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.

Revisiting Jennifer Sherman Roberts’ Little Shop of Horrors, Early Modern Style

Today, I wanted to visit the work of a long-time contributor and dear friend of the Recipes Project – Jennifer Sherman Roberts. Jen has authored more than a dozen wonderful posts on the blog covering topics such as “The CIA’s Secret Weapon: Dorothy Pompeo’s Christmas Fudge Recipe“; “Mucus Cure Alls: Snail Waters and Spa Treatments“; “Of Hedgehogs, Whale Vomite and Fire-Breathing Peacocks” and A Stitch in Thyme?: Why Are There So Few Knitting Patterns in Recipe Books?. As you can see, I had a hard time picking just one post of Jen’s to republish. But, as so many of us are trying our hand at gardening right now, I thought that the post below about rosa solis might be make an appropriate read. Enjoy! Elaine Leong

Can’t get enough of Jen’s writing? Here is a handy list of all Jen’s posts on the RP.

By Jennifer Sherman Roberts

I like pretty words. Old, pretty words.

The problem with old, pretty words is that they can be awfully deceptive.

While (electronically) flipping through the recipe book of a Mrs. Corlyon from 1606 (Wellcome MS. 213), I came across sundry cures for dull-sounding medical issues:  coughs, agues, and pimples. I’m enough of a historian to know that just because something sounds dull doesn’t mean it is, but nevertheless I kept flipping, looking for a recipe to spark my imagination.

And then I saw it, the perfect attention-grabber: “The making of a Rosa Solis.”

Rosa solis: How lovely! Perhaps, given the possible Latin translation of “rose of the sun,” it could even be alchemical! My heart beat fast…

Drosera tokaiensis. Photo by Denis Barthel (Wikimedia Commons)

I did a little searching. One look at the picture, and I was struck by this plant’s luminous beauty.

Not only is the plant itself lovely, the recipe from Mrs. Corlyon’s book for rosa solis corial water sounds divine:

Take halfe a peck of the herbe called Rosa Solis beynge gathered before the Sonn do aryse in the latter end of June or the beginning of Julye. Pick them and lay them upon a Bord to drye all a day. Then take a quarter of a Pounde of Reisons of the Sonn the Stones beynge taken out: Six Date as 12 Figges. Shridd all these together somewhat smale, and putt them into a great mouthed Glasse. Then take of Lycoresse and Annisseedes of each an ownze of Cynamone half an ownze a spoonefull of Cloves three Nutmegges of Coryander seeds and of caraway seedes eche half an ownze. Bruise all these, and putt them into the glasse, add thereunto your Hearbes and two pounds of the best Sugar finely beaten and a pottell of good Aquavite. Then stir them well together, and when you have this doen, stoppe the glasse, very close, then sett it in the Sonn for the space of 7 or 8 weekes often turning the glasse about in the Sonn but Lett it stand where the raine may not come unto it and shake it oftentimes together and when it hath so long so stade, straine it and putt the water upp into a doble glasse and keep it for your use. And if you please when you have strained it you may put thereto a leafe of Golde, and a grain or two of Muske.

Raisins, dates, and figs. Licorice, anise, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, coriander, and caraway. Sugar and booze. What’s not to love?

Not only is the rosa solis plant beautiful and its cordial yummy, its effects are impressive. Recorded in the Sir Thomas Osborne recipe collection at the Wellcome Collection Library is the following recommendation:

For There is not the Weakest Man nor body in the world that wantest Nature or Strength or that is falne into a Consumption but it will Restore him againe & cause him to bee Stronge and lustie and to have a good Stomacke & Shortly, hee that useth this three time together shall find great remedie & Comforte.

Ahh, I thought, an intriguing and beautiful medicinal!

Here’s the thing, though: old, pretty words can cover deadly truths.

The leaf of a Drosera capensis “bending” in response to the trapping of an insect.
Photo by: Noah Elhardt (Wikimedia Commons)

Rosa solis is also known as sundew, or drosera, and it is actually quite treacherous and deadly . . . especially if you’re a bug. The sundew plant is carnivorous. It grows in boggy, wet, marsh-like conditions—places in which soluble nitrogen is in short supply. To make up for the deficit, the sundew attracts insects with what looks like a fresh bounty of dewdrops, but is in reality a series of mucus glands that trap the insect on the leaf.

The insect dies either from exhaustion (from trying to escape) or from asphyxiation from the mucus. The sundew then excretes enzymes that dissolve the body of the insect.

Pretty much it happens like this:

Disturbing Video No. 1
Disturbing Video No. 2

(Yes, that’s tonight’s nightmare sorted for you.)

These videos are both time-lapse; it can take a sundew hours, even up to a day, to completely digest an insect.

This raises the question of whether early modern herbalists knew about the sundew’s carnivorous ways. Was the actual process too slow to notice with the naked eye?

Early modern recipes for rosa solis cordial make clear that the plant is to be harvested during June and early July. (Jennifer Munroe has discussed the fascinating implications of the detailed intructions for the harvesting of rosa solis.) But did the women and men harvesting the plant know of its unique pattern of feeding?

In the recipes I’ve encountered for rosa solis, I’ve seen no mention of insects or of how the plant feeds. I wonder, then: would the knowledge of rosa solis’s carnivorous ways have changed how herbalists, wise women, and amateur and professional physicians used it? Would the doctrine of signatures have changed pharmaceutical usage?

Knowing that fate of the hapless bug trapped by the mucus of the sundew, would the recipe writer in Sir Thomas Osborne’s collection still have recommended the cordial for aid in growing “Strong and lustie”?


Postscript: Please understand that I could not write this blog without hearing the soundtrack to “Little Shop of Horrors” in my head. Then, for fun, I Googled “Renaissance Little Shop of Horrors.” This is what I found courtesy of Mental Floss:

Painted by Alison Sommers for Gallery 1988’s “Crazy 4 Cult 5.” Image used with permission of the artist.

Thereby proving that one can find ANYTHING on the internet.

Tales from the Archives: Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

In my first months of co-editing duties here at The Recipes Project, one of my many delights has been the opportunity to dig back in our archives to rediscover posts I’ve loved over the years, to see them with fresh eyes. As a historian of Japan, I’ve looked forward to exploring and expanding our content on Asia, especially in global exchange. In that spirit, I bring you a classic post on European medicine in Siam (Thailand) from back in 2015, Tara Alberts’ “Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam.”

You may also notice several posts on a mini-theme of…shall we say uncomfortable recipes throughout the month of April, including historical treatments for lice and hemorrhoids already available to read (with more to come). Though I’d hardly put drinking gold at the same level of discomfort, and a fleck of gold leaf in a cocktail can still be a decadent indulgence today, I’d hate to see what a bellyful of Parisian golden medicine would do to a poor king’s stomach. Salud!

Making Drinkable Gold for the King of Siam

By Tara Alberts

In a previous post I discussed how early modern Catholic missionaries sought to showcase the most up-to-date European medicines to impress their target audiences. This was also a key strategy used to gain access to royal courts throughout Asia.

At the court of King Narai (r. 1656-88) of Siam, for example, Europeans joined experts from China, India, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia to provide medical advice to the royal family.  Narai’s court was a cosmopolitan place: the king was keen to hear about foreign technologies and theories, and to encourage foreign trade. The French missionaries of the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP) were determined to take advantage of the opportunities that this offered.

Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons
King Narai receiving the French Embassy, 1685. Wikimedia Commons

This could be easier said than done. It’s likely that the job of concocting remedies fell to René Charbonneau (1643-1727), a lay auxiliary to the MEP who had trained as a surgeon. In a 1677 he wrote a frustrated letter to a friend in Paris pleading for an easy-to-follow recipe written in French for aurum potabile. ‘The king has asked for drinkable gold’, he wrote ‘but we have not been able to manage it. […] Please write down in a letter the method of making it and purifying it for use, and the manner in which it is taken, written out in full in clear French and not in Latin and not in terms of chemistry as I am not versed in that art.’ (Archives des Missions Étrangères [AMEP] vol. 861, p. 41).

Gold-based medicines had ancient precedents in various European and Asian medical traditions. Like many putative panacea they enjoyed a renaissance in Europe in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth seventeenth centuries. [i] There were innumerable recipes available to create aurum potabile, often using gold flakes or powder alongside other expensive ingredients including precious stones, unicorn horn and spices.

Yet since the sixteenth century, many writers had been extremely skeptical about whether such cures could possibly be of use. The chemist Nicolas Lefebvre, in his Traité de la Chymie (1660), denied that they could have any effect on the human body. Mixing gold leaf into medical concoctions and powders, he asserted, was an ‘abuse in Pharmacy that the Arabs have introduced’ (p. 801). Such medicaments could not be effective as the human body contained nothing capable of breaking the gold down. Lefebvre doubted whether any efficacious cure could really be created from gold, but like other compilers of alchemical compendia, he provided a range of common recipes to purify and use gold in a more sophisticated manner.

An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop. The Wellcome Library, London
An alchemist making gold. Oil painting by Hendrik Heerschop, 1665

It seems that the MEP were attempting to use these sorts of alchemical methods to create a ‘true’ drinkable gold (rather than just creating a medicinal draught with added gold flakes) and that this was proving difficult. MEP missionary Charles Sevin (?-1707) blamed the equipment available in Siam. He explained in a letter to his Parisian superiors that they had brought the necessary ingredients to make the king some huile d’or potable, but the glass retorts they acquired there all shattered before they reached the necessary temperatures. (AMEP, vol. 851, p. 190).

Others confessed that their ignorance of alchemical processes was hindering progress. Charbonneau mentions that he had with him Christophe Glaser’s Traité de Chymie (1667). In this, Glaser explains several different ways of purifying gold, and offers several different methods for rendering this purified gold usable as a medical preparation through fulmination, calcination with mercury, or dissolution in the aptly named ‘royal water’ (eau régale or aqua regia – nitrohydrochloric acid). One recipe for a draught containing ‘diaphoretic gold powder’ for example, recommends that after purification the gold should be dissolved in three drams of royal water to which is added a dram of refined saltpeter. This liquid should then be used to soak small pieces of linen, which, once dried, should be burnt. The resultant ashes should be collected carefully using a hare’s foot or a feather and then used to make a pill or a draught using a small amount of wine or bouillon.

Glaser’s stated aim in writing his Traité was to set out the principles and practices of chemistry in plain language, but Charbonneau complained that he found Glaser’s text confusing. He and his confrères had had some success when they attempted to follow Glaser’s instructions with regards to purifying tin, but they were not confident enough to give a demonstration, nor, presumably, to waste their supplies of ingredients needed to make impressive remedies for the king.

There was a clear incentive to make a particularly impressive version of drinkable gold which would showcase the effectiveness of exotic European recipes, and by extension other branches of European knowledge. Yet even the most up-to-date texts explaining how to create these remedies were useless without the necessary skills and equipment to put the theory into practice. No wonder then that MEP superiors in Siam began soon to lobby for missionaries and lay helpers who were skilled in alchemy to be sent from Paris.

[i] Informative overviews of the history of pharmaceutical gold are provided here by R. Console, and here by M. Hendriksen.

Heat and Women’s Fertility in Medieval Recipes

It seems rather ironic to be writing about ‘heat’ in the middle of a heatwave. I’m not sure anyone in Britain at the moment is keen to increase their level of heat any further! However, according to humoral theory, which underpinned many medical recipes throughout the medieval and early modern periods, heat could be a very good thing when men and women wanted to reproduce.  Heat, in the humoral sense, was believed to aid both sexual performance and fertility, and ‘hot’ foods and medicines were recommended as aphrodisiacs and fertility aids in many ancient, medieval and early modern medical texts.  Jennifer Evans has set this out very nicely for the early modern period – see her book and her post on the Recipes blog from 2013.  But heat wasn’t always a good thing: in some circumstances too much heat could also be a problem for fertility, and in that situation ‘cold’ foods and medicines might be suggested.

In my own work on the medical recipe books of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, then, I would expect to find a range of recipes to aid conception which include ingredients designed to raise or reduce a person’s heat. Although recipes were written in less complex language than Latin medical texts, and focused on treatment rather than theory, the recipes in these collections were often drawn from longer Latin medical works and so were often based on humoral theory even when this was not made explicit.  Nevertheless, my initial survey of recipe manuscripts in the Wellcome Library, British Library and Cambridge University Library suggests that the picture was more diverse than this.  I haven’t made a comprehensive search – and, given the number of unpublished medieval recipe manuscripts, I probably won’t be able to – but the recipes to aid conception that I’ve found so far work on a variety of principles.

Some do seek to adjust a person’s heat in order to correct a perceived humoral imbalance. For example, a series of recipes in Latin in Wellcome Library MS 541, a fifteenth-century medical miscellany of unknown provenance, is explicit about this.

A page from Wellcome Library MS 541. Credit: Wellcome Library.

In a chapter on ‘Impediment of Conception’ it includes recipes for:

If the sterility is because of cold humours… (Si sterilitas fuerit propter humores frigidos…)

If conception is impeded because of too much moisture… (Quod si propter nimiam humiditatem conceptio impediatur…)

If there is a distemper of heat or dryness in the woman which impedes conception… (Quod si caliditate aut siccitate fuerit distemperancia in muliere impediens conceptionem…)

In each case the first stage is to purge the excess humours, and then a selection of baths, plant remedies and suppositories is recommended. (Wellcome Library MS 541, ff. 137r-v)

The whole manuscript is digitized on the Wellcome Library website here.

Similarly British Library MS Harley 2378, quoted by Henslow in an edition of fourteenth-century medical recipes, also mentioned lack of heat as a cause of women’s infertility and suggested a cure to raise her heat:

‘For a womman þat may not bere no chyld for colde blode: Take and let hire blode, and take trisandali and diapendion, and take and ley þem to-gedere with hony, and ete iche day þer-of, and haue blode bothe hote and gode.’ (G. Henslow, Medical Works of the Fourteenth Century (London, 1899). p. 104.)

However, in many other cases the recipes found in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts are not obviously heat-related. Instead many of them require the man, woman or both to ingest animal parts, particularly genitalia.  These recipes work on another theoretical framework with a long history going back to the ancient world: the idea that certain substances were able to stimulate the reproductive organs because of a certain sympathy with them.  For example several fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts of the Liber de Diversis Medicinis, a collection of recipes in English, include a series of recipes involving animal genitalia. To help a woman conceive a male child, ingredients such as the womb and vagina of a hare; the testicles of a hare; and the liver and eyes of a pig (see Catherine Rider, ‘Men’s Responses to Infertility in Late Medieval England’, in The Palgrave Handbook of Infertility in History, ed. Gayle Davis and Tracey Loughran (Basingstoke, 2017), p. 281).

All of these recipes derive – directly or indirectly – from the Trotula, the twelfth-century Latin compendium of women’s medicine edited by Monica Green, although there were some changes in the process of transmission: the Trotula recommends the liver and testicles of the pig, rather than liver and eyes (see p. 77 in Green).  These recipes from the Trotula appear frequently in recipe collections from medieval England: the pig’s testicles appear again in Wellcome Library MS 407 (f. 61r), ‘Against sterility’.

As Green has shown, numerous manuscripts of the Trotula circulated in England, and the treatise had several Middle English translations, so perhaps it is not surprising that its remedies turn up frequently in recipe collections. Recipes based on animal parts have also featured on the recipes blog before: to take just one example, Laurence Totelin mentioned the use of a deer’s penis as an aphrodisiac in ancient Greece back in 2015.  The Trotula did also discuss the ways in which too much or too little heat might make men or women infertile (see Green’s translation, pp. 85-7). Nevertheless, its influence and the popularity of its genitalia-related remedies means that treatments based on heat and humoral theory were not the only fertility aids available to readers of medieval English recipe collections.  In the future I’m hoping to look in more detail at which aids to conception were particularly popular in English medical texts, and what that might tell us about the transmission of information from earlier Latin medical works.  But at the moment the picture – as regards heat – is looking rather diverse.