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 Park’s The Recipes of Cleopatra

Welcome to the August 2020 Edition of the Recipes Project! All month we will be revisiting posts from our archives and exploring the intersections of race, medicine, sexuality, and gender in recipes. First up: we’re delighted to re-post Jennifer Park’s brilliant 2014 piece on the ways that the figure of “Cleopatra” was imagined in early modern Britain. Seen as an expert in medicine, science, surgery, and beauty, this historical figure was placed alongside canonical white men like Galen and Asclepiades. For early modern British readers, “Cleopatra” offered sound medical advice and a sense of respected authority. –AH

By Jennifer Park

In Robert Allott’s edited prose commonplace book, Wits Theater of the Little World (1599), he introduces a section on beauty with this line: “Cleopatra writ a booke of the preseruation of womens beauty.”[1]

Cléopâtre (étude) by Alexandre Cabanel, at the Musée des Beaux-Arts - Béziers. Image available on Wikimedia Commons.
Cléopâtre (étude) by Alexandre Cabanel, at the Musée des Beaux-Arts – Béziers. Image available on Wikimedia Commons.

Today’s post is an introductory foray into the figure of Cleopatra as an apparent source of medical knowledge in early modern England, with recipes that apparently come from the “Book of Cleopatra.” During the time when Shakespeare was believed to have been writing Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra’s book was mentioned in a range of early modern works. What’s fascinating about the recipes attributed to Cleopatra is that they appear in a wide range of works, from secrets to cosmetics to surgery and medicine to natural history and the natural sciences.

To provide a brief example, I’ll begin with a few recipes that dealt with the problem of hair loss, found in a work on surgery, as well as in a work on, surprisingly, insects. The first is physician Thomas Bonham’s The Chyrurgian’s Closet (1630), a posthumously published compilation of his medical work.[2] Cleopatra is listed as one of the “Authors of this Worke,” and is referenced in two brief unguent recipes to restore hair growth, a concern explored for the early modern period by Jennifer Evans and for Graeco-Roman antiquity by Laurence Totelin. The first recipe is for greater ease of hair renewal and growth:

Rx. Cort: arundinis, & Spuma nitri, ana {ounce} ss. picis liquida, q. s. f. vng. *. To restore hayre in an inueterate Alopecia [or baldness]. It will be [ B] very profitable daily to shaue the place, and to rub it with a lin|nen cloath, and then to anoint it, by which meanes the hayre will grow with more speed. Cleopatra. [3]

The other is to preserve hair from falling:

Rx. Brassicae aridae, q.s. stampe it cum aq: q.s. vnto the forme of an vng: *. To preserue haire from falling. Cleopatra. [4]

Cleopatra’s expertise in this domain also appears in Thomas Moffet’s work on insects, which was completed in manuscript form in the 1590s and posthumously published. In his section “On the use of Flies”, Moffet mentions a recipe purportedly contained in Cleopatra’s book in which flies are used to treat baldness.

Title page of Thomas Moffett's work on insects, posthumously published. Image available on Wikimedia Commons.
Title page of Thomas Moffett’s work on insects, posthumously published. Image available on Wikimedia Commons.

For Galen out of Saranus, Ascle|piades, Cleopatra, and others, hath taken many Medicines against the disease called Alopecia or the Foxes evill; and he useth them either by themselves or mingled with other things. For so it is written in Cleopatra’s Book de Ornatu. Take five grains of the heads of Flies, beat and rub them on the head affected with this disease, and it will certainly cure it. [5] 

[Nam Galenus é Sarano, Asclepiade, Cleopatra, & aliis, medicamenta contra alopeciam exscripsit: iisdénique nunc solis nunc mixtis usus est. Sic enim in libro Cleopatrae de ornatu scribitur: R. muscarum capita.g.v. contere et affrica capiti alopeciâ laboranti, & certò sanabitur.] [6]

That Thomas Bonham and Thomas Moffet, who practiced medicine around the turn of the seventeenth century, both reference Cleopatra for these hair-related remedies establishes that they took for granted Cleopatra’s perceived expertise in this area.

Cleopatra’s medical knowledge primarily passed into early modern use through the work of Galen, the Greek physician whose work on the four humors would form the foundation of early modern medical beliefs about the body. Laurence Totelin, for example, provides an example of a recipe in Galen’s work, excerpted from “Cleopatra’s Cosmetics”. The figure of Cleopatra closer to her time was, it turns out, a figure closely associated with cosmetics, gynaecology, and alchemy. That Shakespeare’s Cleopatra—Cleopatra VII, former Queen of Egypt—was probably not the actual author of these receipts seems not to have mattered much for their transmission. Totelin documents a few such Greek cosmetic recipes that used her name and convincingly reads Cleopatra in early Greek medical writings as an example of medical authors claiming famous women as an authority for gynaecological and cosmetic remedies. The attribution of Cleopatra as the author or source of recipes in the early modern period is, I suspect, the inheritance of this practice put into use in posterity. Since the beginning, then, it seems that Cleopatra’s reputation has exceeded her.

What we get is a female figure whose relationship to medicine and to recipe-culture throughout the centuries was quite different from that of the early modern woman. Rather than having to develop and prove expertise in culinary, medical, and pharmacological knowledge by experimenting with receipts, as early modern women did, Cleopatra in the early modern period was already held to be a figure of medical authority. During a time when women were carving a place for themselves in the domain of household physic, Cleopatra may have been a shining example of a woman memorialized through her recipes as evidence of her medical expertise.

[1] Robert Allott, Wits Theater of the Little World (1599),75v.

[2] Thomas Bonham, The Chyrurgians Closet, or, An Antidotarie Chyrurgicall (1630).

[3] Bonham, 283.

[4] Bonham, 283.

[5] Translation quoted in John Uri Lloyd, “Ancient Therapeutics,” The Eclectic Medical Journal 76.4 (1916), 177.

[6] Thomas Moffet, Insectorum, sive, Minimorum animalium theatrum (1634), 71.

Revisiting Hannah Newton’s Bitter as Gall or Sickly Sweet? The Taste of Medicine in Early Modern England

Editor’s note: Today, we revisit a post by Hannah Newton, author of a wonderful book on illness and recovery called Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England. In this post, Newton explores the essential gustatory qualities of premodern medicines.  Common afflictions of the era often affected all the senses, including the palate of tastes. As shown here, a remedy’s excessive bitterness or sweetness could, in fact, be an essential part of its remedial qualities. To that bitter pill! R.A. Kashanipour

By Hannah Newton

Adriaen Brower’s The Bitter Potion (1640) depicts a man’s reaction to the taste of a medicine – his face is contorted in an expression of deep revulsion (Figure 1). The image seems to confirm Roy Porter’s generalisation that ‘pre-modern medicine tasted foul’.[1] Contemporary medical recipes and patients’ memoirs tell a more complicated story, however. While some remedies were full of bitter ingredients, others were pumped with sugar. Below, we will see why this was the case, and discover that the actual flavours of medicines sometimes bore little relation to how they were actually experienced. This research is part of a new Wellcome Trust project, Sensing Sickness, which investigates the impact of disease on the five senses, and uncovers the sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and tactile sensations of the early modern sickchamber.

Figure 1: ‘The Bitter Potion’, 1640; by Adriaen Brouwer; © Städel Museum – U. Edelmann – ARTOTHEK

Bitter medicines

Amongst the most common bitter ingredients in early modern medicines were the herbs wormwood and aloes. Lady Barret’s remedy against ‘any illness in the stomach’ contains 4 drams of aloes, together with myrrh, saffron, and brandy. The Ayscough family’s recipe book suggests a remedy ‘to drive away agues’ composed of wormwood, marigold leaves, agrimony, and mugwort. A rare insight into the imagined reaction of a patient to these bitter drugs is provided in a collection of Italian medieval novels, published in English in 1620: as ‘soone as’ the man’s ‘tongue tasted the bitter Aloes, he began to cough and spet extreamly, as being utterly unable to endure the bitternesse’. Once taken, the mere sight of ‘the vessel in which the potion is kept’ is enough to provoke vomiting in some patients, wrote the physician William Bullein (c.1515-76). So notorious was the bitterness of aloes, it was used as a metaphor for describing any unpleasant experience, including pain, grief, and spiritual guilt.[2]

Figure 2: ‘Twenty Trees, Herbs, and Shrubs of the Bible. Chromolithograph, c.1850’, by MacFarlane and Erskine; Wellcome Collection, CC BY
Figure 3 : ‘Twenty Trees, Herbs, and Shrubs of the Bible. Chromolithograph, c.1850’, by MacFarlane and Erskine; Wellcome Collection, CC BY

Why did medicines contain these bitter ingredients? According to popular legend, the medicine has to be ‘as bitter as the disease’ for it to work. This idea is rooted in Galenic understandings of disease and treatment. Disease was due to the malignant alteration of the body’s humours, the constituent fluids of living creatures, and it was removed when the humours had been rectified or evacuated. Bitter medicine facilitated this process in two ways – first, it helped ‘devide, [and] extenuate…grosse and clammy humours, that they may be ready to flowe out’ of the body’.[3] Metaphors of cleaning were used in this context: the Dutch physician Levinus Lemnius (1505-68) averred, ‘the filth…of the humours stick no lesse to these mens bodies than the…dregs do to vessels, which must be soked…with pickle’, a bitter vinegary mixture, ‘to make them clean’. The second stage of evacuation was the movement of the humours from the body’s interior to its exit points, such as the bowels, where it could be expelled through defecation. Bitter medicines could be given to induce such movements. Lemnius explained that seeing that ‘attraction is made by the similitude of substance’, there must be a ‘natural familiarity’ between ‘the humour [to be evacuated] and the medicament’. Since the most noxious humours were bitter, medicines should be bitter too. Quoting Hippocrates, Lemnius expanded, ‘Physick when it come[s] into the body, it first…draws unto itself, that which is most…like unto it, then it moves the…humours…and forceth them out’. This idea was familiar to laypeople as well as doctors.

Sweet medicines

Although bitterness was necessary for purgative physic to work, the ‘cunning Physician…tempereth his bitter medicines with sweet and pleasant drinke’.[4] It was hoped that by disguising the bitter flavour, the medicine would be easier to swallow. This intervention was particularly important when it came to treating children, whose tolerance for bitter tastes was especially low due to the sensitivity of their taste-buds. This is still an issue today: in one survey, over 90 percent of paediatricians reported that a drug’s taste is the biggest barrier to completing a course of treatment. The most popular sweeteners in early modern England were sugar and honey. Speaking of her ‘speciall medecine’ for jaundice in c.1608, Mrs Corlyon instructed that ‘you must make it pleasant with Sugar according to your taste more or lesse’ (Figure 4). Anne Glyd’s recipe ‘Against the chin cough’ from the mid-seventeenth century states that it should be taken with ‘hony…or what the child likes best’.

Figure 4: Extract from Mrs Corlyon’s ‘A Booke of divers medecines’, 1606; MS 313, Wellcome Library, London

Intriguingly, these sweetened medicines did not always taste sweet. Recalling a recent illness, the natural philosopher Robert Boyle (1627-91), observed that some of his remedies had been, ‘sweetened with as much Sugar, as if they came not from an Apothecaries Shop, but a Confectioners. But my Mouth is too much out of Taste to rellish anything’. The Galenic explanation for these altered perceptions was that the organ of taste, the tongue, is ‘filled with some strange fluid’ during acute illness, which mixes with the gustatory juice of the medicine, so that ‘all things would seem salty to taste, or all bitter’.[5] Other causes were the drying of the tongue from the ‘fiery heat’ of fevers, or the presence of bitter humours in the mouth.[6] So familiar was the experience of altered taste that religious writers found it a useful metaphor to invoke when describing the more abstract idea that sinners fail to relish wholesome counsel. The Yorkshire minister Thomas Watson (d.1686), wrote in his treatise on repentance, ‘Tis with a sinner, as it is with a sick Patient[:] his pallat is distempered; the sweetest things taste bitter to him: So the word of God which is sweeter than honey-comb, tastes bitter to a sinner’.

We tend to be disparaging about premodern medicines, assuming they were deeply unpleasant. This brief foray into the gustatory qualities of remedies demonstrates that such a reading is too simplistic, and does not take into account the often benevolent intentions behind the use of bitter treatments, nor the attempts of practitioners to make their remedies more palatable. In any case, I think we need to be more wary about assuming the actual qualities of medicines were perceived by patients, since many diseases impaired the patient’s capacity to taste.



[1] Roy and Dorothy Porter, In Sickness and in Health: The British Experience 1650-1850 (London, 1988), 105; see also Lucinda Beier, In Sickness and in Health: The Experience of Illness in Seventeenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1985), 170.

[2] E.g. Mark Frank, LI Sermons preached by the Reverend Dr. Mark Frank (1672), 391.

[3] A. T., A rich store-house, or treasury for the diseased (1596), preface. See also William Bullein, The government of health (1595, first publ. 1559), 9-10.

[4] William Kempe, The education of children (1588), image 31.

[5] Galen, ‘On the Causes of Symptoms I’, in Ian Johnston (ed. and trans.), Galen on Diseases and Symptoms (Cambridge, 2006), 203-35, at 220-21, 189. This text was available in Latin in the early modern period, translated from the Greek by Thomas Linacre as De symptomatum differentiis et causis (1524).

[6] Helkiah Crooke, Mikrokosmographia a description of the body of man (1615), 631.

Making and Consuming Perfume in Eighteenth-Century England

Dr William Tullett asks why manuscript recipes for perfumes were on the decline in the eighteenth century, and investigates the role of the senses in perfume making.

A survey of the vast collection in the Wellcome library suggests that the presence of perfumery in manuscript recipe books slowly declined during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Why did this happen? One answer could be that perfumery and pharmacy were slowly separating during the eighteenth century. Previously, perfume, pies, and prescriptions were promiscuously mixed because the boundaries between ‘food’, ‘cosmetics’, and ‘medicines’ were blurred in the 1600s: for instance, odours were thought to contain medical powers. Eighteenth-century physicians were increasingly sceptical about this possibility. Fumigations (to purify the air of houses) and pomanders (balls of perfume to protect against plague) were less common in recipe books by 1750. Perhaps perfume no longer fitted within the holistic tradition of ‘kitchen-physic’. Yet, despite the concerns of the medical profession, perfumes continued to be advertised and used for their medicinal benefits. Fainting dandies at the opera could still reach for the eau de cologne when all the extended vowels and overwhelming music got too much.

‘Tom Rakewell in a cell in the Fleet Prison. Engraving by T. Cook after W. Hogarth.’ by William Hogarth. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

Another explanation is the increasing availability of ready-made perfumery, printed recipe books, and an emerging sense of commercial, fashion-oriented, consumer behaviour. Whilst print could easily be incorporated into manuscript recipe books, the proliferation of ready-made perfumery certainly had an impact. Insurance records on Locating London’s Past list over 300 perfumers in London between 1777 and 1786. The influence of the market is detectable in the introductions to print recipe books. For example, Simon Barbe’s The French Perfumer (English translation, London, 1696) lists biblical and noble patrons of perfume to inspire  home-brewed perfumery. Charles Lillie’s The British Perfumer (London, 1740s but published 1822) is introduced as a tool for negotiating the commercial market in perfumery: it would help prevent ‘purchasers of perfumes’ from ‘being impose[d] upon… beyond a fair, moderate, and reasonable profit’. Lillie’s book also contains some choice words on domestic perfumery. He attacked those who used ‘scraps of old women’s receipts’ and ‘gleamings from table-talk’. Above all it is fellow perfumers, working for profit in a luxury marketplace, to whom Lillie addresses his recipes.

Lillie’s recipe book has lots to say on how perfumers used their senses to assay the quality of ingredients. The inability to describe odours with precision (except through an emotional vocabulary or by reference to other materials) or remember them easily meant that touch, sight, and taste were thus the chief ways of testing ingredients. Examining ambergris, for example, Lillie noted that the worst was black or dark brown, heavy, hard to break, and had little smell. The best ambergris on the other hand was grey, easy to break and light in weight. If the ambergris had been adulterated with white sand, then Lillie suggested the use of a looking glass to check. Another test involved pricking the material with a hot needle to see if the ‘genuine odour will be given out’. However, Lillie added that ‘best way… to detect such frauds is always for the perfumer to keep by him a small piece of genuine ambergris; and… he should compare their smells by this experiment’. Without the original object smell was never a certain judge.

Where external appearances were similar, as with cassia lignum and cinnamon bark, taste could be used: cinnamon was ‘sharp and biting’ to the taste whereas cassia was ‘sweet and mawkish’. The less salty genoa soap was to the taste, the better quality it was. Touch was mobilised too: clove bark was best when at its most friable, whilst poor quality rice powder, used to make hair powder, was ‘moistened with water to give it a soft and silky feel’. Lillie’s recipe book demonstrates that sensory marks of quality were central for the perfumer because, in an era of economic specialisation, they increasingly relied on druggists, chemists, apothecaries, and grocers for their ingredients. The vanilla-scented gum benjamin (benzoin) was to be had from wax chandlers who used it to perfume sealing wax; druggists were a source for civet, although they adulterated it with honey; and even oils and essences, where the production of commercial quantities required large stills, were to be obtained from chemists ‘who actually distil it themselves’.

‘Glass bottle for eau de cologne, Paris, France, 1780-1850’ by Science Museum, London. Credit: Science Museum, London. CC BY.

But what about the senses of consumers who bought, rather than made, perfumes? For the small number of individuals who were still making their own perfumery, the perfumer’s shop was important for buying essences and oils ready-made. Mary Forster’s handwritten recipes for soft and hard pomatum, made from hogs’ lard to dress the hair or soften skin, list a range of waters, oils, or essences that could be bought from perfumers and added, depending on preference; these included rose, geranium, and jasmine. Lillie’s book suggests that perfumers were no longer the reliable source of such a wide variety of raw ingredients. Instead they produced ready-made items, some of which – especially waters, essences, and oils – could be used straight away in scent bottles and handkerchiefs or taken home to be used in other recipes. But consumers buying ready-made hair-powder, pomatum, or liquid scents would be far less aware of the colour, texture, weight, and other sensory qualities of the original materials. Perfume advertising also focussed less on particular ingredients and more on the feelings and places the perfumes evoked: in the 1770s Richard Warren’s trade cards evoked biblical frankincense and the odoriferous gales of the east, whilst in 1801, Hester Thrail Piozzia marvelled at the perfumer’s ability to compress ‘India’s fragrance… into a Guinea phial of Odour of Roses’.[1]

What does this tell us about the senses? It might suggest a move closer to a more ‘monolfactory’ (to coin a term) way of smelling, without any sense of a material’s other sensory properties. A loose analogy would be acousmatic listening – where one can hear something but not see the source of the sound (as on the radio). This way of smelling would, during the nineteenth-century, become part of the culture of perfumery we know today – clear, spray-on, liquids that are abstract, aimed at evoking feeling, and carry fewer of the multisensory connotations of the original ingredients. Eighteenth-century recipe books help us trace some of the origins of this slow sensory shift.


William Tullett is a Past and Present Research Fellow at the Institute for Historical Research, London. William has just completed his first book, A Social Sense: Smell in Eighteenth-Century England, and is currently working on a new project on sound and urban change in the period between 1660 and 1840. He has published articles on early modern perfume, smell in eighteenth-century pleasure gardens and smell’s role in racial stereotypes.


[1] Oswald G. Knapp (ed.), The Intimate Letters of Hester Thrale Piozzi and Penelope Pennington, 1788-1821 (London, 1914), p. 229.