Antiques and Collectibles of the Apothecary

Until fairly recently, apothecaries (or chemists, pharmacists, druggists) compounded their own medicine and made their own pills, tinctures, syrups etc. Books called Pharmacopoeia were available with recipes for the various medicines, and the apothecary and his assistants spent much time making their wares (before books, chemists kept their recipes in their heads or on papyri, but that’s another story). Generally, values for the Pharmacopoeia depend on age and condition, with added value for fine illustrations. A simple Pharmacopoeia from the 1930s in good condition can bring from $10 to $30. An early one with beautiful illustrations can fetch thousands. There were many items available to the chemist to help in this job. These items are quite collectible.

For example, mortar and pestles ground up herbs and other dry chemicals that made up medicine. Mortar and pestles were made from iron, glass, brass or bronze, porcelain or ceramic, marble and wood. The wood used was usually dense, such as maple, walnut and lignum vitae. Large iron or bronze mortar and pestles were seen in the shop on the counter and many apothecary chests used by a doctor had small, glass mortar and pestles nestled in a drawer.

The large, iron pedestal mortar and pestle on the left was one used on the counter of an apothecary. Current auction prices range from (left to right) $95 for large cast iron pedestal, $50-100 for the small brass, $20 for the tiny 18th-century glass, $50 for the medium cast iron, $175 for the brass, and $85 for the lignum vitae.

The large, iron pedestal mortar and pestle on the left was one used on the counter of an apothecary. Current auction prices range from (left to right) $95 for large cast iron pedestal, $50-100 for the small brass, $20 for the tiny 18th-century glass, $50 for the medium cast iron, $175 for the brass, and $85 for the lignum vitae.

Pill tiles and shapers, rollers and silverers were used in the making of pills. Pill tiles are what they sound like, ceramic or stoneware glazed tile shapes for forming pills on. Sometimes they had blue under-glaze scales for sizing hand-made pills; some even had decorative motifs. Shapers were used on the tile to shape the pills, one at a time to keep them round. Rollers were an update on the tile and used to shape the pill mass to size and make more than one pill at a time. Silverers were used to coat the pills with powdered silver. It was believed that precious metals were medically beneficial, and so both silver- and gold-covered pills were available to the wealthy. I sold a manor house chest mentioned in a previous article, with bottles filled with silver-coated pills.

The pill shaper is the 3-inch wooden disc like object on the white pill tile. Antique tiles priced at $85 to $120 in on-line auctions depend on age and condition. I found no shapers; mine is priced with the tile at $250. The pill silverer is the boxwood treen on the left. One pill silverer sold recently for $340.The pill roller is leaning up in the back of the photo. Pill rollers sell from $155 on-line to $900 for a marked American one on GoAntiques.

The pill shaper is the 3-inch wooden disc like object on the white pill tile. Antique tiles priced at $85 to $120 in on-line auctions depend on age and condition. I found no shapers; mine is priced with the tile at $250. The pill silverer is the boxwood treen on the left. One pill silverer sold recently for $340.The pill roller is leaning up in the back of the photo. Pill rollers sell from $155 on-line to $900 for a marked American one on GoAntiques.

Medicines were also dispensed in powder form. The medicine was folded into an envelope-shaped paper with the medicine type and dosage directions written on the outside. Since the chemist’s helper might make up many medicines in a day and placed them in drawers for storage, uniformity of the envelope size was desired. The powder paper folders helped create many folded envelops of medicine all the same size by providing edges to crease the papers. The folders were usually brass of different forms, some fixed and some movable. The fixed ones creased paper all the same size and the movable ones allowed papers of different sizes to be made. A pharmacist recently came in the shop and said one of his tests at college was to fold powdered charcoal into a paper and seal it up without any black smudges on the outside of the paper folder. He said it was quite difficult.

When medicine was dispensed in bottles, cork presses were used to size the corks to fit the bottle. They were usually made of iron and were often painted or gilded and pressed three or four sizes of cork. They could be plain while others were very decorative, with some even shaped like animals. Obviously, the more decorative the press, the more valuable it is.

This cork press had gilding on the floral decoration and sold for $200 in 1999. Recent examples in on-line auctions sell for considerably less. The brass paper folder sold for $90.

This cork press had gilding on the floral decoration and sold for $200 in 1999. Recent examples in on-line auctions sell for considerably less. The brass paper folder sold for $90.

Bottles in the apothecary ranged in size from the huge show globes and carboys to the small dispensing bottle. Apothecary chests full of bottles all fitted to their individual cubbyhole are a sight to see. It is also an incredible feat of accomplishment when you consider that until the mid 19th-century, bottles were still mouth-blown. Shelves in the apothecary were lined with rows and rows of bottles labeled with medicines, liquid and powder. Labels consisted of paint on glass, reverse paint on glass and paper. Apothecaries also had highly decorated porcelain and ceramic jars for medicine storage, as well. Bottles and jars of the apothecary are complex subjects too detailed to cover in this one article.

This is a sample of apothecary glass bottles and porcelain jars. Prices range from $25 to $485, with dates ranging from the 1840s to the 1930s.

This is a sample of apothecary glass bottles and porcelain jars. Prices range from $25 to $750, with dates ranging from the 1720s to the 1930s.

There are many other collectibles of the apothecary; small utensils, large furniture and advertising, just to name a few. Then, when the apothecary evolved into the drug store—with the soda fountain attached to it—the number of collectibles became almost infinite.

Laura Collum is a Worthologist who specializes in decoys, nautical and scientific instruments.

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One Comments

  1. Major Larry C. Denny, M. S. says:

    I enjoyed your article on antique pharmacy items very much ~ Particularly the part on folded powder envelopes.
    I recently aquired a brass adjustable folder, but I have no idea how to USE it ! Hahahaha!

    If you have any information on the technique or if you can suggest another source, it would be greatly appreciated by . . . . .

    Yours sincerly,

    Larry Denny
    New Orleans