Pot lids

In the latter half of the nineteenth century items like toothpaste and cosmetics started to be packaged in small ceramic pots.

These pots are sought after by collectors of nineteenth century ephemera and good examples go for a couple of hundred dollars

Being ceramic they are fairly indestructible and regularly turn up in bottle dumps and online auctions – the example above was found on ebay and claimed to come from a bottle dump in Claremont WA.

Of course, it’s a rarity for any of these pots offered for sale to come with anything resembling a provenance, but because they’re sought after by collectors we can track how the design changed over the years, giving us a rough chronology – for example, though S Maw.Son and Sons sold their cherry toothpaste for most of the latter half of the nineteenth century we can date this particular pot lid to the 1870’s, which tells this that someone was importing and selling their toothpaste in Western Australia, or just possibly, someone migrating from England brought some with them.

Sometimes of course, the lid tells us something more

Some chemists (this one is from St Andrews in Scotland) made up and packaged their own products. This particular item is unprovenanced save to say that Smith and Govan were pharmacists and druggists in South Street in St Andrews, and just to add interest, Mr Govan was a noted early calotype photographer in the 1850’s.

Provenanced however, thes pots tell us more – when out of area they let us tie bottle dumps to migration patterns.

Most of these ceramic pots seem to hail from the UK. I’ve done quite a bit of searching over the weekend and most of the examples seem to be from UK firms – there are examples from the United States, but again they seem to be from collectors disposing of their collections.

Initially I only found one unambiguously Australian example

and none from New Zealand. Searching a little more widely I came up with a number of other Australian examples, including this one from FH Faulding


I suspect that as Australia was a much smaller place in those days – under four million people as opposed to the UK’s near forty million in the 1890’s – there were simply fewer local manufacturers and and as we’ve seen with patent medicines, local brans were always at risk of being outcompeted …

[update 14 Jan 2019]

After a lot of time messing about on pinterest, I suspect I wasn’t quite correct in my conclusions.

A lot of chemists in England had ‘own brand’ ceramic containers in the late nineteenth century, with the pots being transfer printed by specialist manufacturers, and I would guess that the chemist either filled, or had these pots filled to order.

In the case of Australia at the same time, I suspect that the containers had to be manufactured, printed and filled overseas, and are consequently considerably rarer as few chemists went to the bother (and expense) of doing so …

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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3 Responses to Pot lids

  1. Pingback: So I thought I’d do a MOOC … | stuff 'n other stuff

  2. After even more time messing about on pinterest I can say that there definitely were Australian pharmacists that used them, but not in the quantities that you get in the UK.

    I suspect they probably ordered the items from the UK (Cherry toothpaste seems to be favourite) and had the filled and transfer printed in the UK rather than have them made up in Australia …

  3. Pingback: Ceramic medicine pots | stuff 'n other stuff

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