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Medical History and Special Collections: Apothecary Jars

Caldwell Collection

James D. and Elizabeth G. Caldwell collected 18th and 19th century glass and porcelain apothecary jars during the years they lived and worked in Ecuador.  The Caldwell Collection was donated to the Duke Medical Center Library many years ago.  

Many of the jars have colorful illustrations surrounding the label indicating their content.  

The jars are on display in the exhibit cabinets in the Library's lower lobby, Level 1, of the Seeley G. Mudd building and in the Reading Room (102) on the same level.

Albarelli and Versatoi -- Mary D. B. T. Semans Foundation Collection

A beautiful and unique collection of 15th to 18th century apothecary vessels, referred to as albarelli (apothecary jars) and versatoi (ewers or jugs), is on display in the Richmond House Room (102E).  These tin-glazed earthenware jars were collected by Dr. Josiah C. Trent from about 1945 until his death in 1948 and are on loan from the Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans Foundation.

The majority of vessels are Italian with redware pottery bodies and glazed interiors.  This collection can be viewed in the Richmond House Room (102E) on Level 1.  The Spanish jars (Hispano-Moresque ware) can be found in the lobby display cabinet on Level 1 of the Library.

Glazed earthenware vessels such as these were used during the Renaissance period in both public and private dispensaries to store a variety of pharmaceuticals.  The contents of the containers themselves determined their size and shape.

The albarello, the older type of jar, was cylindrical in form with slightly concave sides and was used for solids. The versatoi or wet jar was ovoid with a handle and spout.  Some had ceramic tops, but most were sealed by a bladder, parchment, or cloth secured with a string.  Inscriptions identifying the contents were written either directly on the jar or on a separate label.