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Medicine Containers Used In the Golden Age of Piracy, Page 5

Container Marking

"The names also of the Medicaments, must be inscribed upon every vessel, and bag, wherein they are included; that the Medicament to be exhibited, may soon be seen, and not mistaken for another." (Jean de Renou, A Medicinal Dispensatory, 1657, p. 472)

Plough Court Pharmacy 1897
Interior of the Plough Court Pharmacy, From the Wellcome Collection (1897)
Labeling medicines was as important to apothecaries and physicians in the past as is today. It was so important it was enforced. Historian George Griffenhagen says inspection records of the Royal College of Physicians frequently noted that medicine bottles had been 'improperly labelled'. Likely as a result of such issues, he further explains that "When Silvanus Bevan established the Plough Court Pharmacy in London in 1715, he established a rule that, 'the names of the medicaments must be inscribed upon every vessel.'"1

If labeling medicine containers was important to land-based physicians and apothecaries, it would be crucial for a sea surgeon who was not as well versed in the use of medicines as physicians. Given that a typical golden age of piracy medicine chest might contain 120-300 different medicines, proper labels might be a surgeon's or a surgeon's assistant's only hope of finding the right medicine.

Medicine Chest Chart on Lid
Medicine Location Chart on Home Medicine Chest
From the Wellcome Collection (19th c. Chest)

As mentioned earlier, sea surgeon John Woodall recommended that a chart be placed inside the medicine chest indicating the location of the medicines inside2. This would be particularly important during battle, when a sea surgeon would be frantically rushing from patient to patient and the required medicines needed to be located quickly and accurately. So long as the containers did not get moved from their labeled location in the chest, this would be an invaluable guide.

Medicines did get moved and misplaced, however. Sea surgeon John Moyle warned that some sea surgeons stored their medicines in the bottom of chests without partitions, resulting in "a preposterous displacing of things before you can come at the Medicines you would have"3. As results, the best solution was to have the name written directly upon the medicine containers. Moyle explains that "every thing [must be] written upon, and account taken in your book, you will know readily where to find each Medicine in the bottom of any partition"4.

Note that Moyle's comment suggests he used a book instead of a chart to keep track of his medicines. (He may be referring to the journal where he kept track of cases for the Navy, although this is not specified.) Moyle elsewhere tells the surgeon to "keep account in your Book whereabout each Medicine stands, that you may either go or send [the surgeon's assistant or surgeon's mate] for the Medicine you want and find it (as it were) in the dark."5 He further reiterates this point with regard to bags of dried medicines wrapped in papers, telling the reader to "take account in your Book what is in each bag so marked, and you will easily find what you want when you have occasion."6

1 George Griffenhagen, "Evolution of Drug Containers", Apothecary's Cabinet, No. 8, Fall 2004, p. 6; 2 The chart can be found in John Woodall, the surgions mate, 1639, opposite p. 26. It is reproduced in this article here; 3,4 Moyle, p. 17; 5 Moyle, p. 16; 6 Moyle, p. 18

Container Marking - Direct

Paper Containers in Leather Bag
Photo: Mission - Paper Seed Containers in Leather Bag
This brings us to methods for marking medicines. The most obvious way would be to write the name of the medicine directly on the container. This would be a simple matter for wood, leather, paper and similar containers, being easily written in ink or possibly graphite. While describing the way to secure dry medicines, Moyle points out that they should be put "in Papers, and so write [their names] upon them; but do you put these papers into small Canvas Bags, each bag [being] mark'd with a peculiar Mark."1 When writing about medicine chests for military and sea surgeons, William Fabry agreed in spirit with Moyle. As previously discussed, he wrapped dry medicinals in paper and put them into leather bags advising, "Let all the Bags be tied close, and written upon in great Letters, to prevent confusion."2

Trying to directly mark bottles and ceramic containers would be a bit more difficult. It could be done using paint as the examples below show. It might possibly be written on the jar with crayon-like wax and pigment sticks, which existed.3 If the container had a parchment paper cover, the name could be written on there as well. The medicines in the Italian medicine chest presented to Sir John Clerk of Penicuik in 1698 by Cosimo III of Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany have the contents hand-written on the parchment covers of the containers.4 Another example from the Vincenzo Giustiniani Medicine Chest can be seen below, although this image is clearly more decorative than indicative of the contents.

However, the first two containers seen in the images below are from apothecary shops, which is evident from the flashy designs, made to impress the customer. The Clerk and Giustiniani chests are also extraordinary showpiece medicine chests, not the sort of workaday chest that would be used by a sea surgeon.

Painted Label on Glass Medicine Container
Painted Label on Glass
Medicine Container
(18th Century)
Painted Label on Ceramic Container
Painted Label on Ceramic Container,
From The Wellcome Collection
(c. 1700)
Image on Parchment Cover
Image on Parchment Cover On Glass Pot From Vincenzo Giustiniani Medicine Chest, From the Wellcome

1 John Moyle, Abstractum Chirurgæ Marinæ, p. 17; 2 Guiliem. Fabritius Hildanus aka. William Fabry. Cista Militaris, Or, A Military Chest, Furnished Either for Sea or Land, 1674, p. 11; 3 Thanks to Craig E. Weis for pointing some alternative ways to mark glass and tin-glazed ceramic containers during the golden age of piracy during a discussion on the Authentic Pirate Living History Facebook Page, 9/16/15; 4 Helen Dingwall and Peter Worling, “‘A box of chymical medicines’: an Italian medicine chest presented to Sir John Clerk of Penicuik in 1698”, Journal of the Royal College of Physicians Edinburg,  2012: 42, p. 363

Container Marking - Labels and Tags

Container Labels 16th century
Labels on Bottles in Vincenzo Giustiniani Medicine Chest,
From the Wellcome Collection (1562-1566)
Medicine was at the forefront of labeling bottles because it was necessary to keep patients from confusing one medicine from another in the otherwise unmarked vials distributed by apothecaries.1

Some of the earliest pharmaceutical labels are on the bottles in the Vincenzo Giustiniani medicine chest which dates to 1562-1566. "The medicine chest holds 126 glass vessels with individual handwritten paper labels affixed to the metal lids. The first letter of each label name is in red ink, and the remaining manuscript text is in brown ink."2

Labels were both hand-written and printed at this time. Printed labels were distributed as pages in a book with the label being cut out as needed and affixed to the medicine container. The first such printed Label Book, 1603
Page of Labels From Nomenclatura

label of record is the Nomenclatura Pharmaceutica, compiled by Sebastion Heusler and edited by Christopher Fabius Brechtel, published in Nuremberg in 1603. "The book consists of 242 pages printed on only one side of each page in red and black Gothic characters."3

Labels printed before the eighteenth century would have been printed using wood engravings on hand-made paper. In the 18th century, copper engravers began producing more elegant labels, but "wood-engraved labels were more widely used because they were much cheaper. "4

Eighteenth century British wood-engraved pharmacy labels were printed on fairly stiff paper with simple decorations, while 18th century French pharmacists employed decorative labels on which the pharmacist inscribed the instructions in ink. Bottles in 18th century medicine chests include both handwritten labels with decorative printed borders, and printed labels.5

Although we have seen examples of labels painted directly on apothecary containers, the earliest apothecary shop containers were not directly labeled so they could be reused for other drugs. "The contents were indicated by a label tied to the vessel."6 By the golden age of piracy, most apothecary shops featured the sort of ornate jars and containers with the names painted on the container as we have seen. The tied on labels were still in use though.

Labeled Bottle on Table
Artist: J. Snead
Labeled Medicine Bottle on Table
From the Wellcome Collection (1804)

The practice of tying labeled tags on to medicine containers continued for the small glass vials of medicines that were given to patients by apothecaries to take home. This practice continued after the golden age of piracy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The apothecary would tie "a label made of parchment, leather, or a wooden chip that was tied by string around the neck of the bottle" indicating the ingredients, which corresponded to an entry in his pharmacy book.7

Labeled Medicines on the Mantle
Artist: James Gillray
Labeled Medicine Bottles on the Mantle
From the Wellcome Collection (1800)

During the 17th century, pharmacists also began returning "the original prescription order by tying it to the neck of the phial containing the medication."8 Several drawings such as those seen here from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century show small medicinal phials with tagged labels tied to their necks.

Labels could also be glued onto the container as the image of the containers in the Vincenzo Giustiniani Medicine Chest at the beginning of this section attest. The 'Letter to the Reader' in Brechtel's 1603 book of labels refers to sticking or gluing inscriptions of vessels. Brechtel also notes that some apothecaries might protest that the shape of containers were not the same as that of the label, suggesting that the labels were meant to be affixed directly to the bottle.9

How would such labels have been stuck onto containers? A variety of adhesives were available at this time, many of which sea surgeons would have been intimately familiar because they were found in medicine chests at this time. Some of these included gum arabic, gum ammoniac and common turpentine. Stuart Thriepland's Medicine Bottles with Labels
Glued Labels in the Travelling Medicine Chest of Sir Stuart
Threipland, From the Wellcome Collection (mid-18th c.)

In addition mucilage was made from marshmallow plants10, the root of which were also used by sea surgeons.

One problem with many of the glues from this period is that many were not very reliable or long-lasting. The gums and mucilage are fairly weak adhesives. Gum Ammoniac also becomes tacky when rehydrated, which could be a potential problem at sea. Turpentine tends to yellow with age, which could affect the label.11

Some sea surgeons definitely used labels on their containers. John Moyle advises his readers "Let each kind of Medicines be placed in glasses by themselves... with every Medicament its Lybel upon it."12 When directing surgeons to make note of where the medicine is a book, Moyle explains the reason for this is so "you will know readily where to find each Medicine in the bottom of any partition, although its Lybel should be lost"13. So we know labels were used in sea medicine chests and they fell off.

Peeling Labels Stuart Threipland's Medicine Chest
Peeling Labels, Travelling Med. Chest of Sir Stuart
Threipland, Wellcome Collection (mid-18th c.)

What is not clear from Moyle's comments is whether the label he refers to would be tied or glued onto the bottles. When discussing the arrangement of the bottom part of the medicine chest, he does advise the surgeon to "let each kind of Medicines be in their peculiar Glasses and writ upon."14 This suggests either writing on the bottle or possibly writing on a label on the bottle, Once again, however, it cannot be stated with certainty.

Since none of the other authors commenting on medicine containers in use at sea provide insight into how they were marked, it is left to us to guess how containers were marked. It is worth considering that the bottles would have often have been packed together into small cubbies in the medicine chest where tied-on labels would have made extracting the containers more difficult. They would have gotten tangled up and pulled or torn off with repeated use. In addition, as seen in the images here, a traveling medicine chest from shortly after the golden age of piracy had glued-on labels.

1 Robert Opie, The Art of the Label: Design of the Times, 1987, p. 39; 2 George Griffenhagen and Mary Bogard, History of Drug Containers and Their Labels, 1999, p. 13; 3 Griffenhagen and Bogard, p. 13; 4,5 Griffenhagen and Bogard, p. 15; 6 George Griffenhagen, "Evolution of Drug Containers", Apothecary's Cabinet, No. 8, Fall 2004, p. 6; 7,8 Griffenhagen and Bogard, p. 14; 9 Christoph Fabius Brechtel, "LECTORI AUTOR S.", Nomenclatura pharmaceutica hoc est, 1603, Translated out of Latin by the author, not paginated; 10 ' Mucilage', wikipedia.com, gathered 9/17/15; 11 Catherine Helm-Clark, Medieval Glues Up to 1600 CE, 2007, p. 1, gathered 9/17/15;12 John Moyle, Abstractum Chirurgæ Marinæ, p. 16; 13 Moyle, p. 17; 14 Moyle, p. 16

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