Artefacts: Putting a lid on it

Ralph Tapping looks back at the long and detailed history of ceramic pots in pharmacy  

These days creams, ointments, gels and many foodstuffs are presented in glass screw-capped jars with plastic lids. 

Going back one hundred years ago and earlier, before the invention of screw-capped containers, ointments and the like were supplied in ceramic pots with loose-fitting lids. 

These containers finished up in refuse tips, many of which were broken, with lids separated from their base. Collectors over the years have excavated these old tip sites and managed to put together much of the history of these containers.

Prior to circa 1850 the pots were hand-made and no labels have been recovered, as they were most likely paper, which of course did not survive. From that time onwards printed labels affixed under an overglaze appeared, mostly in subdued colour, while black-on-white lids did not appear until after 1860.

The ink used had to tolerate the temperature of the pottery kiln during the glazing process, so there was much experimenting with various colours. Early pots were printed using engraved copper plates on tissue paper, which was then immediately applied to the unglazed pot.

The ink soaked into the porous material, after which the tissue was removed with water, leaving the printing behind. Exposure to low heat burnt off the oil in the ink and after immersion in the glaze, the pots were fired in the “glost kiln” at around 900C. Later printing techniques used transfers, also overglazed.

After about 1850 hand-made pots gave way to mass produced pots using moulds, which can be identified by the lids being domed, whereas earlier pots had flat lids. By 1880, practically every small chemist was making at least their own toothpaste and had their own personalised printed lids, but there were also manufacturers such as Maw & Sons of England  who produced an extensive range of products packaged in pots.

After toothpaste, cold cream pots are the most numerous, of which the most popular was Otto of Roses (pictured). Shaving creams, Bear’s Grease, Circassian Cream (for the hair) and many ointments are also featured, of which Dr Holloway’s ointment (pictured) is noteworthy for its claim to be good for practically everything!

By the end of the First World War in 1918, ceramic pots had virtually disappeared, having given way to metal tubes, tins and waxed cardboard containers. The Bakelite screw-capped glass jar came much later.

Back at the turn of the twentieth century, the practise of pharmacy was very different to today.  Most medicines were compounded in the dispensary, prescriptions were hand-written – as were dispensary labels, antibiotics had not been discovered so infections were a serious problem and there was no Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

Chemists were so well regarded that people often consulted the pharmacist before calling the doctor, who in those days actually made house calls!   

Every pharmacy had a set of baby-weighing scales on the counter and the pharmacy was the place for all baby needs.

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1 Comment

  1. Peter Dishington

    Enjoying your historic articles Ralph.

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