Since I came back from overseas I’ve been back working on the Dow’s Pharmacy documentation project.
And one thing that has struck me is just how many late nineteenth and early twentieth century pickle jars have been reused to store materia medica.
In one sense this is not surprising. Pickle jars very nature would have been easy to clean and resterilise, and are usually made of fairly heavy glass making them ideal for reuse.
But why pickle jars?
Before the advent of home refrigeration, pickles, chutneys etc were an important way of preserving produce so it could be eaten out of season.
In Australia this was important, not so much over winter, but over summer when many vegetables would spoil in the heat.
So just as you used to be able to get bottled carrots, asparagus and other goodies, not to mention the bottled gherkins, capsicums and garden salad from Poland and Hungary, in Victorian times this spawned a whole industry of local bottlers and picklers. – Victoree, John Sutherland, Jonathan Reeve, etc in the agricultural areas producing and bottling pickles on a commercial scale.
Now, as all the pickle jars have had their labels removed I can’t tell you what the original contents were as one late nineteenth century jar looks much like another, but they are relatively easy to identify as most of the bottlers used jars embossed with their logo.
Now it’s possible that the old boy just liked his pickles, but I suspect that there’s more to it than that. For example, it’s always puzzled me why, in Victorian detective stories, mysterious substances were always transferred to a pickle jar for forensic analysis.
It’s simple really. Most people, as well as buying some bought products pickled and bottled vegetables at home meaning that most houses would have a stock of clean pickle jars hidden away somewhere, just as we still hide away some jars for homemade jam.
It’s also possible that the substantial nature of the pickle jars that made them attractive to old Mr Dow to store his materia medica also made them attractive to the housewives and housekeepers of Federation period Australia – something in a jar you could reuse several times was probably a more attractive purchase than something in a lighter jar that might crack when being sterilised for reuse …