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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Ointment Jar

Object 31 - How did people living in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries store their medicines? Like today, appropriate containers were essential for storing them.

Victoria Jackson

It's the first blog in our 100 Objects series of 2012! This post was contributed by Victoria Jackson, Doctoral Researcher in the history department at the University of Birmingham.

[A]bout his shelves
A beggarly account of empty boxes,
Green earthen pots, bladders and musty seeds,
Remnants of packthread and old cakes of roses,
Were thinly scatter'd, to make up a show.

Romeo and Juliet, 5.1, 44-8.

In this scene, Romeo recalls the interior of a disused apothecary’s shop, complete with pharmaceuticals and the vessels for their storage: ‘empty boxes’ and ‘Green earthen pots’.  Have you ever wondered how people living in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries would have stored their medicines?  Like today, appropriate containers were essential for storing the various forms that these substances could take, be it powders, solids and semi-solids, liquids, ointments, or salves.

Stoneware Pot
A seventeenth-century ointment stoneware jar, from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust holds in its collections a wonderful example of one such container: a small, beige stoneware vessel often referred to as an ‘ointment pot’.  Little ointment pots such as this one appear to have been owned by both apothecaries and the general public.  While apothecaries used large robust jars for the storage of medicines, they employed small, usually plain or simply decorated ointment pots to dispense medicine to patients.  It has been suggested that when ointment pots were personally owned, they were commonly shelved in the kitchen to aid in the treatment of burns from open fires, scalding liquids and metal handles on cooking pans.  When not in use, the owner could use an inexpensive fabric secured with string under the rim of the pot as a lid in order to keep the ointment unpolluted.

Majolica jar
SBT 2013-1/3. A small Venice majolica ointment jar and knobbed cover, about 1560; painted with a drug label PIL LAFIS LATOLI and foliage on a Berettino ground. Dimensions: Height: Jar 80mm, Lid 40mm, Max Diameter 105mm, Base diameter 60mm .

However, ointment pots probably had a variety of functions and could have contained several different substances or goods.  In addition, they could look very distinct from one another: this small, highly decorated, Venetian maiolica jar made in the 1560s also in the Trust’s collection demonstrates just how different they could look!  One of the most significant features of the maiolica pot lies in its production method, known as ‘tin-glazing’.  This is a white, glossy, opaque glaze that was applied to the earthenware object before it was fired.  Tin-glazed vessels were highly desirable because they could hold both wet and dry goods and their white surface made them easy to decorate with colour.

Interestingly, the Trust also has several examples of ‘English Delftware’, the term for tin-glazed earthenware that was made in Britain, but noticeably took its visual inspiration from the ceramics being produced in the Dutch city of Delft.  Enormous quantities of ‘Delftware’ were being produced and exported as early as the seventeenth century and its distinctive blue and white painted decoration influenced the form and design of tin-glazed objects in Britain.  Once tin-glazed wares began to be made in London, a series of potteries sprang up during the course of the seventeenth century, all near the river Thames.  Potteries in Lambeth, where many ointment pots were manufactured, opened in the early 1600s and by the middle of the century was a leading centre for production.