Bulk Medicine and Waged Labor in Eighteenth-Century London

By Zachary Dorner

In the eighteenth century, druggists, chemists, and apothecaries began producing medicines in larger quantities for sale in a variety of markets, resulting in a more coherent manufacturing sector in Britain. Making medicines at such scale typically involved labor-intensive chemical processes occurring in laboratories that resembled other early industrial spaces as sites of work. We can catch a glimpse of these spaces in images like the frontispiece of the chemist Francis Spilsbury’s Friendly Physician (1773) where two figures toil with mortars, stills, and other instruments in the background, separated from the well-organized shop in the image’s foreground. A variety of business records from period pharmacies, including wage books, inventories, and recipes, enable us to uncover a little more about those indistinct figures bent over their work.

Figure 1: Interior of a pharmacy. From Spilsbury, The Friendly Physician (1773). Image credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

The increasing concentration of labor and capital in London’s medical marketplace encouraged men and women to set up laboratories, big and small, around the city, as seen in contemporary fire insurance policies. These laboratories were no longer artisanal workshops, though also not yet the steam-powered production lines of the nineteenth century. Alchemical techniques formerly applied to the transmutation of metals found use in the production of medicines in these spaces, such as the chemical laboratory depicted in William Lewis’s Philosophical Commerce of Arts (1763). They could contain machinery for grinding, pounding, and sifting drugs (the raw materials for compound medicines), as well as high-pressure boilers and furnaces for distillation and drying. Open fires were common beneath hundred-gallon stills, evaporating pans, condensers, copper boilers, and stoves. If temperatures went unmanaged, ingredients could burn, ruining a preparation; even worse, stills could boil over or even explode. Manufacturing medicines with this equipment required significant inputs of energy, increasingly supplied by waged labor forces during the eighteenth century.

Figure 2: A view of William Lewis’s chemical laboratory. From Lewis, Commercium Philosophico-Technicum (1763). Image credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

Some traces of their daily routines can be found in recipe books from Corbyn & Company, one of the highest volume producers and distributors of medicine in London at the time. A recipe for flower of benzoin (benzoic acid, a topical antiseptic also used for a variety of internal matters) from the 1760s, for example, evokes the work of pharmacy. To start the process, several hundredweight of gum benzoin, a fragrant resin from the benjamin tree of Sumatra and Java, had to be purchased at auction and carted to the partnership’s laboratory at Cold Bath Fields where it would be pressed and milled, requiring several days, multiple men, and lots of charcoal. These manipulations were followed by 50 days purifying the resin through distillation (called rectifying). All in all, Thomas Corbyn estimated that the production of benzoin took 63 days and cost about 2 shillings per day for the work, which also included cleaning the distillation equipment, wear and tear of the machinery, and extra expenses (such as 8 weeks of beer for the workers costing 18 pence per week). These costs, nevertheless, remained relatively minor compared to the sometimes quite significant costs of raw materials, thus incentivizing production at scale.

Figure 3: Flower of benzoin costing from Thomas Corbyn’s miscellaneous papers, c. 1760, MS.5448/2, Wellcome Collection.

Corbyn & Co. shipped much of the medicine they produced, such as the hard-pressed flower of benzoin, to the overseas markets provided by imperial institutions, such as the Royal Navy, East India Company, transatlantic slave trade, and Caribbean plantations. With increasing demand at home and aboard, political support, and capitalization, London’s pharmacies kept growing in the early nineteenth century, with some of them providing the seeds of several of today’s major pharma firms.

Figure 4: Glass medicine bottles for export used in the eighteenth century. Image credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

It can be surprisingly easy to miss the labor in London’s laboratories that underwrote the expanding production of medicines in eighteenth-century London. A chemist’s or druggist’s work area has received far less attention in histories of capitalism or industry than the cotton mill, for example. Recipes and other business records from London’s pharmacies, however, offer an opportunity to begin reconstructing the rhythms of work in these spaces and reintegrate them into studies of economy, labor, and health.

Figure 5: Plan of the laboratory at Apothecaries’ Hall, 1823. From The Origin, Progress and Present State… (1823). Image credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

Tales from the Archives: Was There a Recipe for Korean Ginseng?

By Daniel Trambaiolo

As all of us continue to watch the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, and wait with cautious optimism for a time when we can heal and recover, I’d like to take a moment to revisit another medical breakthrough that required patience of its own. In this post from our archives, Daniel Trambaiolo recounts an exchange between a Korean and Japanese doctor as they “discussed” best practices for preserving and transporting the Korean wonder drug ginseng to Japan. I hope you enjoy our return to this tale of recipes, distribution logistics, and healing, no super-chilled storage freezers required.  -Joshua Schlachet


Ginseng, one of the best known drugs of the East Asian herbal tradition, can be purchased today almost anywhere in the world, but in the early modern period its availability was much more limited. The roots of Panax ginseng could be harvested only from its natural ecological range, in a region stretching across Manchuria, Siberia, and the Korean peninsula. In countries like Japan, where doctors relied on Chinese styles of herbal therapy but did not have direct access to herbal drugs that grew only on the continent, the roots had to be imported at high cost.

The cost of Korean ginseng became a source of concern in Japan during the final years of the seventeenth century, as the need to pay for the drug contributed to a steady outflow of Japanese silver that was used to pay for foreign products. During the early eighteenth century, the Japanese shogunal government encouraged doctors and herbalists to develop a domestic substitute, either by finding a native plant with similar medicinal properties or by discovering a way to cultivate Korean ginseng plants on Japanese soil.

Panax ginseng did not grow natively in Japan, but the related species Panax japonicus appeared similar and promised to have similar medicinal properties. However, the roots of the native Japanese species had a distinctive segmented appearance that led to Japanese doctors calling it “bamboo-segment ginseng”; their flavour was also more bitter and less sweet than the imported Korean product–a concern for many doctors, who believed that flavor was closely related to therapeutic efficacy. Some drug sellers claimed to possess secret methods that could transform the native herb into an equivalent of the imported drug, but how could these claims be evaluated?

Korean doctors were one obvious source of authoritative information on ginseng, but it was difficult to discuss the matter with them because the shogunal government had enacted strict policies limiting the movement of foreigners into Japan. Among the rare exceptions were the Koreans who travelled to Japan on diplomatic missions. Starting in 1682, these missions included a “medical expert” (K. yangǔi, J. ryōi 良醫) whose functions were to provide medical care for the members of the embassy and to allow Japanese doctors the benefit of Korean medical knowledge.

"KoreanEmbassy1655KanoTounYasunobu" by I, PHGCOM. Licensed under CC 表示-継承 3.0 via ウィキメディア・コモンズ - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:KoreanEmbassy1655KanoTounYasunobu.jpg#/media/File:KoreanEmbassy1655KanoTounYasunobu.jpg
An early modern Korean embassy to Japan.

Neither the Japanese nor the Koreans could speak each others’ languages, so they communicated by writing down questions and answers in classical Chinese, a form of conversation known as “brush talks” (K. p’ildam, J. hitsudan 筆談). The records of these conversations were often preserved in manuscripts or books printed for wider dissemination, and they can offer us insights into the styles of cross-cultural communication that these embassies facilitated–as well as into the ways Korean and Japanese doctors tried to derive benefits from each other without giving away too much in return.

The following exchange on ginseng took place between the Japanese doctor Kawamura Harutsune and the Korean doctor Cho Hwalam during the Korean embassy of 1748. (The translation is based on the published version of their conversations, which was distributed by the prominent Edo bookseller Suwaraya Mohei.)

Kawamura: In our country there is a type of ginseng whose stem, leaves, flowers and berries are just as described in the Materia Medica; its roots are similar in shape to what Zhang [Zhicong] calls “bamboo-segment ginseng.” It is very bitter in flavor and unsuitable for use, so people customarily boil it with licorice root or process it with honey water. But although the bitter flavor departs and a sweet flavor emerges, it is not the original flavor.

However, my father found a processing method that is quite acceptable; it does not rely on the flavors of other drugs, but the bitter flavor departs and a sweet flavor emerges. When my father consumed [imported] ginseng, he would always see blood in his phlegm. When he consumed the ginseng that he had processed himself, he would also see blood in his phlegm. Looking at it this way, is its efficacy similar to the ginseng from your country?

Cho: While I was in Osaka, I already heard people talk about your country’s ginseng. Although when you see the stem and leaves it looks similar, after tasting its flavor and inspecting its form it is clearly not genuine. You can perform all sorts of marvelous transformations to alter its bitter flavor, but how could you use it? There is no method for processing ginseng: you should use it just as it is naturally. Don’t be confused about this!

Kawamura: Your explanation is sufficient to dispel doubts. However, among several pounds of ginseng from your country, some roots have a burnt yellow color and seem to have undergone processing. Moreover, during [the embassy of] 1711 the Korean doctor Ki Tumun transmitted a processing method to a disciple of my grandfather. However, the paper has been eaten by insects and is now difficult to read. I will briefly write it down here, but I beg you to enlighten me further.

[Thereupon, he told me the method for processing ginseng. It is marvelous, and I have submitted it to the authorities. I do not record it here, but I have recorded it elsewhere and keep it in my home.]

Unfortunately, there are no surviving records of what Cho transmitted to Kawamura, so it is impossible to know whether it was a genuine recipe used by Koreans for processing ginseng or merely one he invented on the spot to deflect Kawamura’s questioning. Kawamura may have decided to omit the recipe from the published version of the brush talks in order to profit by selling ginseng processed according to a “secret Korean recipe.” However, his opportunities for doing so would probably have been quite limited. A few years before the meeting between Cho and Kawamura took place, a different group of Japanese herbalists succeeded in cultivating Korean ginseng from seedlings smuggled into Japan from Korea. As this new source of cultivated ginseng became commercially viable, the demand for “processed” ginseng dwindled rapidly and the recipes for such processing were gradually forgotten.

The Fire and the Furnace: Making Recipes Work

By Thijs Hagendijk

While working on the Ars Vitraria Experimentalis (1678), the principle book on seventeenth-century glass, I came a across a peculiar remark. The author of the book, the German alchemist and glassmaker Johann Kunckel (1630-1703) composed a commentary on a series of Italian glaze recipes, and somewhere along he dropped the following line: “reproducing this glaze requires as much Art as inventing it” (p. 193). I was struck by this remark and have been thinking about it ever since. What is it that Kunckel tried to tell us here? What does it tell us about recipes, these miraculously concise pieces of text? And how do these written instructions fit into workshop practices? After all, when reproducing a recipe becomes an investment that equals its invention from scratch – why bother with books at all?

That people bothered is in fact beyond dispute. Recipe research from the past years has come up with ample reasons why people engaged with practical texts. People were working on their reputation, tried to organize experiential knowledge, or were concerned about the epistemic status of their crafts. And indeed, all these elements instantly return in Kunckel’s Ars Vitraria Experimentalis. Kunckel is particularly keen on stressing that everything in his book has been vetted through experience. His book reads as an attempt to apply for a good position at the Brandenburg court, and he openly runs down his main competitor, Friedrich Geißler, who worked on a similar book project. “Lieber Herr Geißler, I am sorry that you are so utterly unfortunate in your judgments and comments” (p. 188). In the end, however, we should not forget that the Ars Vitraria Experimentalis was born out of practice. It finds its basis in the workshop, amidst the radiant heat of furnaces, brightly glowing glass, skilled labor and the stinging smell of smoke.

Back to the glaze recipes. While the Italian glassmaker Antonio Neri (1576-1614) originally conceived the glass recipes some seventy years earlier, Kunckel now presented a German translation of these recipes, lavishly annotated with his comments. In an attempt to better understand how this concoction of recipes and commentaries would fit into actual workshop practices, I teamed up with Márcia Vilargiues (Universidade NOVA de Lisboa) and Sven Dupré (Utrecht University) to rework a couple of recipes. We gathered and prepared the ingredients and spent days around furnaces trying to reproduce the recipes.

Figure 1. One of the wood-fired furnaces we used to reproduce the glaze recipes. Note that the fire is stoked from the sides. Location: Telheiro da Encosta do Castelo, Montemor-o-Novo, Portugal.

We dragged wood, stoked furnaces and patiently waited for the heat to come. We tried to control the smoke and played games guessing temperatures from different shades of bright orange. Showers at the end of the day invariably turned my white bathtub into a deep brown. During these days, our main occupation was fire. Ingredients for the glaze, their quantities and the order in which they had to be combined became mere side issues.

Figure 2. The furnace opening was closed with bricks to keep in the heat. Bricks were only temporarily removed to move samples.

It was in this smoky atmosphere that we began to see a fundamental characteristic of Kunckel’s commentary. The focus of commentaries, annotations and marginalia in practical texts had traditionally been the testing, correcting and improving of recipes, but Kunckel took a slightly different approach. He started to dress up Neri’s recipes in his commentary and added new and previously unarticulated layers to the original recipes. What layers? Well, think for instance about the role of fire. While Neri straightforwardly communicated ingredients, ratios and the different steps in his glaze recipes, nothing prepared us for the important task that fire management turned out to be, which went far beyond sending some wood up in flames. Kunckel, on the contrary, emphasizes this very issue in his commentary, and repeatedly argues that “the Fire is the principle thing to observe” (p. 194).

Figure 3. To work efficiently, we reproduced several recipes at once.

Indeed, while working with different furnaces, we learned that furnaces are more than simple and inert providers of heat. Instead, wood-fired furnaces become a tool by which the quality of the glass is shaped in addition to the ingredients and the quantities prescribed by the recipe. Temperature, atmosphere and position in the furnace are all partly responsible for the end result. In the end, reworking the same recipe in three different furnaces left us with three sets of glazes in different qualities. See how Kunckel cleverly shifted the perspective in Neri’s recipes? Kunckel made his readers aware of the circumstances they had to navigate when putting a recipe into practice, something for which Neri left them unprepared.

Figure 4. Two samples of the red roischiero glaze.

Making processes can be understood as processes of growth, the anthropologist Tim Ingold tells us. And this stance on making has significant consequences for how we understand the position of texts in these processes. Makers stand in an ecological relation with their environment, their materials, tools, and the forces they work with. To make a glaze means that the molten glass, the furnace, the smoke, etc. act in correspondence with an observant and anticipating glassmaker. Crucially important here is that ideas, designs or written instructions cannot simply be imposed onto reality. Recipes need to become part of it instead. To make something means to adapt and respond to the local and unique joining and intertwining of forces, materials and elements – and written instructions form just one strand in this creative process. Seen in this light, Kunckel’s remark was not so much a pessimistic note on the possibly superfluous nature of glaze recipes, but rather a reminder that reading and reproducing a recipe is an all-encompassing effort to make the recipe work in the unique constellation of the individual workshop. Reproducing a recipe is reinventing the wheel.

Thijs Hagendijk is a lecturer at Utrecht University. Earlier this year, he defended his dissertation on reading and writing practices in the early modern arts, with a specific focus on text usage in historical glassmaking, painting and metalworking. He works on the intersection of technical art history and the history of chemistry, and is interested in performative methods, such as reworking, re-enacting and reproducing historical techniques, materials and processes.

*You can read more about this project in Thijs’ recent article in Ambix.

Canine Cures or Our Best Friend…

By Marc Bruck

To paraphrase the old adage: dogs are humanity’s best friend. Loving, loyal and protective, they are often considered members of the family. They are symbols of wealth and power, love and affection. Recent accounts in the popular press, such as the Guardian’s piece from July “Hot dogs: What soaring puppy thefts tell us about Britain today”, have shown that they are also valuable accessories to modern life. However, in Early Modern Europe, the qualities of the canine were much more varied than that of a cherished companion. In particular, until the end of the Eighteenth Century, folk healers identified dogs as treasure troves for medical remedies and treatments. While an affront to many modern sensibilities, dogs were not simply pets, but were themselves useful sources of materia medica that cured a variety of ailments.  This essay puts the focus on an aspect of dogs that is ubiquitous with the ownership of the animal, dog feces, which was known in medicinal terms as album graecum

The use of  dog feces in medicine can be traced back to ancient Egypt and classical Greece and Rome. Known by a variety of medicalized names in the premodern period, including album graecum, tercus canis, cynocoprus,zibethum caninum, and flores melampi, the medical feces comes from dogs that are fed limited diets of bones alone.  Album graecum, therefore, is white dung produced by a dog (preferably a white one) that is free of color and obnoxious smells (Fig. 1).

Figure 1 – Album graecum

At the chemical level, album graecum contained significant amounts of calcium phosphate, mineral that figures prominently in many modern drugs and remedies.  Today, for human consumption, the mineral is largely extracted from the mineral Apatite, while in veterinary practice it is derived from animal calcium and bone meal.

In early modern European recipe books, album graecum was used as a dried and friable element in medicines for everyday ailments.  For instance,  one can find the white powder incorporated in the records of the seventeenth century German doctors von Mynsicht (1588-1638) and Ettmüller (1644-1683).  In the eighteenth century, album graecum appeared in pharmacopoeias across Europe. The Cyclopaedia of Chambers of 1728 designates its usage “with honey, to clean and deterge, chiefly in Inflammations of the Throat; and that principally outwardly, as a Plaister.”

The medicinal uses of the materia medica of dogs figures prominently in a fascinating mid-eighteenth century medical manuscript written by a healer called Sébastien-François de Blanchart.  Penned largely in French, de Blanchart’s work is known as the “Vieux recueil de remèdes” and commonly called “Blanchart’s Remedies.” It is currently housed in the National Archives of Luxembourg, where it has been scanned for digital access for the public.  While little is known of Blanchart, his remedies featured everyday materials of unsanctioned healers of Early Modern France.  In particular, dog feces, or album graecum as it was known in Latin, figured prominently in remedies for moderate internal inflammation. 

The seventeenth century healer de Blanchart considered album graecum essential to the treatment of common maladies affecting the throat, though not for those where the inflammation obstructs breathing and swallowing (Fig. 2). His records show that white powder could be administered directly to the uvula by means of a feather or combined into a serum. In one recipe, he records its combination with a mixture of everyday items, including beer and honey. 

Figure 2 – Sébastien-François de Blanchart, Vieux recueil de remèdes, fs 200. National Archives of Luxembourg.

De Brouchart’s recipe for throat ailments calls for the following: 

1 pint of beer of the strongest and oldest available

6 pieces of Album graecum

2 spoons of mel rosatum (honey)

The preparation involved cooking the ingredients over a gentle fire until the liquid reduced to half its volume. The liquid was to be strained and sieved, before being administered to the patient either consumed by the spoonful or by rinsing the mouth.  

Materials derived from dogs figure prominently in numerous recipes from de Brouchart and other early modern European medical texts, which we will pick up in a subsequent post called “Puppy Love.” For more on the use of dogs in remedies, please see: Lisa Smith’s “The Puppy Water and Other Early Modern Canine Recipes” from October 23, 2018. 


I am most grateful to Mme Zeien curator and librarian at the Archives nationales for making the digitised document available; it was originally classified as item 423 of the 15th department of the historic section of the Institut grand-ducal in Luxembourg.