Ever wondered how the working life of a 19th-century druggist compares with that of their 21st century counterpart? As C+D prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday next month, Chris Chapman travels back to 1859...
It’s 1859, the height of the industrial revolution. Queen Victoria rules an empire that stretches from the Canadian plains to the lush jungles of India. Ports bustle with steam ships and clippers bringing tea from China, and smoking towns hum with the sound of spinning machines. In one cobbled street, as horses and carts thunder past, a druggist is opening his shop.
It’s a typical store: large shelves are occupied by gleaming jars containing the ingredients of the druggist’s trade. Whale oil is nestled against containers filled with calomel and camphor, while jars hiding lavender, coriander seeds and balsam of Peru occupy the shelf above. The colour of each glass container hints at the contents: a ruddy cobalt hue suggests a syrup, while a mysterious green indicates a poison.
In a secluded counter, out of reach of patrons, is an ornate, sealed jar containing medicinal leeches, in case a patient needs bleeding.
The polished mahogany of the main shop is scrupulously clean from hours of attentive burnishing and all available surfaces are occupied by items for sale. Lemonade, marking ink, tobacco and bullets – sold as ‘sporting ammunition’ – are displayed, while some items are tucked behind the counter for security. The air is thick with the rich smell of ingredients drifting from the dispensary; although patent medicines are sold, these are mostly for lower class customers who cannot afford the druggist to prepare their treatment himself. There is no National Health Service, and no such thing as a free prescription.
The first customers arrive and are greeted by a smartly dressed young man, hair slicked with pomade. It’s a typical day, so the druggist’s apprentice has been at work since 7am. He won’t finish until at least 10pm, when he’ll get his week’s wages – 20 shillings, about £75 in today’s money.
Retreating to the dispensary, the apprentice presents the first prescription to his master, who studies it intently. There is no formal way of writing a prescription, and patients are often defined as “Mr Smith’s wife” or “Italian baby” rather than by name.
The first request is written, as usual, in the spidery hand of the local physician: “Tincturae jalaep, 3ss.; Magnesiae sulpatis, 3ij.; Infusi sennae, 2/3 iss.; misce fiat haustus cras manae sumendus.” The prescription is for a laxative, and relatively simple to decipher – ingredients and instructions are always written in Latin. Laxatives, or ‘purgatives’, are some of the most popular remedies sold in the shop as everyone knows they must be taken regularly to regulate the bowels. That said, everyone also ‘knows’ that diseases are caused by the foul-smelling miasma, or ‘bad air’ (Louis Pasteur will not publish his germ theory for another two years).
The druggist moves to his dispensary bench, laden with measures, scales and the latest apparatus. In one corner a pestle and mortar await their first use of the day, while a few inches away sits a tincture press and a recipe book.
There is no supply chain other than for ingredients and patent cures: the druggist prepares most remedies to his own formula. If tablets are required, ingredients are taken from the jars, combined with an agent such as soap, rolled into a sausage and fed through a machine to create them. Sometimes sweeteners are added to lessen the taste of a bitter pill, and medicines for children often contain chocolate to disguise the taste.
For this prescription, the druggist weighs out his ingredients on the scales: solid quantities are measured in grains (65mg), scruples (20 grains) and drams (3 scruples, with eight drams in an ounce). Liquids are measured in minims, fluid drams and fluid ounces.
The first prescription is finished and the order is passed back to the apprentice. Other prescriptions continue to arrive throughout the morning, all in Latin, requesting everything from trochiscus (lozenges) and charta (papers, to hold powders) to unguentum (ointment). Many treatments will not work. Infant mortality is high, and diseases such as cholera, tuberculosis and typhoid are rampant. There are no antibiotics, and little sanitation.
Sundries and novelties
As the afternoon begins, the main shop is bustling, with the apprentice and the assistants hard at work with sales. In addition to the soaps and shaving foam, chemists’ sundries and novelties have also been sold. Earlier a wealthy patron bought an apothecary cabinet – an elaborate medicines chest to use while abroad. Large sales are now conducted quickly: four years ago the Bank of England introduced printed bank notes, so the customer no longer has to write the shop’s name and sign the note (like writing a cheque) to make a transaction. Occasionally, local physicians also visit the store to purchase scalpels and other instruments of the doctor’s trade.
As the afternoon trade begins to wind down, a small boy rushes into the shop, face caked in grime, and recites a request to the apprentice. The local sweet shop is out of daft – powdered limestone used to adulterate sweets. The druggist overhears the order and elects to fill the request personally. Last year, 20 people died when a druggist accidentally dispensed 12 pounds of arsenic, and he is cautious not to make the same mistake.
In the shop, as in any druggists, poisons are freely available over the counter and are not kept in separate, locked cabinets. Some are also used in medicines, for example bitter tonics containing strychnine to stimulate appetites and improve muscle tone. Laws governing the sale of poisons will not emerge for almost a decade, in 1868.
Night falls, although the shop remains open. Shadows flicker across the walls as the warm glow of flames behind glass globes illuminate the shop. Outside, the gas lamps are lit to guide travellers on their journey home. And, as the store’s clock chimes 10pm, the front door is finally closed and bolted. Another working day for the druggist in Victorian Britain has been brought to an end.
• As C+D counts down to its birthday next month, look out for more features on pharmacy past in coming issues. In the August 29 issue: What would you put in a 150-year-old pharmacy time capsule? Email your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org