Image of the Week: Apothecary jar
Clearing our throats for International Cough Drop Day*, we bring you a beautiful apothecary jar from Henry Wellcome’s collection, made in Sicily between 1601 and 1630.
Its inscription translates from the Latin as ‘Mesue’s French Musked Lozenges of Aloes Wood.’ These lozenges were pressed from a mixture of aloe wood, ambergris and musk. Ambergris is a greasy substance excreted or coughed up by a small number of sperm whales to clear their stomachs of squid beaks.
Like musk, it is difficult to obtain in large quantities which explains in part its extraordinarily high value – ambergris was reputedly equal to gold in London’s medieval ports. Despite the development of synthetic replacements its complex aroma makes it a prized fixative still for perfumiers.
These lozenges were believed to strengthen the brain and heart and, as the ingredients are very fragrant, they also acted as a deodorant and breath freshener. The preparation had greatest popularity in France.
Mesue (777-857 CE) was the European name for Yuhanna Ibn Masawayh, a prominent Christian physician who wrote in Arabic. Ibn Masawayh worked at the Baghdad hospital and was personal physician to a number of Caliphs.
If you prefer your historical lozenges with a little more kick, we might refer you to these Allenbury’s Throat Pastilles (No.63) from the 1920s, whose key ingredients – diamorphine and cocaine – were available in pharmacy cough drops, with diminishing strength, through to the 1960s. Or perhaps Dr Seth Arnolds Cough Killer, whose death-dealing claims lay in its generous lacing with morphine.
*There is some debate about whether International Cough Drop Day exists. We were led to believe this by someone else, but it’s OK because it’s also National Blame Someone Else Day.