Historical Cures: Colchester’s Apothecary Jars

1 Jun 2021

By Liz Tregenza, Collections and Learning Curator

* Click on the photos below to visit our Collections Online database and discover more about that object. *


Today we are used to our medicines, pills and ointments coming in packets, or glass or plastic bottles. However, historically medicines and drugs would have been stored in ceramic vessels. Drugs were dispended from these containers at the local apothecary’s shop. An apothecary referring to a person, similar to a modern-day pharmacist.

In Colchester, we have many of these vessels in the collection, mostly dating to the 1600s.  They suggest a large number of apothecaries were operating in the town. Between c 1600 and 1762, a succession of apothecaries were based on the High Street next to the Red Lion Inn. The numerous vessels found from excavations on Lion Walk indicate the waste they dumped. Despite the fact that these vessels were once seen as ‘rubbish’, today they are an important part of our post-medieval archaeology collection, helping us to understand the different ways that illness and ailments were treated in the 1600s and 1700s.

A ceramic drug jar. It is pale with ornate blue designs on the side and CASSIA MANDA written in capital letters. The sides of the jar curve inward slightly and it is open at the top

Often these vessels were highly decorated. Designs contained floral or foliate elements, and some were evenly boldly geometric. Typically, they were decorated in blue and white, although some had hints of yellow ochre and brown.

Many of the drug jars in our collection are referred to as ‘Delftware’. Some of these may have been made in the Netherlands, where Delftware originated, while others would have been made in England. The Delftware industry in England began in the 1570s, when two Dutch potters came over to East Anglia. They began making tin-glazed earthenware in Norwich and soon moved to London to continue producing their wares. Such Delftware was made in other parts of the country too, particularly in Liverpool and Bristol.

A ceramic drug jar. It is pale with ornate blue designs on the side and OSIPVS HVMD written in capital letters. The jar is tall and is open at the top

Many of the ceramic vessels in our collection are referred to as ‘drug jars’ and would have contained some kind of medicine or ointment. The example above, like many of the others, has an inscription on the side, indicating what it contained. The inscription OSIPVS.HVMD means wool fat or lanolin. This would have been used to treat the skin in various ways, and today is still found in many expensive cosmetics.

A ceramic drug jar. It is pale with ornate blue designs on the side and S FVMOTERR written in capital letters. The jar is curved, with a narrow bottom half and a rounded top half, and is open at the top

This next example has a spout, indicating it would have contained liquid. The inscription S.FVMOTERRA means syrup of Fumitory. Today this is used to treat many ailments, including IBS, skin conditions and fluid retention.

A ceramic drug jar. It is pale with a striped and dashed pattern in blue on the side. The jar is short and is open at the top

As well as drug jars, there were other items used by apothecary’s made from similar materials. This included dispensing jars or pots of different sizes.

Some of the decoration on these looks quite simple, however this was part of the style – a free brushwork that does not necessarily follow a strict design. The example above has rough smudged dashes, which is often seen on these sorts of jar. This one is very large, so would have been some kind of dispensing vessel.

A ceramic drug jar. It is pale with a geometric pattern in blue, brown and yellow on the side. The jar is short and is open at the top

Some of the smaller pots without inscriptions may have been used by apothecaries to dispense their medicines to customers.

You can find out more about these, and our other apothecary jars by exploring the Online Collection.

With thanks to Alan Humphries at the Thackeray Museum for his enlightening insights into Lambeth delft.


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