About the Collection

“Apothecary” is an early term for the profession now called “druggist” or “pharmacist.” Apothecaries used ingredients from nature to create medications. They stored the ingredients or the completed medications in “apothecary jars.” These jars lined the shelves of the apothecary’s shop.

The Library’s collection of over fifty jars was given in memory of Leon A. Harris on December 19, 1959, and is located in Rare Book Room at the South Campus (main) Library.

Each jar is beautifully labeled as to its contents. In addition, many are painted with ornate decorations or symbols, for the jars were meant to be decorative as well as functional. Some jars, such as those for basilicum and licopodio, display a picture of the plant itself, while others—such as water hemlock—are more simply decorated.

Medicine sometimes injures, sometimes restores health; showing which plant is helpful and which harmful.

           —Ovid, "Tristia" ("Sorrows"), AD 8

These jars illustrate the variety of herbal medicines and their forms. Apothecaries worked with a wide range of plant material—leaves, roots, bark, flowers and seeds, as well as chemical elements such as antimony. Contents ranged from the safe (table sugar) to the poisonous (henbane). Medications to relieve pain were among the most common contents.


A portion of this collection is also available in Flickr. Do you know something about these jars? Help us expand what is known about the jars by adding comments or notes to the photos there.