The pestle and mortar is a traditional apothecary symbol and at various times it has been used as a sign for a chemist's shop or pharmacy. In the Victorian era, a large replica - made of wood and painted or gilded - made a good outdoor sign to attract customers and distinguish it from other shops.
Pharmacists made up herbal medicines following the directions from a book containing a list of medicinal drugs, with details of their formulae, methods of preparation and dosages. This book was generally known as a pharmacopoeia, and chemists either devised their own, or followed those written by eminent scientists of the time.
The pestle and mortar were used in the first stages of making up a medicine. The pharmacist would use a range of equipment at each stage of preparing medicines. In addition to the pestle and mortar he would use scales, measures, scoops, powder folder, pill-making machine and spatula. The pharmacist would measure the ingredients carefully on the balancing scales, either in their natural state or after grinding them with the pestle and mortar. The final mixing was done on a white sheet of paper with a spatula. The bulk of the powder was then divided into individual doses and wrapped by hand in sheets of pre-cut paper. Folding was done using a powder folder - a tool that enabled the even folding of the doses so that they would fit snugly into the customer's pillbox.
Powders often had an unpleasant taste. This could be overcome by mixing them with liquorice powder and liquid glucose and making them into pills. Another way of disguising the taste was to place the powders between two pieces of rice paper. The edges were moistened and stuck together. When a person placed the rice paper on the tongue it would become soft and the entire wafer could be swallowed. The rice paper changed shape later when they were made into tiny soup plates with the powder in the middle. They were called cachets and looked like Flying Saucer sweets.
The pestle and mortar has a long history. They were probably a development of the grinding tools first used for corns and seeds as food by agricultural settlers in Neolithic times. There is evidence of the Greeks using them for medicines and in cooking. The preparations of many Anglo-Saxon medical concoctions called for the use of mortars - usually marble or limestone, iron or bronze.
Stone mortars were used in the 16th century for powdering seeds such as coriander, cumin and mustard, herbs like thyme and for grinding the fragments of sugar cut from solid sugar cones or loaves. Bell mortars in the 17th century were cast from scrap metal left over from bell founding. This was a mixture of copper and tin and the mortar was the shape of an upside-down bell, which gave a good ringing tone. Sometimes they were given as wedding presents, with the names of the husband and wife and sentiments such as 'AMOR VINCIT OMNIA' (Love Conquers All) engraved or embossed on the surface.