Published: December 22, 2015
Daniel A. Goldstein is a physician, medical toxicologist and clinical pharmacologist with a lifelong interest in collecting apothecary wares and a longstanding fascination with apothecary terminology. His book The Historical Apothecary Compendium: A Guide to Terms and Symbols was recently published (Schiffer, 2015).
What was your introduction to apothecary bottles?
This all began with four beautiful fused-label salt — i.e., wide-mouth — jars my mother kept on a living room shelf. My father had purchased them simply because they looked so interesting. My father, an attorney, loved antiques in general. My mother, an art historian and professional editor, loved antiques and is largely responsible for my writing skills and my appreciation of the interrelationship — exemplified in bottle types — of design, form and function.
What is it about this genre you find fascinating?
I was one of those inquisitive kids who read the encyclopedia for entertainment, so at first, I think, they were just mysterious — what was in the bottle, what was it used for, how was it made, what did it look like, why was it inscribed in a strange language and did anyone still know what it meant? As my academic interests evolved from chemistry into biology and medicine, ultimately focusing on pharmacology [the study of drugs] and the closely allied field of toxicology [the study of poisons] and as my collection grew, the convergence of hobby and profession was probably inevitable. The basic questions have not changed.
Tell us about your own bottle collection.
As a student, my collection was mainly inexpensive patent medicine bottles and associated paraphernalia. Once I settled down to a home and career, my parents gave me the original four bottles for my own collection, and I began to collect apothecary bottles in earnest, starting with glass containers and later incorporating the more costly show globes and apothecary ceramics. Over the years, my dear wife has been co-opted into the effort and is now a classic “enabler,” having imported a collection of containers full of mysterious powders from Uruguay, past Homeland Security, as an anniversary surprise! My house runneth over.
What is your favorite bottle in your collection, and is there an elusive one that you are still chasing?
On the beauty front it would be impossible to decide on a single item, although I still favor glass jars with recessed gold labels. An all-time favorite is a bottle for Kopp’s, the Baby’s Friend — strychnine and morphine: yikes! — which carries the best all-purpose disclaimer in human history: “Indiscriminate use may cause untoward disturbances.”
My great chase was all about Turlington’s Balsam, believed to be the first patent medicine imported to the American colonies. I found this little bottle at last in an antiques mall in Augusta, Ga., and paid the grand price of $7 for the treasure of a lifetime. My other great chase was for an intact vapo-cresoline lamp — a tiny oil lamp with a pan above the flame to vaporize creosote for purposes much like we use a vaporizer today. Success came with the advent of online shopping, which makes everything far easier to locate.
You studied Latin in high school. Is it fun translating the old Latin inscriptions on these bottles?
Latin was intended to form the foundation for a mastery of the romance languages which, sadly, never occurred. The decision to study Latin did turn out to be a stroke of good fortune, however, as the concept of writing the Historical Apothecary Compendium would never have congealed without all three critical components: pharmacology, collecting and Latin. Translation is both fun and challenging — one finds out quickly that there is no “spell-check” available, short of, perhaps, the Vatican.
Is this the first or definitive book on this genre?
It is certainly the largest collection of terminology by far, with some 10,000-plus individual entries; and the first to incorporate extensive reference material on chemistry, Latin and other related subjects. Far more could be written on many of the entries. The model for the Compendium was R.E.A. Drey’s beautiful illustrated book Apothecary Jars [Faber and Faber, 1978], which has a small glossary of terms. J. Worth Este’s Dictionary of Protopharmacology [Watson Publishing, 1990] contains several hundred terms. For those with an interest in labels, Bogard and Griffenhagen’s History of Drug Containers and Their Labels [1999, online at American Institute for the History of Pharmacy] is an essential source.
What’s your next project?
As a consequence of hard use, my reference materials have fallen apart, quite literally, at the seams. I have taken up bookbinding and repair as a hobby which is fun, challenging and a break from the keyboard. I do have another book or two lurking inside: one attempting to do for toxicology what Oliver Sachs has done for neurology via a collection of interesting vignettes — I dare not claim his talent as a writer — and the other a “Chromotoxicon,” covering the fascinating interrelationships of dyes and pigments, chemistry and clinical toxicology from Vermillion (mercury) and Paris Green (arsenic) through Mauve (the first synthetic dye) to Micro-dots (nanotechnology).
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