Pharmacy glass vessels


Pharmacy glass vessels

To describe pharmacy vessels, quite loosely many inexact terms were used: bottles, vials, bottles, phials, jars, ampoules… Therefore, the function of a given vessel practically can be determined today only based on context or emblems or pharmacy signatures.

Glass as a raw material has many advantages. The glass mass was easily formed. The shapes of vessels could be adjusted to the function they were to perform. Transparency provided observation of fluid colouring and changes occurring during chemical processes.

At first, pharmacy glassware was only available to a few. They appeared in court and monastery laboratories, where mixtures, dyes, essences, solutions, herbal and medical extracts with alcohol content were prepared. The earliest mentions of vessels imported from Venice to Poland come from the late 16th and the early 17th centuries.

The situation changed in the 18th century, when glass vessels came into widespread use. They were used to prepare, store and sell medicines, as well as to pack cosmetics. Depending on the consistency of the substance, narrow-necked vessels were used – for storing and mixing liquids, and wide-necked ones – for dry medicines and ointments.

The narrow necks of the vials facilitated pouring and dosage, while the bulky bodies and round bottoms allowed for thorough mixing of the ingredients. The form of vial comes from containers in which embalming substances and essential oils were stored, as well as holy water and liquid relics. Initially, the role of the plug was played by parchment, wax, leather or fabric. Cork began to be used more and more frequently from the 17th century.

At the end of the 17th century, small cylindrical bottles with a short neck appeared. They were used to store liquid substances such as drops, oils, liquids containing spirit, comestible extracts. Some had a rolled up wide collar, which suggested that the vessel was plugged with cork and tied with a piece of fabric or leather. Specimens with ribbed bodies were intended for cosmetic purposes.

The pride of medicine bottles were usually embossed in the glass ownership marks (owner’s name), pharmacy company marks and the name of the city. On the other side of the bottles were glued paper labels with the name of the drug.

Drugstores also dealt with drug sales. These were warehouses of pharmacy materials, dealing in sanitary and cosmetic materials and medicines authorised for sale without a prescription.

Jars of various sizes were used in pharmacies until the 19th century. Ointments, balms and substances for the preparation of medicines were stored there. Ointments were most often blends of several different plant, animal or mineral ingredients. With time, chemical preparations began to be used for their production. In the pharmacy code (list of medicines) for Gdańsk from 1665 there were 40 different ointments. Finds of jars also come from burgher houses, where they were used to store marinades, herbs and spices.


• Candlelight Master, A Physician with a Urine Sample, ca. 1620–1640, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

• Johann Cordua (1630-1702), ‘Doctor in his study’.

• Pharmacist from the 15th century, Warja Honegger-Lavater.


Edited by Olga Krukowska, Archaeological Museum in Gdańsk


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