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Potions, Poisons and Pills – Pharmacy Bottles and their Contents

User AvatarPosted by Penelope Lovesy at 17/05/2020 00:29:23
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Poole Museums’ ‘Parkstone Pharmacy’ display is a fantastic time capsule into the past and a wonderful reminder of how different things were in a Victorian and Edwardian pharmacy. Although it shows a variety of containers and medicines it represents just the tip of the iceberg of the full extent of Poole Museums’ pharmacy collection.

Venturing into a dispensing pharmacy was a very different experience to visiting the chemist today. Today a pharmacist will measure out the correct quantity of tablets and perhaps mix some pre-prepared solutions. The chemists and druggists of the Victorian and Edwardian period would weigh out all the ingredients and create the medicines, including tablets, from scratch. Raw ingredients were often visible to everyone and placed on shelves from floor to ceiling. Many dry ingredients were stored in wooden drawers, barrels or sacks and transferred into rustic earthenware jars or elaborately gilded glass specie jars, when required. Great volumes of liquids were kept in large glass bottles or special flasks, called carboys, and only transferred into smaller vessels when needed.

But it is the small glass bottles, known as Shop Rounds, that were the mainstay of a dispensing pharmacy. These wide-necked, stoppered bottles contained many chemical preparations in various forms and could be given direct to the customer. Shop rounds were used to contain both solid and liquid medicines and are the most common bottle form in the druggists and chemists we see today.

The biggest concern to all in the business was that most medicines could have been extremely harmful if used incorrectly and many could be classed as poisons. All preparations that were considered poisons had to be clearly labelled, which is all well and good, but much of the population was illiterate.

To overcome this, several measures were introduced to limit accidental death from poisoning, such as the use of blue glass bottles to indicate the contents were poisonous, though this caused confusion with the blue coloured bottles containing syrups. To rectify this, the bottle colour for dangerous preparations changed to green and further clarification was added with the presence of a red label. However, a green bottle looks the same as a clear bottle in the middle of the night and mishaps continued to occur. Eventually poison bottles were designed to have vertical ridges, or flutes, running up the bottle so that even in the dark the distinct shape of the bottle would prevent mistakenly administering poisons. In some places the use of shape as a warning was taken a little further; skull and crossbones or crosses embossed the glass and even bone and skull shape bottles were introduced.

Even bottles containing the non-poisonous medicines weren’t harmless and often contained acids and opiates. The labelling of the bottles was carried out in such a way that professionals could quickly locate the required medicine but to the untrained eye it was in a foreign language, which is in fact true as it was often printed in abbreviated Latin. The following list highlights the variety and complexity of some of the medicine types on offer:

INF – infusum; an infusion

LIN – linimentum; a liniment

LIQ – liquor; a solution

LOT – lotio; a lotion

MIST – mistura; a mixture

PULV – pulvis; a powder

SOL – solutio; a solution

SYR – syrypus; a syrup

TROCH – trochiscus; a troche/lozenge

TAB – tabella; a tablet

TINCT – tincture; a tincture

UNG – unguentum; an ointment

These abbreviations were combined with the chemical ingredients and sometimes the directions for use. The definitions of such abbreviations were published in pharmacopoeias: books listing the ingredients, their origins and the methods of producing their compounds. These books were the standard texts used by all druggists and chemists to ensure the medicines they produced were standardised and that their profession was both accountable and transparent.

The bottles pictured are from the museum collection and at one time contained the following preparations (from left to right): Tincture of Cardamom Compound, Concentrated Compound Infusion of Gentian, Glycerine with Rosewater, Powdered Compound of Glycerine, Lozenge of Bismuth Compound. 

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