Apothecary Jars and Bottles

Apothecary ware represents an amazing record of historical pharmacies. It evokes a time when pharmacies were more than just a place to buy cold medicine; they were a place of social gathering, where friends could meet to enjoy a fizzy phosphate for a nickel. The History of Pharmacy Museum has thousands of apothecary jars and bottles, most of which date back to the late-19th and early-20th centuries. These vessels come from pharmacies and apothecary shops all over the nation and serve as a physical, tangible connection to the past.

Author Mary Bogard (1983) writes, “Enamelled glass vessels were being made in Europe in the 15th century by the Venetians, and in the 16th century by German glassmakers.” By the 17th century, German bottles were being used as pharmaceutical shelfware. The earliest of these German apothecary vessels were hand-blown glass, green in color and round in shape, and bore enamel labels with red and black iconography to identify their contents.

Over the next two centuries, these jars grew in popularity, eventually becoming the standard for apothecaries worldwide. As the glassware fell into common use, different designs, shapes, and patterns began to emerge.

Beautiful and intricate, apothecary glassware served two primary purposes: storage and display. It provided a practical means of material storage, but its ornate designs simultaneously made it attractive and decorative. One can imagine a dimly lit apothecary shop illuminated with the warm, inviting glow of a whole wall of sparkling glass. Mostly in the form of round or square bottles, these glassware pieces were usually transparent and colorless. Occasionally, they would be tinted (tinted bottles were generally used to store light-sensitive materials), most commonly an amber color, less commonly blue or green.

So-called “salt mouth” (wide-mouthed) bottles would be used for dispensing solid materials, while “tincture” (narrow-mouthed) bottles would be used for dispensing liquids, to ensure accuracy. The term “salt mouth” probably originated in the mid-1720s, when Guy’s Hospital in London purchased a large amount of glassware. Historical records indicate that this order included “pints wide mouth for salts.” Almost 50 years later, John Day and Co. listed “salt-mouthed rounds” glassware in their catalogue. In 1798, the term “tincture” was used to refer to narrow-mouthed bottles in a newspaper advertisement by a New Jersey glass manufacturer. Druggists Temple and Smith are recorded to have purchased both “salt mouths” and “tinctures” in 1818.

By the 18th century, labels began to be painted directly onto apothecary glassware. Painted labels were some of the first to use the gold leaf technique, a method used for decades thereafter. Other, simpler labels were made of paper, which was in turn varnished onto the glass. The 1850s saw the significant innovation of the glass label. William Bisseker of Birmingham patented the glass label, which was molded to fit the surface of the bottle or inserted into an indentation within the bottle’s surface to make the label flush with the bottle. The History of Pharmacy Museum has several unlabeled bottles that show this indentation. When, Bisseker lost his patent, the idea for glass labels fell into public domain.

acid boricApothecary shelf bottles usually had ground glass stoppers. Both the stopper and the inside of the jar’s mouth would be sanded to form a tight seal. They served their obvious practical purpose of keeping materials inside the jars, but like the jars themselves, they were also often ornate and decorative.

Apothecary glassware would have adorned the inside of an old-time pharmacy. It would have acted as more than simple storage; it would have truly been a central fixture of the store, a sort of “shop furniture.” Imagine a pharmacist using ingredients from several of these special bottles to create a personalized compound for a patron! The sight of hundreds of twinkling glass bottles would have been truly striking. Today, these vessels serve to remind us of where pharmacy has been. They harken back to the bygone days of the apothecary shop and echo the unique history of pharmacy.

Bogard, Mary. "The Celebrated Glass Label." Pharmacy In History 28.1 (1986): 34-39. Print.

Originally posted: October 15, 2014
Last updated: March 22, 2017
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