The Mortar and Pestle
The mortar and pestle has been used by apothecaries, chemists and druggists for centuries to grind medicinal powders. It remains one of the chemist’s favourite symbols, depicted on shop signs to proclaim the nature of the business. A stylised mortar and pestle forms the current logo of one of Britain’s largest pharmacy chains, Lloyds.
Sometimes a large mortar and pestle projects from the frontage of the building above the shop. Whether this is made of wood, stone or metal it usually has the appearance of bell metal – despite porcelain being recognised as a preferable material from the late 18th century. Mortars often have a red cabochon affixed (does anybody know why?).
The Caduceus and the Rod of Asclepius/Aesculapius
These two classical symbols are often muddled. In Greek mythology, the caduceus is the staff carried by Hermes, the messenger of the gods. Two snakes entwine around a rod, which is topped by a pair of wings. This eventually became associated with commerce.
The caduceus of Hermes is often confused with the rod of Asclepius or Aesculapius, the Greek god of medicine, which comprises a single snake winding around a staff. Both symbols can be found adorning 19th– and 20th-century chemists’ shops throughout the United Kingdom.
Carboys and Carboy Shelves
Since the advent of plate glass for shop windows around 1840 it has been common for chemists to fill carboys – large globular bottles of colourless glass – with brightly coloured liquid and arrange them on a shelf at the top of their shop windows. Sometimes the carboys are accompanied by fat specie jars, which may be elaborately gilded and decorated with arms.
Rather than corresponding to a moulded transom bar, the outer edge of the carboy shelf on Victorian chemists’ shops was often masked by a band of black-on-gold lettering.
It is increasingly rare to stumble across old-fashioned chemists’ shops which still use carboy shelves for their original purpose. Often, however, when a chemist’s shop has been taken over by a different trade the carboy shelf survives, betraying its historic origins.
Carboys can also be found depicted as two-dimensional symbols on signage and on window glass.
Advertisements for Patent Medicines
From the mid-Victorian period to the mid-20th century, the façades of some chemists’ shops were covered in semi-permanent advertisements for patent medicines. These could be executed in plaster relief, in pictorial tiles (see the advertisement for Sea Breeze saline solution above) or — more commonly — simply painted onto the wall surface. An advertisement for Idris mineral water was gilded onto the glass over the door of Woodcock’s former shop in Dorking (see above).
Both jewellers and chemists frequently combined their core trade with that of the optician. In each case this service could be advertised by signs depicting spectacles.
The Green Cross
Used for many years to signal the presence of pharmacies in France and other European countries, the green cross is an increasingly common sight on British streets. It has been adopted, amongst others, by Boots.