots, rhizomes, dried herbs, and minerals to make powders and ointments.
Counter mortars, made of bell metal, brass, copper, iron, glass, marble, or other stone, were generally 4 to 6 inches tall. They could be single or doubled ended, and they might be waisted, shaped like a cup, or straight-sided. The problem with a metal, stone, or marble mortar is the risk that the mortar material could contaminate the formula being prepared by the chemist. In the 1780, Wedgwood introduced a biscuit porcelain mortar designed to reduce the contamination danger.
Another important component for an apothecary's lab was an accurate measuring scale. However, leaders in various regions hardly ever agreed to a universal standard of measurement. In 1497, Henry VII defined the tory weight for spicers and apothecaries in England. When the Avoirdupois pound was adopted in 1855, most apothecaries stuck to tory weights. By the 18th century, iron and lead weights were replaced with brass ones, and these are found in both tory and Avoirdupois pound measures.
The early scales, known as equal-arm scales, had two pans attached to the opposite ends of a beam. These would often be held by hand, by a tassel or tag affixed to the center of the beam, or they could be hung from a solid object above. Pillar scales are similar, but they feature a free-standing pillar or support in the middle so the scales don't have to be held.
Before glass containers were affordable, pottery was the material of choice for early pharmacies: The earliest ceramic drug jars, also called gallipots, were first made of tin-glazed earthenware, and then in delicate creamware produced by top Staffordshire potteries like Wedgwood and Spode. These might be painted with flowers or cherubs or just the drug's name surrounded by ornate scrolls. Others were labeled with metal plates hanging around their necks on chains.
The rise of glassware in the 19th century made porcelain pots less popular, but in the late 19th and early 20th century, earthenware jars with colorful glazes in greens, reds, pinks, or blues were standard. They might be pear-shaped, straight-sided with domed lids, or rounded or steeped, with lids in pagoda shapes. Early 20th-century jars had a recessed space for the labels, which tended to be yellow with black print.
Naturally, collectors love to find the oldest jars possible containing the wildest, witchiest ingredients, which are identified either by abbreviations or in the full Latin. Those jars with Medieval extracts and recipes like O. Scorpion (for "Oil of Scorpion"), Ther.London (for "London Treacle," a syrupy formula made with 32 ingredients in 1618), Oil of Puppy Dogs, Oil of Earthworms, or King Agrippa's Ointment are particularly sought after, even more so if the label is inscribed with the initials of the apothecary owner or a date.
By the 19th century, the business of patent or proprietary medicine had exploded in England, with hundreds of entrepreneurs creating cure-alls made from secret formulas. Thus, ceramic drug jars and glass medicine bottles featured the name of the drug proprietor, like Dr. Singleton's Eye Ointment or Turlington's Balsam of Life.
Because apothecaries and pharmacists sometimes gave their clients pills, ointments, and preparations to take or apply at home, smaller ceramic drug jars were also produced. During the 17th and early 18th centuries, these little pots (1 to 4 inches in height) were usually made in undecorated tin-glazed earthenware.
Sometimes it's much easier to find the pot lids than the jars, making lids a popular field of pharmacy collectibles. Often the pots themselves would be discarded, and the brightly colored, lids with elaborate underglaze or overglaze decoration would be kept. Starting in the late 18th century, these lids boasted cosmetics, pomades, toothpaste, cherry salve, shaving creams, and, of course, Bear's Grease.
A very specific type of large apothecary pottery is the posset pot, which resembles an extravagant bulbous tea pot, with a spout and two handles. This pot helped separate curds from whey in the preparation of posset, a British hot-drink elixir made by curdling milk with alcohol and then adding spices.
In the 18th century, leeches took the place of bloodletting, or the universal practice of opening a vein to let an illness bleed out. Poor, country, Englishwomen would collect the leeches from ponds and sell them to middlemen, who provided them to apothecaries, hospitals, and physicians. Hospitals kept hundreds on hand, as leeches were the aspirin of the day. Leeches were actually popular up until the 1940s, and many hospitals still keep them in stock today.
For a ceramic drug jar to be suited to leeches, it had to admit airflow, usually through fine holes in the lid or a metal mesh covering, and the water in the jar had to be changed once a week. Leech jars, much like apothecary jars used to hold mixtures of honey and tamarind (an astringent fruit from the West Indies used as a laxative), tended to have two handles and were cylinder- or urn-shaped, sometimes with feet. Often these jars had beautiful scrolling labels in lush colors like lilac and gold. In the 19th century, glass leech jars with perforated shelves were considered an improvement: It was thought the leeches would clean themselves as they moved from shelf to shelf.
Other early pharmacy ceramics include boat-shaped feeding bottles for babies and invalids (replaced by glass baby bottles in the mid-19th century), pap boats and feeding cups, and eye baths, which were porcelain vessels shaped like wine glasses with short stems.
Top potteries also produced apothecary tiles, starting in the 17th century. At first, these tiles, at times as big as a square foot, were meant for show, decorated with the shields and insignias of official apothecary societies and featuring symbols such as healing god Apollo slaying a serpent, as well as unicorns or rhinos. In the 18th century, ceramic pill tiles were created specifically for the purpose of rounding and cutting pills by hand. Made of tin- or white-glazed earthenware, these tiles are often marked with gradations showing where to cut the pills. Around 1875, pill tiles were also made of plate glass in the United States.
Metal apothecary trade tokens, minted when there was a shortage of small change in England, used similar imagery to the apothecary tiles—a picture of a the trusted mortar and pestle. The values came in half-penny, farthing, penny, and shilling, and some were even made in square, octagonal, or heart shapes.
During the 18th century, pharmacists found a more effective way to advertise their shops than ceramic tiles. Large glass show globes—called carboys when shaped like large wine flasks—would be filled with colored liquid. A show globe conveyed that the apothecary or pharmacist was a talented chemist who had the scientific prowess to create such bright hues. Often round, transparent, and gallon sized, show globes were also made out of red, blue, or green glass, and had a knobbed stopper.
Particularly gifted pharmacists could create several layers of color in one show globe, which might be lighted from behind. Some pharmacists used double show globes to heighten the effect, and in the United States, the pharmacists could be so ostentatious as to use triple show globes. Show globes could be hung from a ceiling beam, placed on decorative brackets or stands, or on street lamps outside.
As glass became cheaper during the 19th century, it was widely used for medicine bottles, as well as for glass measures and cupping-treatment glasses. Exotic woods were used to build everything from proprietary-medicine showcases to decorative herb boxes. Cups made of quassia wood would be filled with water overnight so the strong wood flavor would seep into the liquid, creating a bitter to be drunk in the morning.
As patent medicines grew in popularity in the late 18th century, spoons for measuring dosages became important. In 1827, Charles Gibson invented one of the most popular medicine spoons of the day. Because many elixirs were horribly bitter, no one—particularly not children—relished taking them. Gibson's 7-inch spoon, made from pottery or silver, Britannia metal, or pewter, had a tubular handle and a covered bowl with a hole. Medicine would be poured into the handle, and then air pressure was employed to force it into the patient's mouth. Other Georgian and Victorian inventors, including John Mudge, Dr. Nelson, S. Maw & Sons, J.S. Hooker, and Sir Hiram Maxim, came up with various types of inhalers.
Another means for administering medicine was the pewter syringe, also called the clyster. Yes, those cartoons showing patients running from giant syringes were not far off. Developed during the 17th century, this piston or plunger syringe was 4 to 6 inches long, and used for anatomical injections or irrigation. The barrels, which were sometimes also made of silver, could be highly ornamented, and the syringe had metal rings for grip. In the 19th century, it was replaced by smaller hypodermic-needle syringes.
Fears of airborne contagions, the sort that caused plagues, led to the popularity of metal pomanders, which were basically ornate mesh balls filled with ambergris, a waxy substance made from whale intestine, herbs, musk, and civet. These perfumed aromatherapy balls, usually worn around the neck, were utterly useless, but at the time they were coveted, made out of filigreed silver or gold. Only the very wealthy could afford such extravagant assurance.
Other metal tools you might find in an apothecary or early pharmacy include measuring vessels; cachet machines, which stamped medical powders into edible wafers; suppository molds; plaster irons to spread plasters onto bandages; pill-cutting machines; and powder folders, to fold paper designed to hold powder treatments.
The concept of the all-American corner drug store started around 1830 and began take root at the end of the Civil War. Around the turn of the century, more and more people began to accept the germ theory of disease, and patent-medicine peddlers known as snake-oil salesmen were under fire, particularly in the United States. In 1906, the U.S. Pure Food and Drug led a to a crackdown on proprietary medicines, especially those that contained alcohol, narcotics, or opiates.
The 18th Amendment in 1919, known as Prohibition of Alcohol, created further restrictions, closing bars and preventing pharmacists from possessing liquor. These new laws paved the way for the dominance of the soda fountain at the corner drug store. Rexall, named for "Rx All," became one of the most popular drug store chains of the 20th century, and all early Rexall branded items are collectible now.
Before the FDA, pharmacists were already mixing flavored syrups and carbonated water with their bitters and cure-alls, which were often unpleasant to taste. Ward's Orange Crush and Cherry Smash were popular syrups, and their early dispensers are collectible now. With patent medicines under fire, many remedies like Dr. Pepper, Pepsi, and Coca-Cola were adapted as soft drinks.
The Liquid Carbonic Company was founded in 1888 with the goal of creating machines that let drugstore owners produce their own carbonated water, which was expensive. The company's 1909 Liquid Diamond carbonator was a huge success, giving the pharmacist the ability to make his own sodas in house, and contributing to the rise of the soda jerk. Liquid Carbonic made a syrup, too, called Cherrie Punch, which came in a 5-gallon dispenser.
Other pharmacy and apothecary collectibles include pharmacopoeias, herbals, or formularies with official or unofficial remedy recipes, as well as wooden medicine chests designed to carry remedies, scales, and the like on house calls. Lighted neon drug store signs are also popular with collectors of 20th-century pharmacy antiques.
Interviews & Articles
Right now, all across the country, people are having sex, . Yet despite centuries of birth control designed to maximize pleasure a… [more]
I’m fourth generation in the pharmacy business, so I grew up in a pharmacy, and it always was interesting to me. I also enjoyed a … [more]
These days, "snake oil" is synonymous with quackery, the phoniest of phony medicines. A "snake oil salesman" promises you the worl… [more]
How did I get started collecting advertising antiques? My dad was a lecturer and tutor in graphics and art from the 1960s onwards,… [more]