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What Is an Apothecary? From Past to Present

The term "apothecary" has a very intriguing and mysterious ring to it. You might associate it with one of the magical shops in Harry Potter that sold unicorn horns and beetle eyes or think of it vaguely as a place that sells plants. But what exactly is an apothecary?

Apothecaries have been around for thousands of years but were especially popular in medieval times. They eventually faded out in the 19th century as changes in medicine and the structure of society came about.

Today, you'll still see and hear of apothecary shops, although they've evolved a lot. With more interest in holistic health and natural health options, apothecaries once again have an important place in society.

Here's a closer look at what they used to be and what they are today.

What Is an Apothecary?

So what is an apothecary? In times past, the word "apothecary" could refer to one of two meanings: a person who prepared and sold medicines or the shop in which they sold their products, similar to a pharmacy.

Here's a closer look at each meaning.

Apothecary the Person

Apothecaries were skilled and learned at making, compounding, and dosing a wide variety of medicines, usually formulated from herbs and other natural ingredients.

In early history, they played the role of both doctor and pharmacist. People would come into their shop and tell them of an illness, injury, or imbalance. The apothecary would then make a diagnosis and recommendation and mix up the medicine for their customer.

Most apothecaries learned their trade by apprenticing to an established apothecary for many years. They had to learn many different skills: correctly identifying and harvesting plants, making medicinal preparations, formulating the correct dosages for different people, diagnosing symptoms, etc.

With the dominance of our modern medical system, it's tempting to think that apothecaries were either frauds or not qualified for their profession, but the reverse is true.

Of course, there are always "bad apples" in any profession, but most apothecaries took pride in their trade and in serving people. Many studied for years and kept up with advances in medicine and science. (1) Guilds were formed in England and other countries to keep high standards for the purity of remedies and ingredients sold.

At one point in time, the local apothecary was a vital piece of every town and city.

Apothecary the Shop

"Apothecary" also came to refer to the shops owned by apothecaries where medicines and other products were sold.

You can think of them as precursors to modern pharmacies. You could go to them to buy prepared medicines but also spices, herbs, cosmetics, dyes, soaps, etc.

Much of what was found in these shops had a natural origin, but ingredients and preparations changed with the times. They gave people the access to medicinal herbs, spices, and products that they wouldn't have otherwise had without growing and making everything themselves.

Evolution of Apothecaries

Over time, apothecaries gradually evolved and changed in function- both the shop and the profession.

Starting in the 1700s, some apothecary shops began to be attached to hospitals and other medical places. (1) This was the beginning of a shift from apothecaries functioning as both doctors and pharmacists to more of a pharmacist-only role.

Many still knew much about basic medicinal practices, but their focus shifted more towards making quality preparations and understanding plant and chemical constituents. Of course, in smaller towns without hospitals or medical practices, apothecaries continued functioning much like they used to.

Another shift occurred in the 1800s when patented medicine (including natural medicines) came about along with the advent of the traveling salesman.

In the U.S., a man named Samuel Thomson played a large role in this new movement. He developed a system of herbal medicine, patented remedies, and traveled widely teaching his methods. (2) His method eventually faded out but represented a new way of selling medicines.

The result of this was that apothecaries were no longer as needed as they once were. People could buy from traveling salesman and get medical advice and prescriptions from other institutions.

Decline of Apothecaries

It could be said that apothecaries eventually declined almost out of existence, but that wouldn't be entirely true.

The apothecary as a profession and as a shop that sold natural and herbal medicines did disappear from many societies (though it kept a foothold in certain areas to reappear later). However, in another sense apothecaries morphed into what we now know as pharmacies (like Walgreens and CVS).

Medicine shifted towards using isolated compounds from plants that were eventually reproduced synthetically in labs. Medicinal preparations largely became standardized and pre-packaged, so there was no longer perceived to be a need for professionals who could formulate individual doses.

Modern Apothecaries

Today, you can still find shops with the name "apothecary", although it's much more difficult to find someone who calls themselves a professional apothecary.

With the resurgence of herbal remedies and alternative medicine, apothecaries have once again become a place where you can buy herbs, loose tea, herbal preparations, natural products, and more. Some have gone online and become larger versions of the original. Others remain as small, local shops.

Apothecary owners are usually very knowledgeable about herbs and their actions, often formulating their own products. You can learn a lot of information from them and get recommendations for different herbs to use and what to do with them (just not medical advice).

Many apothecary shops and owners also have a focus on environmental care, whether that's selling organic ingredients or reducing waste and their carbon footprint.

Euphoric Herbals Apothecary

Euphoric Herbals Apothecary is proud to be the first (and only) herbal apothecary in Delaware. With our central location, we serve the whole state (and adjoining ones as well).

We offer 150+ herbs, herbal tea blends, natural products (including our own), carrier oils, and more! Most herbs are certified organic or ethically wildcrafted, and we believe in following a zero waste model.

If you're local, come stop by! Whether you're new to herbs or have loved them for years, we'd love to help supply your DIY creations and natural health journey.

Not in the area? You can shop at the Euphoric Herbals online store for herbal support through pregnancy, postpartum, and at any stage of life.