Hoffbrand collection

This collection of apothecary (chemists’) jars – used for storing medicines and their ingredients – comprises 183 items, dating from the 1640s to 1745. Collected by Professor Victor Hoffbrand, FRCP, it is the largest privately owned collection of English delftware apothecary jars in the country.

In the 17th and 18th centuries wealthy apothecaries (chemists) stored their medicinal preparations and ingredients in tin-glazed jars. With their decorative Latin labels naming their contents, the jars were functional, attractive and fashionable, designed to impress customers and fellow medical practitioners.

English delftware

Delftware is a type of tin-glazed earthenware. Pots were fired at a low temperature then dipped in a tin oxide glaze to make them white and opaque. The design was then hand-painted onto the surface and it was re-fired.

Delftware arrived in England around 1567 when Dutch potters fled Antwerp following religious persecution. Southwark and Lambeth became the main locations for London potteries, using the Thames as a transport route.

Shapes and designs of apothecary jars

Shapes and functions

English delftware apothecary jars had four main shapes and functions:

  • 'wet jars' held liquid preparations - they have a spout and usually a handle at the back
  • 'dry jars' held dry ingredients - they are cylinder-shaped and taper at top and bottom
  • small 'dry jars' were used to hold pills and lozenges
  • large 'dry jars' often feature the coat of arms of the Society of Apothecaries and were used for display only.

The jars originally had parchment, vellum or fabric lids tied on to protect their contents, which have not survived to today.

Designs

Apothecary jars display common features including:

  • a Latin inscription labelling the jar's contents
  • a decorated cartouche surrounding the inscription
  • the most valuable jars have a date and the initials of the apothecary who commissioned them.

Contents of apothecary jars

The jars provide a fascinating insight into the substances prepared and sold to treat diseases over 300 years ago. John Quincy, who owned one of the jars in the collection, wrote A Compleat English Dispensatory in 1718, describing many of the preparations' ingredients and uses.

Oxymel of squills: vinegar of squills (sea onions) boiled with honey. Quincy explained: 'It is a mighty good Puke for Children, and greatly helps to keep their Stomachs, and tender Organs of Respiration, clear from that Phlegm and Viscidity, with which they are so apt to be stuffed, and sometimes quite suffocated.'

Oil of swallows: Nicholas Culpeper in his Compleat Herbal, 1653 wrote that 'swallows, being eaten, clear the sight, the ashes of them (being burnt) eaten, preserves from drunkenness, helps sore throats being applied to them, and inflammations'.

Lohoch of fox's lungs: Culpeper described dried fox lungs as 'an admirable strengthener to the lungs.' A lohoch was remedy, usually taken for chest complaints, sucked from the end of a liquorice stick.