The art of collecting antiques is a diverse one, spanning everything from film memorabilia to 18th Century mahogany furniture. The areas that often fascinate the most are those that relate to the lives of everyday people - from their cooking and eating habits to their romantic lives. Apothecaries, with their promise to heal one’s aches and pains before the dawn of modern medicine, have left behind objects that offer a unique insight into the lives of our forebears.
What is an apothecary?
What was would be a better question, as despite their best efforts to brand themselves as pharmacies, the modern-day equivalent would shrink from the association.
The word apothecary comes from apotheca - a place where wine, spices and herbs were stored - and it first came into our language in the 13th Century. Somewhat confusingly, 'apothecary' refers both to the salesperson and to their shop. For a long time, apothecaries were lumped in with grocers, spicers, and all manner of merchants. They were simply another group trying to sell their wares.
Medieval medicine was based, for the most part, on the supernatural and superstitious. Apothecaries would swear that concoctions such as ‘Oil of Scorpion’ or ‘Balsam of Life’ could cure anything from boils to baldness. Their medical advice revolved around 'humoral theory' - the idea that we have four liquid humours in the body, and when these are out of balance you get disease.
‘Oil of Earthworms’ is an infamous example, promising to fix all manner of joint issues like arthritis and rickets. As the name suggests, it involved boiling earthworms in olive oil to apply to affected areas. While the oil was helpful, the role of the earthworms is dubious at best. It is perhaps not surprising then, that apothecaries were accused of 'quack medicine.' This phrase comes from the Dutch word quacksalver, meaning someone who falsely claimed medical knowledge in order to sell their wares.
The lucky break for these early chemists came in 1617. That was the year ‘The Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London’ - tricky to squeeze onto a business card - was formally incorporated by royal charter. King James I not only recognised apothecaries but separated them from grocers and gave them a level of medical credibility. This royal approval was driven partly by King James I’s fondness for his own apothecary, and he wasn’t alone - Samuel Pepys writes of loyally following the instructions of his when struck by illness.
Apothecaries didn't stop there - in 1704 the society won a lawsuit against the Royal College of Physicians in the House of Lords. The ruling declared that apothecaries could prescribe and dispense medicines - a significant turning point for the group. The Apothecaries Act of 1815 then gave the society the right to carry out examinations and grant medical licenses in England and Wales.
While it’s easy to dismiss this early medical practice as nonsense, that would be an oversimplification. The trial and error during these centuries undoubtedly paved the way for later breakthroughs. Many of those who worked in the apothecary trade were earnest in their pursuit of cures, and closely involved with botany. For example, the apothecary society founded the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1673 for the purpose of growing medicinal plants. Some of the most awe-inspiring botanicals that decorate our walls today were by eminent apothecaries - including those of Basilius Besler.
Inside the apothecary
Before you even set foot inside one of these establishments, a rather unique window display might have caught your eye. The ‘chemist’s carboy’ became a must-have for apothecaries in the 18th and 19th centuries.
These voluptuous glass bottles, often with elaborate cut glass stoppers, boomed in popularity alongside advances in glass production. While they were similar to the vessels you'd see inside, carboys were purely for advertising purposes. The owner would fill them with brightly coloured liquids to mimic chemical solutions and indicate their trade.
Carboys are a popular collector's item today, and they make for majestic decorative pieces. Leave them empty or fill them with corks, and keep them in the window to really pay homage to the apothecary.
Cabinet of curiosities
Once inside the apothecary, cacophonous sound would greet you. The apothecary trade revolved around grinding, pulverising and stirring to create its potions and lotions. It’s no surprise, then, that one of the objects we commonly associate with medical history is the humble pestle and mortar. Still a stalwart of today’s country kitchen, these are as decorative as they are useful.
The apothecary himself would be stood behind a counter, likely with a set of measuring scales in front of him. Indeed, scales are so synonymous with the trade that a measuring system was named after them - ‘apothecaries’ weights and measures.’ Many of these T-shaped balancing systems survive today and they bring quirky character to a kitchen.
It’s not just the tools of the trade that appeal to collectors. Unique apothecary furniture is highly desirable for injecting personality into interiors. Apothecary cabinets seem to trap the magic of the trade in their many drawers, with the remains of old labels for all things weird and wonderful. Countertops pummelled by hard work, a deep-aged patina, and a curious history - what more could you want for a soulful interior? Use these as a decorative sideboard, or make use of the drawers in a painting or textiles studio.
Cupboards, too, were essential furniture for apothecaries. Some of these charming cabinets feature remains of old paint, while others are simple brown wood. All offer a welcome alternative to fitted kitchen or pantry cabinets.
Antique apothecary bottles
Perhaps the most enduring legacy of apothecaries is the many bottles and jars that have lived to tell the tale. Glass was used for making apothecary bottles from the 1600s onwards. These range from clear glass, to humble brown, to azure blue. Apothecaries favoured coloured glass over clear to protect the contents from sunlight. They come in different shapes and sizes which can, to the discerning eye, give hints of their former purpose. For example, apothecaries used wide-necked bottles for syrups, so the stopper wouldn't stick to the viscous liquid. These are just a few examples of how yesterday's pragmatism has become today's beauty.
Collectors pore over the remains of labels, which were often a shimmering gold with black print. The idea of ornate medical bottles seems absurd today, but it indicates the pride and showmanship that accompanied this trade. These labels revealed the contents, usually in full or abbreviated Latin. A coveted example, such as ‘Oil of Earthworm’, is a momentous find for the serious collector. Apothecary travelling chests are also popular. These portable cabinets were the first aid kit of yesteryear, containing several bottles of solutions the traveller couldn't go without. They often had fine wood exteriors and plush silk or velvet interiors.
But the wonderful thing about apothecary antiques is that the mundane is often just as desirable as the historically significant. Fill a cluster of simple, aged apothecary bottles with garden flowers to bring whimsical charm to kitchen or bathroom shelves. Alternatively, go for the ‘en masse’ approach, with reams of apothecary bottles assembled on open shelving for dramatic impact.
Where did all the apothecaries go?
Apothecaries peaked in the 1700s, but soon gave way to Victorian chemists around the turn of the century. As medicine became a more serious discipline and industrial revolution transformed production, apothecaries faded into the history books. While 'Oil of Scorpion' may not be a go-to remedy in our local pharmacy - thankfully - we can still celebrate the charming relics of this bygone era.
Shop the look and browse our collection of apothecary antiques, from grand cabinets to humble jars, here.