An appurtenance of any self-respecting apothecary’s shop was, it seems, a pill-tile. Made of pottery, and sometime lavishly decorated like that other essential, the pharmacy jar, it provided a flat, smooth surface on which to roll pills. The Fitzwilliam Museum has several specimens, two of which are currently on display in the Glaisher Gallery – which is how, of course, I became aware that a pill-tile is a Thing.

These four English delft-ware examples, of varying shapes, are all decorated with the coat-of-arms of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, and the Society’s motto (from Ovid, Metamorphoses, I, 521): ‘opiferque per orbem dicor’. Apollo is speaking, as he pursues the fleeing Daphne: ‘Medicine is my discovery, I am called “Help-Bringer” throughout the world, and the power of drugs is subject to me; but alas, love cannot be cured by herbs.’

Pill-tiles at the Fitzwilliam Museum: (1) C.1316-1928 (c. 1705–40). The emblem under the motto is that of the City of London.

(2) C.1317-1928 (c. 1740–50).

(3) C.1378-1928 (c. 1705–40). This one does not appear to come from the City of London.

(4) C.1318-1928 (c. 1700–5). Here the emblem at the bottom is reduced to s squiggle.

Apollo with his bow and arrows appears (sometimes more like a chubby Cupid) on the shield, trampling on the snake/dragon Python. His supporters are two unicorns which (before they became a metaphor for the completely implausible fantasy-world of certain politicians) were renowned for their ability to purify poisoned water and heal sickness, presumably because of their association with purity and innocence.

‘The Maiden and the Unicorn’, a fresco by Domenichino (1581–1641), in the Palazzo Farnese, Rome.

The animal above the helm is less instantly recognisable, but it is supposed to be a rhinoceros, whose horn is still (alas) believed in some parts of the world to have healing powers.

The rhinoceros as depicted by Albrecht Dürer (1515). The image was based on a crude sketch and description of the Indian rhinoceros which had recently been brought to Lisbon.

The one on the coat-of-arms is probably derived from early illustrations like Dürer’s famous print, hence the appearance of what looks like armour-plating on the beast’s back in many instances, and the occasional misplacing of one of the two horns.

The coat-of-arms above the entrance to Apothecaries’ Hall in Blackfriars Lane, London. (Credit: R. Sones)

The same coat-of-arms (but without unicorns) appears above the south gate of the Chelsea Physic Garden. (Credit: Tristan Forward)

The holes pierced in the tiles have led to the suggestion that they may have been intended as shop-signs, but this seems unlikely, as they are quite small, and show no signs of weathering. It is more plausible that, like a modern chopping board, they were intended to be hung on the wall out of the way when they were not being used on the counter.

This polychrome heart-shaped tile (c. 1665)  is similar to those in the Glaisher Bequest. (Credit: the Gardiner Museum, Toronto, Canada)

Why pills rather than powders, if you were administering a non-liquid medicine? They were already used in the ancient world, if the interpretation of ceramic grooved plaques in the British Museum and elsewhere as pill-moulds is correct.

An apothecary in his shop, c. 1820. The sentiment in rhyme below is not very different from that of Ovid. (Credit: the Wellcome Library, London)

‘Dry’ drugs were normally folded into paper, a dose at a time, and dissolved in water by the recipient (think of the number of times in Agatha Christie that the ‘powders’ of the victim get tampered with). This had the advantage that the content could be measured out uniformly, but the powders often tasted revolting, and the papers could be spoiled by tearing or damp. Pounding the dry ingredients together with a ‘syrup’ would not necessarily improve the taste, but would get the swallowing experience over more quickly. (Efforts to ‘sweeten the pill’ also included coating it in gold or silver leaf, which unfortunately meant that it failed to dissolve in the stomach …)

An eighteenth-century pill-moulding tray. (Credit: the Wellcome Library)

The lump of mixed ingredients would be rolled on the pill-tile into a sausage, and then cut; each individual slice would then be rolled again into a rounded shape. The difficulty was, obviously, that great accuracy would be needed in both the rolling and the slicing to give a consistent dose, and pill-moulds are known from the seventeenth century onward (there is one suggestion that you could make your own using a musket-ball mould – though this would give you gigantic blobs to swallow). So perhaps the pill-tile was in fact used only for the final shaping of the individual pills.

A Victorian pill-roller.

The grooved multiple pill-mould was re-invented in the 1850s, with an ingenious sloped shaping/cutting device and a tray to catch the pills as they rolled down. But before this partial mechanisation of the process, it was slow, smelly and menial type of work, as Mrs Gaskell noted in chapter 4 of Wives and Daughters (published posthumously in 1866, but set ‘before the passing of the Reform Bill’).

Reluctantly taking the son of an old friend as his pupil, the physician Dr Gibson says decisively that the teenager ‘must live like the others. I can’t have the pestle and mortar carried into the drawing room, and the place smelling of aloes.’

‘Must my boy make pills himself, then?’ asked the major ruefully.

‘To be sure. The youngest apprentice always does. …’

Young Master Coxe is not enthused: ‘I hate stifling towns, and sick people, and the smell of drugs, and the stink of pills on my hands – faugh!’

A nineteenth-century bottle of blue pills, made by Parke, Davis & Co. of Detroit, Michigan. The company was founded in 1860.

So what did the pills rolled and shaped on the pill-tile contain? The famous ‘blue pill’ (pilula hydrargyri) of the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries was used to cure everything from syphilis to toothache, and consisted of roughly 34% rose oil, 33% mercury, 25% marshmallow (the plant, not the sweet), 5% liquorice and 3% lactose. (It has been suggested that Abraham Lincoln’s regular ingestion of ‘blue pills’ was a contributing cause rather than a cure of his long-term depression: see also calomel.)

A Wedgwood plaque portraying William Buchan. (Credit: the National Galleries of Scotland)

A century earlier, the physician William Buchan (1729–1805) had published his famous Domestic Medicine (1769), a hugely popular work (its final edition came out in 1846, and it was translated into many languages: Spix and Martius came across the Portuguese version in households in remote areas of Brazil) which puts its emphasis on keeping people healthy in the first place. As well as describing all the most common diseases from childhood upwards and their treatments, the book also has a long appendix on the various types of medicine you can make yourself.

The appendix to Domestic Medicine. ‘Private practice’ means home use. The quote is from Francis Bacon‘s History of Life and Death: ‘The multiplicity of medicines is the daughter [result] of ignorance’.

In his introduction to this section, Buchan emphasises the need for simplicity in medicines, pointing out that the active ingredients of most compounds are usually few, and that the over-elaboration of ingredients should be avoided. He also hints at the dangers of adulteration, though he is never tactless enough to impugn the honesty of professional apothecaries … He has four pages on pills (along with boluses, electuaries, plasters, powders, etc.), ending with a ‘strengthening’ pill: many of the recipes include mercury or opium. (The size of the pill is apparently a given.)

It is remarkable that Buchan assumes that a ‘normal’ (literate) family will not only have access to all the necessary ingredients but will also have the equipment needed, including very small scales, and an understanding of the abstruse apothecary’s weights (drachm, scruple, etc.) to make up his prescriptions at home – where, I would recommend, you don’t try any of them! – but where perhaps the pill-tile (though without the coat-of-arms) was a more common piece of equipment than we might think.






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