Artefact: Cork and tile

Pharmacy was a more labor-intensive job than it is now, and to indicate membership of the Royal Society of Apothecaries a lavishly but symbolic tile was hung outside the pharmacy (or apothecary).

One hundred years ago the Bakelite screw-capped glass bottle had not been invented.  Hence stock bottles in the dispensary were all glass-stoppered and all liquid medicine bottles cork-stoppered.  Corks in a range sizes was kept by every pharmacy, but the range of bottle neck sizes was enormous. Hence there was a need to able to compress a slightly larger cork to fit the bottle. 

Every pharmacy had a cork reducer for this purpose.  Two types existed, the most common being the slab type that was affixed to the dispensary bench and had a top and bottom mould to be pressed down on the cork. The other type consisted of a rotating wheel that could be rotated to compress the cork. Both of these are pictured.

Usually the cork was then tied down using pink string and often sealed with a daub of red sealing wax. A dispensed medicine was carefully wrapped in white paper (correctly folded of course) and sealed at each end with more sealing wax. The introduction of “sticky tape” like Cellotape and Durex tape made this process much easier. But who could have failed to be impressed by the pink string and sealing wax presentation?

Recycling was a common practice. Patients were encouraged to return their used medicine bottles which were soaked and washed ready for re-use, which of course required a new cork.

The duty of washing these bottles fell to the apprentice, or more often the messenger boy. Fortunately vegetable gum was used to affix labels, so they were easy to soak off.  A home-made rack of vertical dowels was then used to drain the bottles. Those were the days.

In the 17th and 18th centuries members of the Royal Society of Apothecaries used tiles such as those pictured to indicate their membership of the Society. Note the two holes at the top of both of these examples to enable a string to be attached and allow the tile to be hung outside their shop to identify their trade.

Made of terracotta and salt glazed in the delft style of blue and white in common use in that era, both tiles feature variations of the coat of arms of the Royal Society. While it is difficult to make out, the animal above the helm is meant to be a rhinoceros – depicted because of the supposed medicinal qualities of its horn. The person drawing the animal would most likely never have seen a live rhinoceros but relied only on a description. Unfortunately the false reputation of rhino horn still exists to this day in Chinese medicine and has resulted in some species being hunted to virtual extinction.

But back to the tiles. There is a depiction of a cedar tree, also supposed to have medicinal qualities. The Society of Apothecaries planted the first four specimens in England in the Chelsea Physic Garden in 1683. Apothecary tiles have sometimes been erroneously called “pill tiles”, but were never used for this purpose. One of the tiles shown here has, in addition to the Society’s coat of arms, the shield of the City of London, to indicate that the owner was a Freeman of the City.

Apothecary tiles are very rare.  It is believed that only about one hundred such tiles are still in existence and hence they are highly valued by collectors.

This article by pharmacy historian Ralph Tapping was originally published in the January/February 2016 edition of AJP22220 


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