It may not be surprising that a curator who is the child of antiques-collecting physicians is attracted to objects associated with the history of medicine. From drug jars and ointment pots to blood-letting fleams and other items from the sick-room, such artifacts reveal much about the past. They can also inspire us to celebrate the many medical advances that have been made over the centuries.

Among the most iconic early ceramics relating to medicine are apothecary or drug jars that were used to store prepared medicaments (Figs. 1a, b). Such apothecary vessels commonly are divided into “dry” versus spouted “wet” types. With examples that lack labels, it can be unclear what the containers originally held. This is true regarding a large and impressive storage jar (Fig. 2) from a group made in China for the religious Order of St Augustine. A number of the jars were used at the convent of the Order founded in Macao in 1589; others somehow made their way to colonial Mexico.1

Figs. 1a, 1b: Marriage A-la-Mode, (Plate III), engraving by Bernard Baron after painting by William Hogarth, London, England, dated April 1, 1745. H. 17, W. 20 in. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont (1967.2241). Apothecary jugs are visible on the right in the shelves against the wall.

Left: Fig. 2: Dry drug jar, or storage jar, made for the Order of St. Augustine, Jingdezhen, China, 1575–1605. Porcelain. H. 17½, Diam. 12½ in. Gift of Leo A. and Doris C. Hodroff (2000.0061.081). Right: Fig. 3: Albarelli, dry-drug jars, or storage jars, (left) probably Deruta or Montelupo, Italy, 1650–1700; (right) Spain, 1690–1750. Tin-glazed earthenware. (Left) H. 13, Diam. 7¾ in.; (Right) H: 11, Diam. 5½ in. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont (1969.1524, 1969.1534.001).

Left: Fig. 4a: Le Medecin Empyrique (The Urine Doctor), engraving by Jacques Nicolas Tardieu, Paris, France, 1780–1791, after 17th-century painting by David Teniers the Younger, Belgium. H: 10½, W. 14 in. Museum purchase (1982.0049).  Right: Fig. 4b: Detail.

Fig. 5: Wet and dry apothecary jars (in blue and white) and ointment pots (in white). All probably London, England, with the exception of jar on far right, perhaps the Netherlands, 1680s–1720s. Tin-glazed earthenware (delftware). Museum purchase (1956.0038.065, 1962.0097); bequest of Henry Francis du Pont (1960.0762, 1962.0673, 1964.2105); Gift to the Art Conservation Program (GACP 1345 b).

The Italian term albarello often is used for certain tall cylindrical or wasted dry drug or storage jars. Such vessels originated in the Middle East and were transported around the Mediterranean, with imitations eventually made in several parts of Europe. The albarelli in figure 3 are in tin-glazed earthenware, and are, respectively, from Italy and Spain. The Spanish albarello displays geometricized ornament based on designs decorating some Middle-Eastern jars.

A small, straight-sided Dutch Delft albarello and two wet drug jars appear in a print after a 1600s oil painting by David Teniers the Younger (Figs. 4a, b). Titled Le Medecin Empyrique (The Urine Doctor), the satirical scene portrays a seated man peering at a glass vessel containing liquid. Viewing urine in this way was a method sometimes used to determine if a woman were pregnant. The drug jars are shown with their covers. Such lids were created by tying wet leather or parchment over the wasted rim of a vessel. When the material dried, it shrank to form and could be reused somewhat like a Tupperware lid. Alternatively, some vessels were covered with metal lids or stoppered with wooden “corks.”

Fig. 6: Apothecary tile or pill slab with arms of the Worshipful London Society of Apothecaries, London, England, 1680–1720. Tin-glazed earthenware (delftware). H. 12, W. 10 in. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John Mayer (1973.0047).

Similar coverings would have been used for the three blue and white jars in figure 5. These vessels, perhaps once parts of sets for home or pharmacy use, feature shapes and painted-label styles datable to the decades around 1700. The spouted wet drug jar is inscribed “S: É: RHABAC B:,” in reference to a syrup made from sugar and rhubarb root. This tasty-sounding mixture was used to treat constipation in children. The “T: DE: AGAR:” inscription, on the small dry drug jar at the left in the group, may refer to a cancer treatment in the form of tablets made from the Agaricus mushroom. The blue and white jar at the right is labeled “P: STOM: CU: GUM,” perhaps for Elixir Stomachicum (The Stomach Elixir). The recipe is provided in the 1716 London edition of The Practice of Physick: or, Dr. Sydenham’s Processus Integri: “Take Spirit of Wine . . . Oil of Salt . . . mix them . . . then add . . . black Pepper . . . Grains of Paradise, Cubebs, Winters Cinamon [and] Cochinel [a type of insect] . . .” This unappetizing-sounding mixture was to sit in gentle heat for a month, being shaken a couple of times a day, and then was decanted and left to settle in a cold place, before use.

Some apothecary pots featured empty label-reserves that could be filled in in grease-pencil or received stuck-on paper labels. Others were left plain, as is true of many diminutive ointment pots (Fig. 5). Pharmacists, perfumers, and others filled these vessels for use at home. Once empty, the inexpensive pots could be reused for a broad range of purposes.

In some cases, apothecaries used special-purpose tiles, also known as pill slabs, when making tablets. After a paste was concocted, it was rolled out and the required lengths cut off and set aside to dry. The tile in figure 6 proudly displays the arms of the Worshipful London Society of Apothecaries (incorporated 1617). This rare tile’s original owner presumably was a society member and, as there are holes pierced in the top of the tile, may have hung it up for display when not in use.

Left: Fig. 7a: THE VILLAGE BARBER. LM./ L’INGHILTERRA from a two-part etching, Henry William Bunbury (draftsman), James Bretherton (etcher), London, England, dated 1772. Museum purchase (1959.0098.016).  Right: Fig. 7b: Detail.

Fig. 8: Barber basins or bowls, (left) porcelain, Japan, 1680–1700; (center) tin-glazed earthenware (delftware), probably London (Lambeth), England, 1690–1710; (right) lead-glazed earthenware (slipware), Pennsylvania, dated 1774. Diams. (left to right): 11; 10; 9 in. Bequest of Oliver I. Shoemaker (2008.0011.002); bequest of Henry Francis du Pont (1956.0537, 1960.0636).

Fig. 9: Barber basin or bowl inscribed “Ra[s]ez moi/bien vîte” (“Shave me very quickly”), France, 1750–1800. Tin-glazed earthenware, H.: 3⅝"; L.: 12½"; W.: 10¼". Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont (1970.1417).

For centuries, surgeons and apothecaries were not the only “medical men” on the scene. Barbers also shared the stage. As well as shaving and cutting hair or maintaining wigs, barbers conducted healthful(?) bleeding and other treatments. One eighteenth-century print satirizing English practitioners is titled “THE VILLAGE BARBER” (Figs. 7a, b). It shows the barber with tools of his trade: an open fleam (an instrument for letting blood) is in one hand and a folding razor in the other; a barber basin, with its distinctive neck-notch is clutched under his elbow. The last item also came in handy when bleeding  patients.

Similarly to the print, the blue and white delft barber bowl in Figure 8 shows tools associated with barbering. There is a well in the rim to hold ball soap, and the center illustrates crossed wig curlers encircled by (clockwise from left) a folded razor, shaving brush, scissors, and a comb over a needle and thread. Barber bowls are known in metalwork and other materials such as wood, lacquerwork, or horn, as well as in ceramic. Some bore inscriptions. The Pennsylvania German slipware example (Fig 8, right) is inscribed “Kom herr ich will dich scloren du solst nicht mehr begehren; 1774” (“Come sir and have the shave which you no longer need to crave”). Another bowl, in French tin-glazed earthenware (Fig. 9) is inscribed in a somewhat similar vein, “Ra[s]ez moi/bien vîte” (“Shave me very quickly”).

Left: Fig.10a: Food warmer or vieilleuse, probably Staffordshire, England, early 1800s. Lead-glazed earthenware (canary ware), OH: 9½"; OL: 9¼"; Diam: 5⅝". Gift of Doris and Stanley Tananbaum (2017.0012.006 A-D). Right: Fig. 10b: Food warmer shown in figure 10a, dismantled.

Other types of medically-associated objects also were found in the home. Certain types of food warmers, sometimes known as veilleuses because of their association with caring for the elderly, were used in the sick room (Figs. 10a, b).  Made from the 1600s onward, these multi-part objects commonly feature a tall stand with an opening for a lamp or candle to heat healthful foods or drinks in a multi-part and lidded upper vessel—something like a double-boiler. Some stands feature small piercings around the sides, allowing them to serve double-duty as night lights. 

1. David Sanctuary Howard, The Choice of the Private Trader: The Private Market in Chinese Export Porcelain Illustrated in the Hodroff Collection (London, England: 1994), 231, fig. 272

Leslie B. Grigsby is Senior Curator of Ceramics and Glass, Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library, Winterthur, Delaware. 


All photography courtesy Winterthur Museum.

This article was originally published in the 21st Anniversary/Spring 2021 issue of Antiques & Fine Art magazine, a fully digitized version of which is available at AFA is affiliated with