Thursday 31 May 2012

Healthy signs

The medicine bottle above Station Pharmacy in New Cross Road is not only a local landmark but also the traditional symbol for a chemists' shop. Why did it take on such significance?

The jar is properly known as a carboy, from the Persian word qaraba (large jug or flagon). It was actually fairly small when it first took its place in pharmacists' windows in the seventeenth century. The liquid-filled vessel was useful in distinguishing the pharmacist from the apothecary who displayed a pestle and mortar. 

As shop windows got bigger, so did the carboys, so the Victorian version was pretty large. Originally the carboys contained medicinal liquids but by the twentieth century their function became symbolic and they were filled with brightly-coloured liquids. 

Even the use of lighting in this modern version is not anachronistic. Carboys began to be lit up in the nineteenth century, when chemists would use gas burners to light them from behind. 


Anonymous said...

Wonder what the chances are of some toe rag trying to hit it with a stone? Hopefully it is made of plastic, or it won't last long...

Hels said...

Who knew that we had to distinguish the pharmacist from the apothecary in earlier centuries? If I was in a Trivial Pursuit tournament and shove came to push, I would have thought the "liquid-filled vessel" was an equal alternative to the "pestle and mortar".

You have to love blogging. Thank you.

CarolineLD said...

Hels, I was interested to find that out too. However, I was aware that there was a difference by the nineteenth century because Elizabeth Garrett Anderson qualified as a doctor by sitting the Society of Apothecaries exam in 1865. (They immediately changed their rules to stop any more women following her example.)

Anon, I believe it is made of plastic.