LEECHES, BILE, BLOOD, PHLEGM, FOMENT, UNEASE, DISTEMPER, MELANCHOLY AND DEATH
The intriguing glassware contained within the apothecary's cabinet
A delightful litany of unpleasantry, but all part and parcel of life’s rich tapestry in the feculent squalor of Georgian Britain; any issues (oozing or otherwise) you may have with all or any of these matters would have sent you scurrying, limping or dragging your gangrenous stump to the nearest purveyor of alleviations, catholicons and physic reparations – but that may only be the start of your troubles…
The apothecary, it should be noted, was dimly regarded even as far back as the late 17th century, far from enjoying the exalted status of other practitioners of medicinal arts. In essence, they were the forerunners to today’s pharmacists (or chemists, for those who still prefer to eschew the encroaching Americanisation of our language) – preparing remedies from their repository of peculiar ingredients at the behest of the physicians (GP’s) who would be at the sharp end of diagnostics. They were also known as a source of herbs and spices, and there was a very definite crossover between their trade in pharmaceutical and culinary materials, with the latter forming a constituent part of many preparations intended for use in the former sphere of endeavour.
It must, of course, be remembered that there were no synthesised drugs available during the time in which apothecaries flourished; all remedies were derived from natural sources and it was very much what would now be considered a herbal or naturalistic approach. Essentially, there was no science in the true sense of the world behind the apothecary’s trade, but they commanded a significant price for their ministrations, it was necessary to maintain an element of smoke and mirrors about the way in which they presented themselves – with a range of extravagantly crafted glassware being a central component in the manner by which they would endeavour to add to their mystique. Note the statement in Gideon Harvey’s “Family Physician & House Apothecary” of 1678, which urges people to source their own ingredients and prepare them at home, rather than relying on the avaricious apothecary to do it for them’ “It’s plainly made to appear…” opines this august publication “…that in preparing medicines at your own houses…you shall save nineteen shillings in twenty, comparing it with the extravagant rates of many Apothecaries”. Harvey goes on to berate “Empiricks and Little Apothecaries” for charging exorbitant rates for their services, and for leaving their patients “ruined in Estate and too oft in their health”.
Your average apothecary would, therefore, ply his trade from a premises which required as many trappings as possible to make it appear that his work involved a great many mysterious processes, using divers ingredients and elements of uncommon rarity. If these were to be ranged upon shelves in common pewter pots or stoneware jars sealed with wax, it would have little more the look of any general store of the day – but extravagant glass vessels bearing cryptic labels in latin or greek inscriptions would be all it would take to convince the man on the street that his well-being was in the hands of someone who subscribed to an understanding of complex and mysterious arts – and it was well worth the extra shilling or two that it may cost to have such an august gentleman prepare your tinctures, unguents, salves and restoratives than to have them thrown together at home in your kitchen while the turnips boiled away alongside your own decidedly amateurish aescuplian preparation.
In our earlier musings on the use of Bristol coloured glass, it was noted that the tinted materials of that sort were often used to manufacture small vessels for the storage of poison, and that pale-coloured German glass was the standard issue for items used by scientists and alchemists during the latter part of the seventeenth century. Such pieces were, therefore, relatively commonplace and familiar to anyone who had dealings with the practitioners of such trades, and they would simply not do when it came to augmenting the surroundings of the far more self-evidently sophisticated apothecary’s store. It quickly became the convention that pieces for this sort of use should use the best, clearest crystal, and – for added flourish – to be fashioned with the inclusion of compound curves, double ogee bowls and as many other extravagances as could be worked in to their construction.
If you are inclined to seek out apothecaries’ glassware, it may well be worth venturing in to the slightly more mundane realm of the Physicians with whom they worked, as their trade also required specific glass pieces, albeit of somewhat less flamboyant purpose. Again, it should be noted that medicine in the 18th and 19th centuries was quite startlingly rudimentary from today’s perspective, and still involved the use of leeches to draw blood, alongside “cupping” – another modern alternative practice – both of which involved management of the flow, viscosity, balance and proportion of the four humours or fluids in the body which controlled wellbeing. Dry cupping using small glass bowls about the size of tennis balls would purportedly draw humours around the body, under the skin, by applying suction to specific areas where the bowls were applied; they’d be heated and cooled to create a partial vacuum which would leave a visible welt on the skin – similar to a love bite – and this would either move the liquid humours to more beneficial areas, or withdraw effluvial, vaporous elements of the same to realign the balance of the four vital components. Wet cupping was a little messier, with the cups being places over incisions to draw blood, and this – of course – was little more than a marginally more sophisticated version of the time-honoured use of leeches.
However, rather gloriously for the ardent collector of glassware, and having first been purchased for these vampiric ends, leeches had to be transported in some sort of manageable vessel, and we have therefore seen several examples of glass pots or jars designed specifically for that purpose (as opposed to the apothecaries themselves, who would keep their wholesale numbers of leeches in much larger porcelain jars). These glass jars are generally three to four inches high, and two to three inches in diameter, so they make for eminently usable vessels for the presentation of confits or bonbons (or peanuts or jelly babies to be fair) to the discerning dinner guest; do make sure, however, that once all the contents have been consumed, you make a point of advising exactly what the small pots were more properly used to contain, perhaps with some calmative preparations to hand – concocted by your local apothecary in advance - in case of any bilious reaction or similar dearth of humour on the part of your dining companion…
Link below, as ever, to the selection of apothecary’s glass on offer on our website
Note also the contemporary cartoon or drawing of an apothecary at work in his shop, surrounded by his glassware, and working alongside death himself; again – these fellows were not held in the highest esteem!