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The History of the Apothecary: Past and Present

What is an apothecary?

When talking about Willow & Birch Apothecary, I’m sometimes asked, “What does ‘apothecary’ mean?” And being the history nerd that I am, I’m always eager to share a bit about Victorian-era apothecaries and why I chose to incorporate this tradition into my own modern day apothecary shop!

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines an apothecary as “one who prepares and sells drugs or compounds for medicinal purposes.” However, as we will come to find, this definition has evolved a bit over the past several hundred years.


History of the Apothecary

For centuries before the Victorian period, women would typically make their own medicines at home using simple herbal remedies. Wealthier households would even have a “still room” where home remedies could be distilled in greater quantities.

medieval apothecary shop

By the Victorian era, it was common to purchase one’s medicines from the local apothecary or pharmacist who stocked compounds and tonics for a variety of ailments.

In addition to medications, hand creams and face creams were considered medicinal because they protected the skin from damage caused by weather, heat (from cooking and working in front of a fire), and harsh soaps that left skin dry and cracked. For these, an apothecary would use time-tested ingredients such as rosewater, lavender, oatmeal, lemons, almonds, elderflower water, and even sugar.

The Victorian apothecary

“[…] a woman could use some cosmetic lotions that she herself thought more medicinal than aesthetic. Freckles were an unwanted discoloration of the skin in many people’s minds; the archetype of a beautiful woman was one with clear, pale skin, and freckles were seen as blemishes, no better than spots and pimples. Most apothecaries and pharmacists mixed their own formulas to sell at the beginning of the century, but, by the end of the period, these locally made products were joined by a host of national brands.”

—excerpted from How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman


Modern Day Apothecary

Today, the modern day apothecary store looks a bit different. Some apothecaries continue to produce herbal health remedies while others—like Willow & Birch Apothecary—carry on the tradition of creating beauty products to enhance one’s appearance and overall well-being.

Willow & Birch Apothecary is a modern apothecary story selling modern apothecary products

At Willow & Birch, our modern apothecary products are handcrafted in much the same way a Victorian apothecary would have crafted their own creams, oils, and other remedies. By honoring these bygone traditions, we hope our botanical bath, beauty, and fragrances will infuse your everyday beauty routine with the charm and elegance of the Victorian period!

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  • Interesting read, the Victorian Era is fascinating!

  • I really enjoy reading about the Victorian Era. Thank you!


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