Sunday, July 16, 2017

309. Apothecaries

Now in the works: Dark Knowledge, about New York City and the slave trade.

More of this anon.  Now let's have a look at apothecaries.

In the big storefront window all kinds of antique scales, both large and small, for weighing things, one of them in a big glass case.  Glass tubes and receptacles, probably used to distill medications.   One big mortar and pestle and one small one.  A legion of small brown bottles, and larger wide-mouthed apothecary jars with glass stoppers and bold labels reading


A row of time-worn books, one conspicuously labeled Elements of Chemistry.  Two thick, massive volumes brown with age, open to pages with scores of prescriptions affixed, scribbled in a near-indecipherable hand, their dates not visible, but probably dating from the early twentieth century.  The whole display fascinating, puzzling, reeking with history and age.

Apothecary jars

         Such is the current window display of Grove Drugs at 302 West 12th Street, whose window and entrance are on Eighth Avenue but a couple of blocks from my apartment.  One of the few independent pharmacies left in the West Village, where chain stores dominate, Grove typically provides window displays of unusual interest, but this one, a repeat of a display two years ago that was chronicled in this blog, fascinates.  When I asked inside about the source of the earlier display, I was told that these objects had been found in the basement of the Avignone Chemists at Bleecker Street and Sixth Avenue, now closed, whose antecedents had gone back a century or more.  Discovered during a renovation in 2007, these relics of the past had not been discarded but preserved, and now, when displayed, they give us a glimpse of the pharmaceutical past, when the time-honored apothecary shop prevailed.

          (Note: The word "apothecary" can designate either the practitioner or the practitioner's shop.  To avoid confusion, I use "apothecary" for the person, and "apothecary shop" for the shop.)

         The profession of apothecary dates back to antiquity and differs from that of pharmacists today.  Pharmacies today are well stocked with over-the-counter products, mass-produced by pharmaceutical companies, that come in standardized dosages formulated to meet the needs of the average user.  But in earlier times the apothecary created medications individually for each customer, who received a product specific to his or her needs.  In theory, the apothecary had some knowledge of chemistry, but at first there was little regulation. 

File:Interior of Apothecary's Shop.jpg
Apothecary shop in fifteenth-century France.

File:Laboratory and library of an apothecary Wellcome M0007386.jpg
A 17th-century German apothecary.
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         The objects on display in Grove’s window hearken back to this early period when the apothecary made compounds from ingredients like those in the bottles and jars displayed, grinding them to a powder with a mortar and pestle, weighing them with scales to get the right measure, or distilling them with the glass paraphernalia seen in the window to make a tincture, lotion, volatile oil, or perfume.  The one thing typical of the old apothecary shops that the display can’t reproduce is the aroma, a strange mix of spices, perfumes, camphor, castor oil, and other soothing or astringent remedies. Mercifully absent as well is a jar with live leeches, since by the late nineteenth century the time-honored practice of bloodletting, which probably killed more patients than it benefited, had been discontinued.

         The apothecary’s remedies were derived sometimes from folk medicine and sometimes from published compendiums.  Chalk was used for heartburn, calamine for skin irritations, spearmint for stomachache, rose petals steeped in vinegar for headaches, and cinchona bark for fevers.  Often serving as a physician, the apothecary applied garlic poultices to sores and wounds and rheumatic limbs.  Laudanum, or opium tincture, was employed freely, with little regard to its addictiveness, to treat ulcers, bruises, and inflamed joints, and was taken internally to alleviate pain.  Little wonder that well-bred ladies became addicted, like Eugene O’Neill’s mother, as memorably portrayed in his autobiographical play A Long Day’s Journey into Night.  But if some of these remedies seem fanciful or naïve or even dangerous, others are known to work even today, as for example witch hazel for hemorrhoids.

         But medicines weren’t the only products of an apothecary shop.  Rose petals, jasmine, and gardenias might be distilled to create perfumes, and lavender, honey, and beeswax were compounded to create face creams to enhance the milk-white complexion desired by ladies of the nineteenth centuries, when the sun tan so prized today characterized a market woman or farmer’s wife, lower-caste females who had to work outdoors for a living.  (The prime defense against the sun was, of course, the parasol, without which no Victorian lady ventured outdoors.)  A fragrant pomade for the hair was made of soft beef fat, essence of violets, jasmine, and oil of bergamot, and cosmetic gloves rubbed on the inside with spermaceti, balsam of Peru, and oil of nutmeg and cassia were worn by ladies in bed at night, to soften and bleach the hands, and to prevent chapped hands and chilblains.

         But the apothecary’s products were not without risks.  Face powders might contain arsenic; belladonna, a known poison, was used to widen the pupils of the eyes; and bleaching agents included ammonia, quicksilver, spirits of turpentine, and tar.  All of which suggests a less than competent grasp of basic chemistry.  And in the flavored syrups and sodas devised to mask the unpleasant medicinal taste of prescriptions, two common ingredients were cocaine and alcohol, which must have induced in the patients an unwonted buoyancy of spirits.

File:Cocaine tooth drops.png
Marketed especially for children.

         Also available in an apothecary shop were cooking spices, candles, soap, salad oil, toothbrushes, combs, cigars, and tobacco, so that it in some ways approximated the general store of the time.  And in the eighteenth century American apothecaries also made house calls, trained apprentices, performed surgery, and acted as male midwives.

File:Close-up of a specimen of black or deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), ca.1920 (CHS-5525).jpg         Belladonna, which appears in the Grove Drugs window display, merits a mention of its own.  The name means “beautiful lady” in Italian, for the juice of its berry was used by Italian women in the Renaissance to dilate the pupils of their eyes so as to appear more seductive.  A sinister and risky beauty resulted, for this small shrub that grows in many parts of the world, including North America, produces leaves and berries that are extremely toxic, as indicated by its other common name, “deadly nightshade.”  It has long been known as a medicine, poison, and cosmetic.  Nineteenth-century medicine used it to alleviate pain, relax the muscles, and treat inflammation, and it is still in use today as a sedative to stop bronchial spasms, and also to treat Parkinson’s, rheumatism, and other ailments. 

         Belladonna figures often in history and legend.  It is said that Livia, the wife of the Roman emperor Augustus, used it to kill her husband.  And in folklore, witches used a mixture of belladonna, opium, and other poisons to help them fly to conclaves of witches called sabbaths, where participants did naughty things, danced wildly, and kissed the devil’s behind.  The shiny black berries have been called “murderer’s berries,” “sorcerer’s berries,” and “devil’s berries.”

         All in all, not a plant to mess with, although a staple in most apothecary shops of former times.  If you think you’ve never gone near it, think again, for if you’ve ever had your eyes dilated, belladonna is in the eye drops.  And I’ll admit that the name intrigues me: belladonna, the beautiful lady who poisons.  Which brings us back to the Empress Livia; maybe she did do the old boy in.

         Gradually, the professions of apothecary and pharmacist -- never quite distinct – became more organized, then regulated.  In the nineteenth century patent medicines (which were not patented) became big business, thanks to advertising, but their mislabeling of ingredients and their extravagant claims inspired a growing desire for regulation that finally resulted in the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.  This and subsequent legislation probably benefited apothecaries, since mass-produced patent medicines competed with their products. 

The cover of Collier's magazine of June 3, 1905, which contained an exposé of patent medicines.

         As late as the 1930s and 1940s, apothecaries still compounded some 60% of all U.S. medications.  In the years following World War II, however, the growth of commercial drug manufacturers signaled the decline of the medicine-compounding apothecary, just as the use of the mortar and pestle diminished to the point of becoming a quaint and charming symbol of a bygone era.  In 1951 new federal legislation introduced doctor-only legal status for most medicines, and from then on the modern pharmacist prevailed, dispensing manufactured drugs. 

         By the 1980s large chain drugstores had come to dominate the pharmaceutical sales market, rendering the survival of the independent neighborhood pharmacy precarious.  Yet some of them do survive, and when one closes, the whole neighborhood mourns.  But in a final twist, the word “apothecary,” meaning a place of business rather than a medicine compounder, has become “hip” and “in,” appearing in names of businesses having nothing to do with medicines.  It expresses a nostalgia for experience free from technology and characterized by creativity and a personal touch, a longing for Old World tradition and gentility.  And as one observer has commented, “apothecary” is fun to say. 


All books are available online as indicated, or from the author.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World (Mill City Press, 2015).  Winner of the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  All about anything and everything New York: alcoholics, abortionists, greenmarkets, Occupy Wall Street, the Gay Pride Parade, my mugging in Central Park, peyote visions, and an artist who made art of a blackened human toe.  In her Reader Views review, Sheri Hoyte called it "a delightful treasure chest full of short stories about New York City."

If you love the city (or hate it), this may be the book for you.  An award winner, it sold well at BookCon 2017.

Available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

Bill Hope: His Story (Anaphora Literary Press, 2017), the second novel in the Metropolis series.  New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder.  Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a persistent and undying hope.

For readers who like historical fiction and a fast-moving story.


For six LibraryThing prepublication reviews of Bill Hope: His Story, go here and scroll down.

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series, tells the story of a respectably raised young man who chooses to become a male prostitute in late 1860s New York and falls in love with his most difficult client.

What was the gay scene like in nineteenth-century New York?   Gay romance, if you like, but no porn (I don't do porn).  Women have read it and reviewed it.  (The cover illustration doesn't hurt.)

For Goodreads reviews, go here.  Likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Coming soon:  The annals of 286 West 11th Street, my building.  Two fires, a suicide, a scream in the night, Washington crossing the Delaware (yes, there is a connection), and a jungle of toucans and macaws.

©   2017   Clifford Browder

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