The World in a Jar: Apothecary Shops and Globalisation in Early Modern England

Our latest post in our Postgraduate and Early Career Takeover is from Christopher Booth. Chris is an Midlands3Cities funded PhD Candidate at The University of Nottingham, researching the material culture and visual experience of apothecary shops in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Find him on twitter @archaeobooth.

The image of the early modern apothecary shop, with its shelves of labelled jars and bottles behind a counter and the apothecary moving between customers and their stock, is a neat encapsulation of the way that new, global products were incorporated into English medicine between the late-sixteenth century and the late-eighteenth century.

It was the inclusion of these new medicinal botanicals, imported from the Americas and across the world, into existing systems of organisation based upon early modern herbals that made these products familiar and thus acceptable for consumption. Later they would also be incorporated into European (meaning Diderotian or Linnaean) systems of classification, further familiarizing them in the ‘old world’. The skilful navigation of these organisational systems, represented by the labels on medical containers, and the knowledgeability and trustworthiness of the apothecary within their shops were key to the acceptance and increasing consumption of these materia medica.

Apothecaries sought to materially represent this organisation and encyclopaedic knowledge through the tin-glazed earthenware drug jars which lined shelves behind the counter where prescriptions were made up. Doing so allowed them to visually and materially communicate their knowledge of, and mastery over, ‘newly discovered’ botanical products, and through that knowledge ensure the confidence of their patient when consuming the medicines which they compounded.

Initially the names of the materia medica which the apothecary stocked were not visible to the customer. Earlier drug jars, and those in more rural shops, would have been unlabelled albarelli with a small paper label affixed to the string keeping parchment or bladder lids in place. Later jars, however, had abbreviated Latin names of their contents painted within cartouches on their surfaces which would have been prominently displayed to the apothecaries’ patients. Whether or not individual customers read or understood Latin, the fact that all the simples (individual medicinal ingredients) in their medicine were labelled in this same way demonstrated that they were categorised and understood, at least by the apothecary, within the same system of medical and botanical knowledge as the more familiar simples from Britain and Europe whose names were on display in the same way. Examples of drug jars labelled with ‘new world’ simples are extant in museum collections. The below example from the collection of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust was used to hold an electuary of sassafras which was derived from a North American tree.

An English drug jar, circa 1730; painted in blue on a white background; E.E.SASSAFRAS (Electuary of Sassifras) on a songbird and basket label. Dimensions: Height 195mm. Diameters: base 125mm, rim 90mm. STRST : SBT 1993-31/56. CC-BY-NC-ND Image Courtesy of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Books and pamphlets published as guides for navigating the shop of the apothecary also juxtaposed familiar and imported medicinal plants, or treated them in familiar ways, in order to make them more acceptable to consume. In Gideon Harvey’s 1676 The family physician, and the house apothecary, many North American simples such as sassafras and Virginian snakeroot are included in the recipes which Harvey suggests could be made at home to treat common ailments, incorporating these imported materials into household medicinal recipes and recreating them as the subject of general knowledge amongst the literate classes in the late seventeenth century. In a slightly different context, Portable instructions for purchasing the drugs and spices of Asia and the East-Indies published by Henry Draper Steel a century later in 1779, was for use by both apothecaries purchasing from wholesalers, and members of the public purchasing from apothecaries, instructing them in how to recognise the simples and drugs that were imported to England and to pay appropriate prices.

Volumes such as these served to reinforce the familiarity of new medicinal ingredients by making it clear that the patients of apothecaries should be able to judge their authenticity and value. Steel for example notes, on page 31, that ‘the greatest deceits, practiced in the sale of cinnamon, are, selling such as has, by distillation, lost its essential oil, and substituting cassia lignea for cinnamon’ and that these deceits can be ‘discovered by want of pungency’ or by ‘the cassia’s becoming mucilaginous, when held in the mouth, which the true cinnamon never does.’ The education of the public in how to authenticate these materia medica firmly embeds them in the understood practice of medicine and cements their status as acceptable, even desirable, for consumption.

Furthermore, the intended audience of these volumes and the ubiquity of apothecaries’ shops in urban centres throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries meant that these were knowledge processes in which ordinary people were engaged. Ordinary things – in this case books with a wide intended audience and tin-glazed ceramics, which by the mid-eighteenth century were also commonly used as tableware – engaged people with the medical products of globalisation.  

Apothecaries then were at the forefront of the acculturation of New World and other global medicinal and botanical products into the British marketplace and their success can be seen in the rapid increase in medicinal consumption through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.[1] That increase outstripped the similar expansion of international trade more generally and so it is reasonable to suggest that materia medica and the apothecaries who assessed, compounded, and dispensed them were key to the acculturation and acceptance of a variety of imported goods throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The process by which this was achieved incorporated various material and visual elements, all of which could be found in the apothecary shop, a central space of encounter with these global products. In these spaces the new materia medica were placed within a recognisable, ordered, and familiar system of organisation symbolised through the labelled  shop jars. Apothecaries were using, analysing, displaying, and publishing on the qualities of new botanicals and were recontextualising them within their shops, to make them familiar and desirable. Through their increasing familiarity, these botanicals were eventually incorporated into unremarkable medicinal consumption by apothecaries, ensuring that they could sell and profit from the latest discoveries in early modern pharmaceutical exploration.

[1] Patrick Wallis, ‘Apothecaries and the Consumption and Retailing of Medicines in Early Modern London,’ in From physick to Pharmacology: Five Hundred Years of British Drug Retailing, ed. L. H. Curth (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2006); ‘Exotic Drugs and English Medicine: England’s Drug Trade, C. 1550-C.1800,’ Social History of Medicine 25, no. 1 (2012).

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