Sunday, 1 January 2006

Collect antique ointment pots - the instant hangover cure

by Christopher Proudlove©
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As the nation recovers from the kind of hangover that happens only once a year, the Royal Society of Chemistry has come up with the answer: apparently the best treatment for the morning after is toast and honey.

I have another answer. Get hold of a copy of a new book, Historical Guide to Delftware and Victorian Ointment Pots, and two things will quickly have you back on your feet: studying the extensive list of ailments that quack Victorian "chemists" claimed they could cure ... and the prices some of these pots now command among today's collectors. It is sobering reading, to say the least.

The book and associated price guide is the work of Liverpool man Bob Houghton and his colleague Mark Priestley, who spent five years researching their subject. The result is a fascinating work which is sure to become the definitive guide to anyone with an interest in collecting.

It is the latter section which I found particularly fascinating. This relates to the Victorian and Edwardian era and is primarily focused on ceramic medical pots that were specifically sold to cure a range of common ailments - some mentionable, others less so!
Historical Guide to Delftware and Victorian Ointment Pots costs £20.00 (plus £5.00 P&P). It can be ordered on the Internet here; by email at or by contacting Bob Houghton directly on 07969 785350.
Medical science was still at a comparatively early stage in its development and many people still held strong beliefs in old cures, handed down through generations, which would provide instant and miraculous remedies for their illnesses.

Some of the makers and manufacturers tried to offer what they believed to be a genuine cure. Others sadly exploited the naivety and ignorance of much of the population and offered instant cure-all remedies with no substance other than alcohol or narcotics.

Ointment pots that broadly date to the Victorian and Edwardian period are very collectable because of their seemingly wild claims, their relatively small size and the significant variety that are now known. The pots also hold fascination for the general public and provide a view of a simplistic past era that existed just 100 years ago.

The Victorian era saw the rapid development of an urban industrial economy with high concentrations of population in major cities and a subsequent rise in the transmission of diseases. The time was right however for many to exploit the ignorance of many workers of the age.

The proliferation of cheaper mass production methods as well as increasingly sophisticated advertising helped to support the growth of many new industries to serve and target this lucrative market.

Thomas Holloway was amongst the first to recognise the power and potential of advertising and spent large sums on worldwide adverts for his ointment and pills. In 1851, UK patent medicine firms had a combined turnover of some £250,000 that grew spectacularly throughout the remainder of the century.
I met Bob Houghton in 2000 when I wrote about his schoolboy hobby of collecting ginger beer bottles which he dug from Victorian rubbish tips. At the time, he told me he had about 140 different examples but he also collected many relatable collectables such as toothpaste and cold cream pot lids which were used and retailed by Liverpool chemists.

He now lives in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, where he is group marketing manager for one of Europe's biggest packaging companies. He met Mark Priestly, who is head of tax for the same company, 14 years ago and has one of the largest collections of Victorian ointment pots in the country,

The book project was born out of a meeting with another great collector, Dr Anne Young, who has a great collection of Delftware pots which presented the opportunity to also include these fabulous early pots.,

By going through library archives, old Kelly's and Post Office directories, and with help from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, the Welcome Institute and the Science Museum, it was possible to date the pots and when their makers were active. No-one has ever done this before.
In 1884, according to the Chemist and Druggist magazine, there were between 800 and 1,000 makers of patent remedies in Great Britain producing up to 5,000 different medicines with some 19,000 people who were employed by the industry in manufacture and distribution.

Many ointments were based on old remedies or at least attempted to engender the feeling that a successful recipe had been passed down through the generations. Brand names such as Mother Ashton, Mrs Croft, Mrs Hulse and Mrs Gares were used to personalise and reinforce the belief that each generation had a secret herbal recipe that could cure all ills.

Without any restrictions on the medical properties of ointments and cures, and together with the ease of manufacture of transfer printed pots on which the claims could be stated, the growth of the quack cure exploded. This is reflected in the vast range of people's occupations that sold ointment or salves and the fact that the sale of ointment was not limited to chemists or druggists.

Bicycle manufacturers, drapers, newsagents and even a school master are now known to have sold ointment over this relatively short period.

The trade directories are full of similar examples from 'unknown' proprietors such as William Spencer, who ran the Butchers' Arms in Lydiard Millicent, Swindon, in 1889 and also advertised "'Spencer's' ointment for burns, scalds & every description of sores & skin disease". Another, Mrs Sarah Ann Andrew, is listed in 1879 as a salve and ointment maker but also a coal dealer at 64 Broad Lane, Sheffield.

A growing number of potteries helped to support this potentially lucrative industry and ensured that high quality mass produced containers were available to all. Potteries were located throughout the UK and many produced ointment pots.

The demolition of the Maling Pottery buildings at Newcastle-Upon-Tyne uncovered examples of many of the items produced by this significant supplier, including, not surprisingly, ointment pots for the local business of George Handyside.

Similarly, when Buchan's Portobello Pottery buildings in Edinburgh were demolished in the early 1970s, hundreds of Singleton's Golden Eye Ointment pots were discovered.

Port Dundas, based in Glasgow, was another leading Scottish pottery that advertised it produced ointment pots as well as virtually every type of stoneware container imaginable.

Although there was initially no legislation to control the claims made by manufacturers about the powers of their medicines, all medicines in the UK were subject to tax. A government duty of 1½d was levied on all ointments retailing at 1/- (five pence) hence the vast majority of them sold for 1/1½d.

As medicine advanced, so the medical profession began to understand how damaging many of the false claims were affecting the profession as a whole. Most ointments contained little in the way of healing ingredients and many could also have done more harm than good.

The main constituent for most ointments was animal fat such as hogs lard or beef fat as well as bees wax and petroleum jelly which was used as a carrier for herbs or a range of active chemical based ingredients.

The analysis of one of the most popular ointments of the Victorian era, Dr. Roberts' original Poor Man's Friend ointment, showed that it consisted chiefly of Paraffin Molle, while Brown's Herbal Ointment was essentially just petroleum jelly.

Significant advances were made in medicine towards the end of the 19th Century. These were both scientific and also, importantly, in the regulation of medicine, principally by the British Medical Association (BMA) which began to take a leading role in influencing legislation on public health matters.

The exposure of quack medicine with the BMA campaign in 1909 resulted in many proprietors moderating the often exaggerated claims once attributed to their cures while increased scrutiny ultimately caused the demise of many patent medicines and several proprietors were actually prosecuted for fraudulent statements.

The First World War was a watershed for many manufactured products, and pottery containers were quickly replaced by cheaper forms of packaging, such as tins. A few companies continued to use traditional style ointment pots into the 1920s but further efficiency improvements in glass, labels and collapsible metal tubes ended their use by the 1930s.

Incredibly, it was not until the 1941 Pharmacy and Medicines Act that manufacturers were required to disclose the active ingredients on a products' label.

Pictures show, top: The Reekie ointment pot dates to the late Victorian period. The Reekie family were one of many during this period to sell ointment based on family recipes, which were handed down through the generations. This pot is very rare and commands a value of £350.

Below, left to right: Queen's Dentifrice. This early tin-glaze Delftware pot dates to circa 1770 and was possibly used by Jacob Hemet, Dentist to Queen Anne and George II. The pot is very rare and valued at £1,500

The Lees Paisley ointment pot is one of the most desirable Victorian ointment pots due to its sepia, pictorial transfer. The value of this small pot which claims to cure a plethora of illnesses is valued at £500+.

The cover of Bob Haughton and Mark Priestley's book

This attractive blue print transferred pot was sold by William Jones & Co., who had a number of shops in Liverpool and Bootle. The pot dates to circa 1870-80 and is very desirable. It's worth £250

The Johnson pot is very appealing due to the vast range of medical conditions it claims to cure. There are two sizes known - the smaller pot selling for 1s/3d and larger for 2s/9d. Value £350+

Queen's DentifricePaisleyCoverJones LiverpoolJohnson's

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