Popping Pills: Restoring an Apothecary’s Pill-Rolling Machine

This gorgeous artifact and fascinating piece of medical history is the latest addition to my collection of antique brassware, and is also the latest thing I won at the local auction-house…

“Ooooooh!” I hear you say.

“Wussit do?” I hear you say.

“Can I have one??” I hear you say.

Well…uh…no, you can’t have one! I’ve been chasing one of these for five years, and I finally got one!

“Awww…okay fine!…But…w-whassit do?”

Well, it’s a pill-rolling machine, from the Victorian era! Ain’t it neat?

No, seriously dude…what does it actually, like…really, do?

…I just told you. It’s a pill-rolling machine!

I know, I know, it looks like some sort of antique cheese-grater, but yes, this is actually a pill-making machine, and back in the mid-1800s, no self-respecting apothecary would’ve been without one of these proudly on display on his shop counter!

“So how does it work?” I hear you ask, “And I mean…why does it exist? I thought pills were made in factories and stuff?”

Uh, yes…they are…now. But 150 years ago, they weren’t. In this post I’ll be talking about what this device is, how it works and what it does, I’ll also be going into a few of the differences between pharmacies today, and how they were, a hundred and fifty-odd years ago, in the middle of the 19th century, when this pill-rolling machine was invented…

Your Friendly Village Apothecary

This machine dates back to the days when your local pharmacist or apothecary bought, sold, and manufactured all his own drugs, medicines and curatives to everybody who lived within the bounds of a given community, and when the dispensing, manufacturing and purchasing of medicine was very different to how it’s done today.

These days, we get sick, we go to the doctor, he’ll give us a script, we’ll take it to the pharmacist, he’ll read it off, get the medicine, give it to us and we’ll walk out of his shop with a bottle of pills, a tube of paste, a jar of ointment, and a bag of diabetic jellybeans.

Back in the 1850s and 1860s, when machines like this were invented, how you got your medicine was very different.

For one thing, you likely didn’t even go to the doctor! Back in Victorian times, physicians were usually far beyond the reach, financially, of most people. Your average, workaday schmoe likely never met a doctor professionally, unless it was a real emergency. On a day-to-day basis, most poor and middle-class people would visit the pharmacist or apothecary for the majority of their healthcare needs.

Even if you did go to the doctor, he’d write out a prescription, and the instructions he generally gave you were to take the script to the apothecary and have the chap behind the counter make up the medicine for you, which the apothecary would’ve done anyway, even if you hadn’t gone to the doctor. And that’s the key difference between a Victorian pharmacist, and one which trades and deals today: Victorian pharmacists and apothecaries MADE their drugs, whereas modern pharmacists just sell them.

Let’s make some drugs… 

Back in Victorian times, there was no such thing as off-the-shelf medicine. Every tablet, pill, suppository, ointment, potion, lotion, tincture and syrup to treat everything from a sore throat to fever, headaches to constipation, was made laboriously by hand, by the pharmacist. There was no such thing 150 years ago, of medicine-making factories like what we have today.

“So where’d they get their drugs from, then?” I hear you ask.

Well, what used to happen was that pharmacists would draw on the centuries of accumulated knowledge passed down from master to apprentice, over countless generations. This knowledge foretold of which plants, herbs, roots, leaves, barks, piths, saps, syrups, foodstuffs and various animal parts, had healing properties. It was knowing how to find these ingredients, how to identify them, how to use them and what they did, that was the biggest part of being a pharmacist or apothecary back in the Victorian era. Indeed, a lot of ancient and past medicine had far less to do with pills and potions, and more to do with herbs, roots, leaves and saps. A lot of the medicine was plant-based (it still is, we just don’t realise it, that’s all!), and because of this, a pharmacist 150 years ago did not have packets and jars and bottles of medicine – he would’ve had jars, and jars, and jars, and row after row after row of drawers, all filled with these plant extracts and component-parts.

Old apothecary shops were famous for having dozens, hundreds of jars, bottles and drawers, all filled with plant and animal components, all of which were used for treating illnesses. Stuff like willow-bark, opium, cannabis, cocaine, smelling-salts, essential oils, cold-creams, arsenic, cyanide, moisturizers, lip-balms and all other manner of countless ingredients!

What used to happen is that you’d go into your apothecary, and he would diagnose you, and then recommend a treatment based on that diagnosis, or based on the symptoms which you told him of. After making his diagnosis or recommended course of treatment, the apothecary would then make the medicine for you – on the spot, there and then. This might take a few minutes, it might take hours! You might be told to come back later to pick it up, or you might just take a seat in the corner and read the newspaper in the meantime.

Victorian-era Medicine

Medicine for most of the Victorian-era varied little from medicine in previous centuries. All medicinal plant-and-herb components were bought, sold, and used in their raw form. No aspirin – just willowbark. No sleeping-pills – just opium. No laxatives, just rhubarb!

So what happened when you had to take your medicine?

Well, to make it easier to digest, and to make the active components easier to absorb, the plant material had to be broken down. This was most often accomplished by grinding, crushing, pounding and muddling, using an apothecary’s mortar and pestle, like this one:

A lathe-spun Victorian apothecary’s mortar and pestle, made of brass to make it easier to clean, more resilient to constant daily use, and to prevent medicine or poison from absorbing into the body of the mortar (which might cause poisoning!) This one’s from my personal collection of antique brassware.

Once the medicine had been crushed, ground and pulverised into dust, it could then be either dispensed into a jar, wrapped up in sachets, sealed inside capsules, or mixed with syrup in order to form a paste, which could then be rolled, or pressed into pills or tablets. As tablets were tricky to make by hand, some medicines were simply sold as the powder they ended up as – put inside a folded piece of paper and put inside a box along with a whole heap of others. One folded piece of paper meant one dose. The medicine was unfolded, tipped into a glass of water or other convenient beverage, and then consumed. It’s the origin of the expression ‘to take a powder‘. My dad remembers having to do this when he was a child for things like painkillers when he had a fever or headache – he said it always tasted horrible!

The Victorian Pill-Roller – How Does it Work?

Hard tablets were tricky to make. The powder had to be poured into a mold, the mold was closed and then hammered to compress the powder. The mold was broken open and a single tablet would drop out. This was slow, fiddly, and imprecise. Making pills on the other hand, which didn’t require this fiddly process, was much easier. And that’s where my Victorian pill-roller comes in.

Once the necessary ingredients for the pills had been measured, crushed, ground and pulverised, a final ingredient was poured into the mortar – syrup. The syrup wasn’t there to sweeten the mixture, it was there to act as a binding-agent. You mixed the syrup into the powder until the entire thing coagulated into a paste or doughy mixture. Then you could scoop out the entire mass, and roll it into a snake or sausage – one long, continuous worm of medicine!

Obviously, nobody wants to take an entire worm of medicine, no matter how sick they are. So to make it easier, the whole mass had to be cut up and shaped into pills.

This used to be done by hand. And there’s nothing wrong with that, except that no two pills were then ever exactly alike – which could be dangerous if the medicine was exceptionally potent!

To even the odds, and to make pills more uniform, the pill-roller was invented, around the 1850s.

So, how does it work?

Well it’s very simple. It has two parts (well three, but the third one is missing – I’ll get to that later on).

The largest piece is the board. This is set at an angle and is comprised of the rolling surface, the cutting grooves, and the collection-tray. The large flat surface is for rolling out the pill-paste into the sausage that I mentioned earlier. This is then rolled towards the brass cutting-grooves. The paddle (the second piece) is flipped over so that the grooves there line up with the grooves on the board.

Rollers on the ends of the paddle roll against the brass edges of the board, and they guide the paddle straight across the grooves, taking the pill-mass with it. The grooves on the paddle and the board slice up the pill-mass and, after rolling the thing back and forth a couple of times like a rolling-pin, the circular pills – each one exactly the same size now (wow!) – roll off the grooves and into the tray at the bottom. And there you have it – two dozen pills all done in less than a minute! Talk about mass production, huh? This process could be repeated countless times and the results would always be the same – perfectly shaped pills, which were all the right size, and the right dosage.

Now, remember I said that the board was on an angle? That’s to ensure that the pills only roll one way – across the grooves from one end, to the other, turning from lumps of clumpiness on one end, to emerge as recognisable pills on the other. Now this presents a problem: Pills are round. And if you studied university-grade physics like I didn’t, then you might or might not know that round things on a sloping surface…roll. A simple application of gravity overcoming friction.

To prevent your newly-formed pills from rolling off the board, onto the table, and then all over the floor, the pill-roller came with a third component, which on this one, is missing – a removable, wooden collection-drawer. At the end of a session of rolling, the pills would land inside the drawer and remain there while you made more. When the drawer was full, you could slide it out and empty its contents into a jar or bottle, easily, and cleanly.

That said, simply rolling the pills wasn’t always sufficient. To improve their look, or to change their shape, each pill was then placed inside a highly sophisticated pill-rounding device, which is different from a pill-rolling device, in that it doesn’t roll the pills, it rounds them.

What’s the difference? One device makes the pills, the other one pretties them up for the camera.

The pill-rounder is basically a flat wooden disc or cup. You stick it over the pill (one pill at a time) and slide it back and forth and all around. This rolls the pill inside all over the place, smoothing out any lumps and bumps, so that it’s a perfect sphere. Shaking the rounder back and forth flattens out the sides so that it looks more oval than circular – one trick to differentiate pills from each other if they’re the same size or colour, but have different functions – was to make different pills a different shape. You don’t want to confuse a laxative with a sleeping-tablet…

Restoring the Pill-Roller

Anyway, so much for the pill-roller and how it works. What about fixing it up?

Well, this is what it looked like when I bought it…

As you can see, worn out, and rather dry. The wood was supposed to be a beautiful dark mahogany colour and the brass is supposed to be a gleaming gold…instead both elements look rather dusty. In that photograph it’s almost impossible to tell them apart! It took a lot of polishing with Brasso and ultrafine steel-wool to restore the brass back to its previous luster…

The brass grooves and rails after my first concentrated polishing effort. It would take a lot more to finish it off.

Apart from polishing and cleaning the brass, I also had to tighten screws, fix dents in the brass rails (which fortunately were few and easily remedied), and clean out the grit and dust stuck inside the cracks.

The biggest repair I had to do was to rebuild the one missing piece from this device: The pill-collection drawer. This involved a lot of careful measuring, tracing, cutting, and research.

Rebuilding the Drawer!

I didn’t know that this thing was missing something when I bought it. I was so excited at the possibility of owning it that this had never crossed my mind! It was only after I’d started researching it, that I’d realised that something was missing. In researching the history of these things and trying to dig out photos of them online, I started to realise that mine was incomplete. Fortunately, rebuilding the drawer looked like a relative cakewalk, so I headed out, purchased the necessary materials, and started.

The first step was to measure and mark all the pieces that I’d need, after looking at loads of photos to determine the general style and shape of the thing. The next step was to cut them out and figure out how they’d all fit together. Due to the shape of the board and the grooves which the drawer had to slide in, each piece had to be carefully sanded, chiseled, cut, measured and oriented a specific way, otherwise it wouldn’t work.

Sanding and chiseling took up the most time. The first and easiest step was to measure, cut and sand the baseboard for the drawer. This had to fit perfectly, because everything else would be measured and cut in relation to how it moved inside the pill-roller. Once its size was perfected and it could slide in and out comfortably, I started on the side-pieces. These were harder because to fit inside the drawer-space, they actually needed quite a lot of wood taken off. I accomplished this with a ruler, pencil, hammer and chisel to carefully score, chip and split off as much wood as I needed, before sanding the chiseled area smooth.

The next step was to cut the curved, quarter-circle rails that would be at either end of the drawer. One end had to be lower than the other, so that the pills would roll into the drawer easily. The other end had to be higher, so that the pills wouldn’t then be encouraged to roll out the other side! The challenge here was to cut and sand these rails to the right length. Too short and they’d fall out and be the wrong size. Too long and if I forced them between the sides of the drawer, I risked splitting the pill-rolling board in half – which would be a disaster!

The next step was to fit all the pieces together, and ensure that they would slide in and out smoothly, without jamming…

All the pieces fitted together, before final assembly.

Once I was satisfied with how they fit together, I started gluing them together. This was the easiest bit. I started with the end-stop rail first, then the rail closest to the pill-grooves. And then I glued the side-panels onto the sides of the rails and the top of the baseboard. Then I slid the whole thing into the drawer-space to compress it a bit while the glue dried. This was the result:

Drawer goes in…

…drawer comes out!

I had to be very careful with these last few steps. The drawer had to be just the right size. If it was even a fraction too small, then it would just fall out. If it was a fraction too big, then it would jam, and quite possibly damage the board. But patience paid off and the results speak for themselves. The final step was to nail the pieces together here and there, just to provide some extra strength and peace of mind, and then to stain everything with oil to bring out the grain and colour, but the project was essentially finished at this point – all the other things that still had to be done were purely cosmetic. The main ‘reconstructive surgery’ as it were, was now completed.

BEFORE:

AFTER:

And there you have it. The finished product. Next comes staining, and perhaps a demonstration of how this thing actually operates, but that’ll be for another posting! Stay tuned!

 

Four-Draw French Naval Telescope w/Sliding Lens Shield (Ca. 1845)

This was the last antiques purchase I made before it became necessary for me to pack up all my treasures, in preparation for a big move that I had to make. I haven’t written about it yet because I’ve been sick in bed for the past few days struck down by allergies! (damn cats…!)

Anyway, now that I am sufficiently recovered, and no longer rashy and puffy (yeah it wasn’t fun…), I have decided to take some time to write about what has to be one of the finest purchases I’ve made so far, and which was partially funded by the selling-off of some of my other antiques.

I bought this from a chap at the local flea-market who went on buying trips in Europe. He’d picked this up during a visit to France, he told me. It had to be by far the most complete and perfect example I’d ever seen, and after a lot of haggling and playing of the ‘repeat-purchaser’ card, we struck a deal.

The telescope, as you can see, is a large, four-draw naval telescope, with a wooden barrel, brass fixings, and a sliding brass lens-shield, complete with the original lens-caps and shutters. Its full length is 38.5in. Engraved on the eyepiece draw-tube are the words:

Maison de
L’Ing. Chevallier, Opt’n.
Place du Pont Neuf, 15
Paris.

Roughly translated, it reads:

House of Chevallier. Optician. 
Place du Pont Neuf, 15,
Paris. 

I have researched this, and it appears that Monsieur Chevallier was a very noted French optician, producing not only telescopes, but from what I’ve seen, a lot of microscopes, as well! He was also an optician to French royalty, according to one advertisement I came across. The address, 15, Place du Pont Neuf, is in central Paris, near the River Seine (‘pont’ is ‘bridge’ in French), near to the famous Cathedral of Notre Dame!

Just picking the telescope up and moving it around in my hands told me that this was a very high-quality piece, although like a lot of antiques, it had not been restored or overhauled in decades, which meant of course, that it was jammed up with gunk, grime, and dust, and therefore, entirely seized up. There was also a significant dimple on the lens-shield, which was causing it to jam.

Restoring the Telescope

Once I got it home, I started on the usual tedious, but necessary restoration process, to prevent the telescope from being damaged any further. This included blowing out all the dust, wiping down the lenses inside and out, disassembling the entire piece and cleaning and lubricating the threads, and flushing out all the grime and grit accumulated inside the focusing mechanism and draw-tubes – which is by far the most tedious part of this whole rigmarole!

One of the more fiddly parts of fixing this telescope was removing the dent in the sliding lens-shield at the front of the barrel. The dent was not large, but it was sufficiently concentrated, and deep enough, that it kept rubbing on the protective end-stop at the end of the barrel, thereby causing the entire mechanism to jam. No amount of oil would solve this, so the dent had to be removed.

Of course, removing the entire dent was not likely to be possible, but removing enough of it to stop the jamming would be sufficient. To do this, I unscrewed the lens-shield from its coupling ring, and then slid it off the barrel over the objective lens, past the end-stop which usually held it in place. The next step was to lay the shield on a flat surface without damaging the rim on the edge (which serves as a stop-point for the lens-cap).

Once I’d done this, I needed to locate the dent. Once found, I rolled the shield so that the dent was bottom-most, and pressing against my flat surface (a solid, wooden benchtop). Then I slipped a wooden rolling pin (like what you use to make cookies with) inside the shield to act as a mandrill. Next came the tedious process of rolling, pressing, rolling, pressing, rolling and pressing, using the smooth surface of the benchtop, and the smooth, round surface of the rolling-pin to pop the dent back out.

This had to be done carefully. Too much force and I’d end up with a nice OVAL-shaped lens-shield, which wouldn’t fit back onto my telescope. Not enough force, and I’d never get rid of the dent! However, diligence paid off, and I was able to remove enough of the dimple to achieve the desired result. Rather than tempt fate, I stopped there and reassembled the telescope.

Removing, or rather reducing, the dent was the only major repair I did to this piece. The rest of it was largely just cleaning, or small cosmetic things like light polishing, cleaning the lenses and tightening up loose couplings.

What’s the point of the sliding shield?

OK, so you cleaned it, you removed the dent, you oiled it, you washed out the grime and wiped it down…but what’s the whole point of that sliding cylinder, anyway?

It’s called a lens-shield. They were pretty common on antique telescopes, both of the pocket-sized terrestrial variety, and the larger, handheld maritime variety (like this one). Their purpose was to protect the lens while the telescope was in-use. They were slid out ahead of the objective-lens, and they provided protection to the glass from things like rain, snow, and excessive sun-glare. Having the shield extended meant that when looking in the direction of the sun, the rays of light hit the shield before they would hit the lens, preventing reflective glare.

In inclement weather, the shield kept rain, condensation and snow off of the lens, so that you didn’t have to keep wiping the glass every few seconds, thereby providing you with an unobstructed view – very important when you might be on the deck of a ship in the middle of a heavy storm!

Interesting Notes on Construction

I’ve seen a fair few antique telescopes in my time, ever since I started getting interested in antique optical stuff, about eight to ten years ago. While most telescopes from the 1840s-1850s up to the 1930s, 40s and 50s were all basically made the same way, with the same components and methods of construction, there were elements of this telescope which the manufacturer included which just make me love it just that little bit more.

The first element was the way the lens-shield was attached to the barrel of the telescope. On all other telescopes of this type that I’ve seen, to remove the shield, you need to pull apart the barrel and slide the shield backwards off of the body of the telescope. It’s fiddly and annoying. With this telescope, the shield is screwed onto a threaded coupling-ring that slides up and down the barrel. You simply unscrew the shield from the ring, and then you can slide the whole thing off the telescope, without having to disassemble anything!…You don’t even have to take off the lens-cap, if you don’t want to! This makes cleaning and overhauling this particular telescope much easier!

The second element about this telescope’s construction that I really liked was the inclusion of tiny holes which were drilled into each draw-tube, at the points where their coupling-rings screw together. I’d never seen anything like this on other telescopes before, and this confused me at first. It wasn’t until after I’d cleaned, polished, and de-grimed the entire instrument that their purpose was revealed to me, since only then would their function be fully understood!

So why on earth would you have tiny pinholes drilled into the draw-tubes of a telescope? The simple answer is air-pressure!

Telescopes, for all their simplicity of construction, actually have components that fit together with remarkable precision. Every lens, every rim, every coupling-ring, every tube and cartridge, slips, slides and screws together in a very precise, tight-fitting way. To ensure smooth action, and to ensure that the telescope will not pull apart accidentally, the tubes and the coupling-rings, lenses and everything else, are fitted together with almost microscopic tolerances, so much so that the whole thing is virtually airtight!

The result of these tight-fitting parts is that when the telescope is collapsed for storage, there’s a lot of air trapped inside the draw-tubes which despite their snug fits, are obviously, not airtight. On small telescopes, this air can easily be forced out of the microscopic gaps between the draw-tubes, but on larger telescopes where this might not be possible, collapsing the telescope in the sharp, brisk, business-like manner that most people might’ve seen in TV shows or movies, just wouldn’t be practical, or probably, possible!

Here, you can see the three holes (on the left) drilled into the draw-tubes, with the maker’s details engraved on the right.

The holes in the draw-tubes therefore serve as air-pressure valves. The give the air somewhere to go when the tubes collapse into each other and force the air inside them out of the telescope. They make the process of opening and closing the telescope much smoother and easier. Without them, the resistance caused by the trapped air would likely make the draw-tubes jam or stick, both in opening, and closing the telescope.

Concluding Remarks

This concludes this latest posting, and my examinations of this latest addition to my collection. While other pieces may come and go, I’m pretty certain that this one will be a lifelong keeper. It really is an excellent piece and in such fantastic condition. There are a few minor blemishes that’s true, but you’d have a few yourself if you were nearly 200 years old!

Now all I need is a round-the-world cruise on which to bring it, so that I can do a spot of touristy sightseeing through its lenses, from the high, clear vantage point of the boat-deck of some grand ocean-liner… Eh…one day!

 

Georgian Scent-Box – My Antique Silver Vinaigrette

In going back over the hundreds of posts I’ve made in this blog since I started it in 2009, which is coming onto eight years ago (yikes!), I suddenly realised that I’d never done one about one of my most-prized antiques. My teeny little vinaigrette box. So that’s what we’re covering today! Here it is:

This thing is really small. I mean really, really, really small! You could pack four or five of these into a standard matchbox without much trouble at all. That’s how tiny it is! The entire thing is solid sterling silver, and it is indeed, very old. It is the oldest piece of antique silver which I currently own, and almost certainly the smallest. So, what is it?

Antique Vinaigrettes

Vinaigrette-boxes, or simply just vinaigrettes were very popular during the 17-and-1800s, from the early Georgian era up through the end of the Victorian era. They were almost always little silver boxes, with gilt interiors, with pierced grilles and little sponges inside.

The sponges held a mixture of perfume or essential oils mixed with a drop or two of vinegar. This mixture created a sweet-smelling but also pungent aroma, designed to mask the stench of unwashed bodies, horse-manure, coal-smoke and other nasal assaults common during the 18th and 19th centuries. Since vinegar is acidic, vinaigrettes were always gilt (gold-lined or gold-plated) to prevent the acid from burning through the silver with which the boxes were made.

Vinaigrettes came in various sizes, from minuscule ones like this, to much larger ones about the size of a matchbox. They also came in a wide array of shapes, styles and designs. Those with strange, interesting, rare or novel designs are especially collectible.

The Hallmarks

This particular vinaigrette has the hallmarks of Thomas Spicer, for Birmingham, in 1823, and the duty mark of George IV, who reigned from 1820-1830. It also has its original sponge inside it! It’s a bit dry and crusty, but I didn’t want to throw it out.

Hallmarks on silverware change over time. Not just in style, size and shape, but also in the number of hallmarks. Knowing when different hallmarks were introduced and when they were discontinued is one way of dating a piece. This can be important when the item is particularly old, and the original set of hallmarks might have been polished out or unreadable. The duty mark for British silver was introduced in the 1700s and discontinued in 1890.

And here’s the vinaigrette fully-opened, with the sponge removed. You can see the full set of hallmarks here. Five in total: Maker’s mark of TS (Thomas Spicer), assay mark of an anchor (Birmingham), fineness mark of a Lion Passant (Sterling Silver), the date-letter (Z) for 1823, and finally – a duty mark of a monarch’s head (George IV). The TS maker’s mark has been repeated on both sides of the box.

The Fall of the Vinaigrette

Vinaigrettes died out in the Victorian era. When the soap-tax was repealed in the…1850s, I believe it was…it suddenly became much easier to wash onself, and one’s clothing. This moderate improvement in personal hygiene and laundry meant that for once, people didn’t stink so much. And if they did, cologne, scent of perfume was used to mask the smell. By the end of the century, the vinaigrette had pretty much become a museum piece.

 

Late Victorian Dentifrice Pot (Ca. 1890)

“Why Did You Buy a Toothpaste Pot!?”

No, I mean…really! Like…y’know…um…why?

I like antiques which are quirky, interesting, unusual and useful. Emphasis on useful. I don’t like buying anything – even an antique – if I don’t either like it, or can use it, in one way or another. And ever since I discovered that they existed, I decided that I couldn’t wait to have a beautiful antique toothpaste jar on my bathroom counter.

Getting to see such an exquisitely decorated little vessel, which was only put on this earth to serve us toothpaste!…makes the act of brushing one’s teeth twice a day just so much more pleasant – brightened by the fact that you get to scoop your toothpaste out of such a cute little container. And even when you’re not using it, that decorated little pot just looks just so decorative and pretty, sitting there on the shelf, and doing what it does. This is why I wanted one!

Well, that, and I’d been selling a lot of things online lately and I decided to treat myself a bit. I found this at the local flea-market, and thought it’d look good siting on my bathroom counter…

I’ve seen a few of these in my time. Square, round…even rectangular! But this was the first one I’ve ever seen with the gold paint on it…and it just jumped out at me, all shiny in the sunlight. It just looked like such a happy, cheerful little toothpaste pot! I had to have it. Once I got it home, I cleaned it, washed it out, and filled it with fresh toothpaste. Just getting to look at this charming, Victorian antique every morning would be all the motivation that I’d need to brush my teeth every day!

The toothpaste pots of Victorian England were undoubtedly, the most elegant and refined solution ever created, to the answer the age-old problem of how to package effective dental hygiene products to a public plagued by halitosis. In this posting, I’ll take a brief look at the history of dental hygiene, and how mankind arrived at the manufacture of these little toothpaste pots, and the contents they once held.

“Taking a Powder…”

These days, we’re so used to things coming in liquid form.

Liquid soap. Liquid toothpaste. Liquid medicines. Liquid deodorants…the list goes on, and on, and on.

And yet, this obsession with all kinds of liquid products is actually a pretty recent one. It wasn’t that long ago that most products that people bought for themselves for private consumption were not sold in liquid form. Medicines were not sold in pill-form or even in syrup-form. They were sold in powder-form, with each dose in folded paper sachets. To ‘take a powder’ was to take a dose of medicine – usually by tipping the powder into a glass of water and stirring it. The resultant diluted powder was gulped down and the dose taken. All kinds of medicines were administered this way, including painkillers or settlers for joint-pain, fever, headaches and upset stomachs.

Soap was sold in soap-powder form or in a hard, chunky block, which you either lathered as-was, or shaved or cut off with a knife. Deodorants were limited to whatever talcum-powder you could smack onto your body to absorb the perspiration from your skin.

And last, but not least – the subject of this posting: Toothpaste!

A Biting History of Dental Care

Throughout history, people have known that if you don’t look after your teeth, all kinds of nasty things can happen to them. They turn black, they crust over, they get infected, they fall out, you get abscesses, and if you get really unlucky like my brother did – you get a root-canal operation (yikes!).

I’ve always been pretty fortunate with my teeth. Like most kids I never took very good care of them (who can ever claim they did?) but after one particularly nasty visit to the dentist, as a teenager, got fed up with the whole debacle, and started methodically scrubbing my teeth twice a day. Since then (apart from one very unpleasant incident a few years ago which I still don’t understand how it happened…), I’ve had pretty good teeth. Not perfect (nobody will have perfect teeth without outside help from a dentist), but pretty good. No major damage or problems in years, apart from the odd hiccup.

Our ancestors were just as aware of the importance of, and the dangers of the neglect of – cleaning one’s teeth properly and regularly. And to combat this problem, they devised a truly staggering array of methods and materials to clean their teeth, from brushing it with ash or fireplace soot, to gargling their mouths with stale urine (delicious!). This last one was a favourite of the Ancient Romans. Urine contains ammonia, which bleaches things white. Basically – piss was the world’s first extra-whitening mouthwash! Also, piss was used to clean linens back in the old days, too – bedsheets and clothing were all soaked in stale piss to let the raw ammonia remove and lift the stains out.

Aren’t you glad we have washing-detergents now?

Anyway, by the Victorian times, mankind had moved on from brushing his teeth with soot and gargling it out with stale urine. The effects of dental neglect were by now very well known, and the effects of dental neglect were not improved by the sudden availability to the public at large, of a large and cheap quantity of sugar!

Previous to the 1800s, all sugar came from sugar-canes – these only grow in tropical regions, which meant that for centuries, sugar was a priceless luxury – indulged in only by the richest people, who could afford the prices of sugar which had been processed, packed and shipped from thousands and thousands of miles away.

When it became known that sugar could be extracted from sugar-beets, which grow in more temperate climates, the price of sugar collapsed, and suddenly what once cost a king’s ransom, the average, workaday man could go out and buy.

The rise in sugar, and an increasing access to more food meant that for the first time in history, people’s teeth were under serious attack. And Victorian dentists and pharmacists came to the rescue – with specially-invented cleaning products!

Victorian Tooth Powders

Despite the labels on the tins (or in this case – pots!) – tooth-paste as we would recognise it, did not actually exist in Victorian times. The technology and science of the era did not permit the consistent manufacture of a paste or gel-like substance which kept well enough and which could be produced to a high-enough quality to clean the teeth on a regular basis. So what happened?

Pharmacists, apothecaries and dentists fell back on their old standby – powders!

The first commercially-produced tooth-cleaners, of a sort, were not tooth-pastes, they were tooth-powders. Often, these concoctions were homemade, using whatever materials could be found. The pharmacist would be constantly mixing, changing and testing, until the right combination of ingredients was reached. The recipe was written down and then repeated whenever a new order for tooth-powder came in.

Common ingredients in Victorian tooth-powders included crushed soap-flakes (for the lathering effect), baking soda, powdered plant-extracts of various kinds (for disinfection), and usually at least one abrasive – brick dust or even powdered china (you know, from broken plates? These were used to scrub off tartar and teeth-stains). All these ingredients were all crushed up in a mortar and pestle, ground up until they were as fine as talcum-powder. A flavouring (for example – oil of peppermint) was then added and mixed in, to give it a pleasant flavour. Then, the finished product was packed up and sold to the public!

For the apothecary or pharmacist, a solid brass mortar and pestle such as this one would’ve been indispensable in their work. Easily cleaned, and nigh indestructible, it would ensure the end product was pure and without contamination. 

Such tooth-powders, or ‘dentifrices’ as they’re called (a ‘dentifrice’ is something that cleans the teeth – it’s not necessarily a powder), while originally made by pharmacists and doctors doing their own, homemade experiments – but once a winning recipe had been discovered, they might well go into fullscale production!

The thing is – how do you sell something like this to the teeth-conscious public? You couldn’t very well sell tooth-powder in paper sachets, and since ‘toothpaste’ wasn’t actually a paste, you couldn’t sell it in a tube, either! And even if it was – the ability to make cheap, throwaway squeeze-tubes (of the kind we buy today) was not possible in Victorian times. The first ones were made of lead!

Because of this, the Victorians instead sold their tooth powders in little ceramic pots…

Victorian Dentifrice Pots

Exactly WHEN people started selling toothpaste in cute little pots is unknown. The earliest dates I can find seem to be the 1870s and 1880s, although this isn’t based on any really solid evidence.

These pots were pretty small – about the size of a modern tin of shoe-polish. They were very simple, too. A base, the sides, the hollow inside to hold the powder, an indented lip, and a lid, which simply sat on top – and that was it! They didn’t screw, latch or lock down like modern toothpaste tubes, or even modern screw-top jars! The lid simply sat on top of the pot – if you tipped it the wrong way, the lid would be in danger of falling off!

Tooth powders were simply dumped into these pots until they were full, and then the full pots were sold to the customers. The pots were likely secured either in throwaway paper boxes, to stop them rattling around, or were just taped shut.

Either way, these pots would’ve graced the dressing-tables, wash-stands and bathroom counters of thousands of people in the late Victorian era, when cost-effective and easy dental-care came into the reach of the masses. And as ever, the claims on the packaging were always the same. Over a century later and nothing has changed! They promised to whiten teeth, remove tartar, and freshen the breath!

I got interested in Victorian toothpaste jars from the moment I realised what they were, mostly because of the sort of novelty aspect of them – they’re so different from how we get our toothpaste today! I mean yes, we get them in nice, brightly-coloured tubes – but there’s something just so satisfying about storing it in a decorated little ceramic pot on the shelf, which you buy once, but clean and refill countless times!

And they look SO much more elegant than those tubes of AIM, PEPSODENT, COLGATE and McCLEANS!

That said, for all their elegance of presentation, and reusability of packaging, brushing your teeth with a tooth-powder was a bit more involved than squirting something onto a brush and stuffing it in your mouth!

To get the powder to stick to the toothbrush, it was necessary to moisten it first. Either by sticking it in your mouth, or by dipping it in water. This allowed the powder to stick to the bristles of the toothbrush (which in Victorian times, were made of wood, and bristled with pig-hair!) so that it wouldn’t fall off and go absolutely everywhere, when you lifted the brush from the pot to your mouth. It was only after you mixed the powder with water that it really ecame ‘tooth-paste’.

Thereafter, the process of cleaning is exactly the same today – except that the Victorians didn’t have fancy-schmancy battery-powered electric toothbrushes like we do!

Victorian toothpaste pots are highly collectible. Numerous manufacturers produced all kinds of styles and patterns, pictures and lettering on the lids of their toothpaste pots. I’ve even seen one or two with words like “Patronised by the Queen” printed on them!

Almost all the decorations, maker’s names, company addresses and printed advertising material on the lids of these pots was applied through a process called transfer-printing. Ceramics with this type of decoration are known as ‘transfer-ware’.

Transfer-Printing

Before the invention of transfer-printing – all the pretty pictures, the flowers, the idyllic scenes, the writing, the company-information…everything that went on every ceramic item ever sold – had to be laboriously painted onto it by hand, by some poor bastard sitting at a table with a brush in his hand! One mistake and the item would be rejected. And it took ages just to paint one tiny little cup, pot or bowl.

This all changed when the labour-intensive, but relatively-speaking – much faster – transfer-printing process was invented in the 1750s. It took a while, but by the 1800s, transfer-printed ceramics was a way of life for many people.

Transfer-printing works pretty simply – You get a copper plate. You engrave the design of whatever it is you want, onto the plate. You warm up the plate and paint on a special mixture of ink. You then laid down a sheet of paper over the inked plate and ran it through a press. This printed the image engraved on the copper onto the sheet of paper. The paper was then trimmed and cut to gain access to the various parts of the design, and then the paper was pressed onto the ceramic object being decorated.

In this way, the print was transferred from the copper to the ceramic. Transfer-printing!

To make it last, the printed ceramic item was then fired in a kiln to set the colours and inks; this dried them permanently and stopped them fading or running. It was a fiddly process, but it was a lot faster than painting or drawing on each individual pot by hand, and then sitting around all day waiting for it to dry! On top of all this, the results were far more consistent – important, when a company’s reputation was at stake!

Yes, you had to engrave the plate, yes you had to print each cup or bowl or plate or saucer one at a time – but in the time it used to take to paint one plate or bowl, dozens of such items could be transfer-printed! It was a fast, cheap, effective way of decorating ceramics, and it made actual sets of ceramics, all featuring the same pattern – a possibility. It was this process which printed all the pretty details on antique pots, like the ones used to sell tooth-powders in. It finally died out in the 1910s and 20s, when faster decoration processes were invented, such as premade decals which could simply be pressed on and then made permanent by painting them in with a clear-coat glaze.

The End of Transfer-Printed Tooth-Powder Pots

Pots like these for all their beauty, did not last especially long. By the early 20th century, they were already dying out. The First World War really saw their end. It wasn’t practical to send thousands of little ceramic jars to the front lines for the troops, all filled with powder. Advances in medicine meant that proper toothpastes were now available, and these could be stored in thin, metal tubes which could be squeezed to release the paste onto a brush in a measured amount. And the tooth-powder pot was relegated to the bathroom of history…

Where Can I Buy a Dentifrice Pot? 

Dentifrice pots are pretty common as far as antiques go. They’re usually dug out of old rubbish-tips and stuff. Complete pots with their lids and bases, without damage or loss of artwork on the lid can go for a pretty penny, especially if the pot is of an odd shape, size, or from a famous company, or if the artwork is particularly fantastic. Most bog-standard toothpaste pots are pretty cheap, though.

You can probably find them easily at most flea-markets and antiques shops (although they’ll cost more in antiques shops). But they are small, common, and pretty – and that does make them highly desirable as a collectible – some people even collect the lids on their own, without looking for the entire pot!

 

Mid-Victorian Mahogany-Sleeved Naval Telescope. Ca. 1860.

“Cap’n! Presents off the larboard bow!” 
“I see ’em! Ready the launch! You there – come about into the wind! We’ll not let them escape us now! Bring up the harpoons!” 

The greatest thing about collecting antiques is that you always find the best birthday presents for yourself, if you search hard enough! I picked up this stunning beauty for my birthday! Yes, I’m officially…29. Oh, the horror, shame, and disgrace of it all…!


Up Close and Personal!

Aaaaanyway… 

What we have here is an old-fashioned nautical telescope, as was used on the sailing-ships of old. And boy is it ever a monster! It’s 11in. closed, extends to 39in drawn out, and weighs a substantial 1lb 10oz (approx 750g)! A lightweight, it ain’t!

Features of Construction

This stunning antique features entirely brass construction, with the exception of the wooden sleeve around the barrel, and of course, the glass in the lenses. It is possessed of four, brass draw-tubes, as you can see in the photograph below:


All Drawn Out… 

A four-tube telescope means that it has four tubular extensions which collapse into each other, and which then all slide into the main barrel at the front of the telescope.

I’m not sure how old this telescope is, to be honest. It’s of a style that was widely manufactured from the 1700s right up to the 1900s, but the fellow I got it from believed it to be from around 1850 or 1860. For something roughly 150 years old — after extensive cleaning — it does work pretty well! The threaded brass coupling-rings hold well (or they do, after a minor adjustment), and the tubes slide in and out smoothly, if a bit more firmly than I’m used to!

The telescope has a two-piece achromatic lens at the front, a two-lens relay system inside the smallest draw-tube, and an eyepiece lens at the far end – so four (or five, depending on how you count it), lenses in all!


Here it is, next to my solid brass, pocket telescope from the 1890s. As you can see, there’s a huge size difference! 

As one would probably expect from something like this, it’s got a GREAT range, and surprisingly clear optics for a piece that’s obviously seen quite a hard life. There’s one small blemish on an interior lens which, try as I might, I couldn’t remove, but other than that – the clarity is impressive.

Using the Telescope

Since it is 150 years old, I expected the telescope to be dirty. I didn’t expect it to be THIS dirty! It required EXTENSIVE cleaning to get it to function even halfway decent! And I’m still cleaning it! But despite that, it’s beginning to show signs of the smoothness of function it once had.

To draw the telescope, I’ve found it’s best to hold it at the near end of the barrel (away from the lens) and to pull firmly, but smoothly, to get the draw tubes out, and to hold the barrel in the middle, when snapping the tubes shut again.

As I said, this telescope is quite chunky, so using it can be a bit of a challenge. I generally hold the largest, or second-largest draw-tube in order to balance this beast, and then adjust the focus by sliding the smallest draw-tube in and out, until clarity is achieved.

The good thing is that this is done relatively easily. The bad thing is that it’s surprisingly tiring on the arms! A telescope that weighs about a pound and a half doesn’t sound like much to carry around (and it isn’t), but when you’ve held it up in one hand for any length of time while trying to look through it, the weight does start to pull on your shoulders a bit! One wonders how the sailors of old ever managed to use this thing on the rocking, rolling deck of a sailing ship!

Cleaning the Telescope

The one saving grace about this telescope – and most telescopes of this design – is that they’re extraordinarily easy to clean. All the draw-tubes, lenses and coupling-rings screw together. All you need is a box of tissues, some oil, and a firm grip to screw and unscrew, and you can pull apart the entire telescope to clean it. There aren’t that many parts, and there’s no way you can confuse one part for another, so they’re very easy to put back together again.

You don’t need any special tools or equipment – just a few basic cleaning supplies and a spare afternoon. I think it’s amazing how something which is so easily assembled is at the same time, so incredibly powerful, and yet, so simply constructed. Even a child could do this. I love the thoughtfulness of the design in that the manufacturer imagined that the owner might want to disassemble his own telescope for cleaning and maintenance. I don’t know many consumer products today which are this user-friendly!

Repairing the Telescope

As much fun as this telescope is to use and to clean and polish, when I bought it, the telescope also had one significant flaw – It wouldn’t stay together.

As I said above, the telescope’s components quite literally just screw, one-into-the-other, in a set sequence of construction. Easily followed and impossible to screw up. A few good twists would be all that’d be needed to pull the thing apart, clean it, and reassemble it. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case with this telescope.

Probably due to overzealous cleaning in the past, or possibly a manufacturing fault, or simply just 150-years’ worth of wear and tear, the thread that held in the largest draw-tube (the one which connects to the barrel) was not gripping properly. It simply refused to hold. After screwing it in as hard as possible, it’d simply pop right out again after one good pull! Hardly ideal!

I pulled the telescope apart and cleaned the threads, and then to fix this problem, I wrapped ordinary paper masking-tape around the threads on the coupling-ring. Just once.


Group Shot! My big telescope, my small telescope, and my field glasses all together. All brass, all antique. What a pretty trio they make.

I trimmed off the excess tape with a pocket-knife, and then screwed the two components back together. No oil, no graphite powder, nothing. Just a simple layer of sticky tape. It cost me literally nothing! and yet…the repair worked!

Just one layer of tape was all I needed to build up the necessary thickness, friction and ‘bite’ necessary for the threads to screw in smoothly, and for the connection to hold! it took me less than five minutes to repair. Don’t be daunted by broken antiques – sometimes all it takes is a bit of creativity to return them to full functionality.

Video

Last but not least, here’s a short video I made about the telescope:

 

Victorian Aide Memoires

Used most commonly in the Victorian era, the Aide Memoire (French for ‘Memory Aid’) is one of the quirkiest antiques that you could find today. Most people who come across them have no idea what they are, and frankly I’m not surprised. So, here we go…

Aide memoires were riveted booklets made of very thin slices of ivory, usually numbering between five to eight pages in length, and usually having the days of the week on the pages (usually Monday through to Saturday, and sometimes Sunday).

More elaborate versions had covers of pierced silver, mother-of-pearl, or tortoise-shell as decoration, while others had simple ivory covers, sometimes with silver edgings or cartouches riveted on.

Aide memoires were popular during the 1700s and 1800s, slowly dying out in the early 20th century, and their existence is directly linked to the evolution of writing instruments during this period.

The Function of an Aide Memoire

In an age when the dip-pen ruled supreme, and the only portable writing instrument was the propelling pencil made of sterling silver, or the humble, wood-cased pencil which more often than not, was sharpened with the blade of a pocket-knife, writing notes on the move was a tricky and messy process. Paper was expensive, ink was prone to leaks, and small, pocket notepads had not yet been conceived. So how did you keep reminders of what you needed to do that week?

You bought an aide memoire.

On an aide memoire, you wrote in pencil the things you needed to remember for that week. The dates of doctor’s appointments, nights at the theatre, dinner with friends, shopping that had to be done, and so on. At the end of each week, the ivory sheets were wiped clean with a damp cloth, and the details for the next week’s engagements were written down.

Like an iPad or personal organiser today, the original expenditure on an aide memoire was likely to be fairly high, but the money saved in paper was probably considered to be worth the expense.

Aide memoires varied in size and intricacy, from tiny little ones not much larger than matchboxes, to significantly larger ones almost the size of a modern iPhone (which is about as big as they get).

They usually resided in a gentleman’s coat pocket, on a watch-chain, in a lady’s handbag, or else hung from a chain on her chatelaine. Aide memoires designed for chatelaines and pocketwatch chains came with a ring, swing-toggle or hook on the end so that they could be clipped on safely without fear of loss or breakage.

Due to their extremely thin sheets of ivory, aide memoires are pretty fragile. They need to be handled with care, and cleaned gently. Any old marks or stains can generally be polished off with warm water. If there are heavier stains, then a microscopic amount of Brasso metal-polish will also do the trick; a drop will suffice.

Aide memoires did exist in other formats; versions of them were included in higher-quality writing boxes, and these ranged from cheap waxed cardboard, to ivory, to the new wonder-material of the 1800s: Celluloid. Portable, pocket aide memoires were also made of celluloid, but ivory was always the preferred material.