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Florence Cole as a child

Chemists / pharmacy shops
in early 20th century England

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This page is based on childhood recollections of shops in Edmonton, north London in Edwardian times.

Window display of coloured liquid in large glass jars, typifying chemist shops in the first half of the 20th century.

Window display of coloured liquid in large glass jars, typifying British chemist shops / pharmacies in the first half of the 20th century. Photographed in Milton Keynes Museum.

Chemist shops or pharm­acists were always dist­inctive when I was a child in the early 1900s because their windows would display large glass bottles or flasks of brightly coloured liquids.

Why flasks of coloured liquid were common in chemists shops

A teacher told me that flasks of coloured liquids were common in chemists' windows because the levels of literacy were so low that clear symbols were needed to encourage custom. I think these symbols might pre-date the Victorians or perhaps have come from elsewhere.

Paul Dutton

Chemist window display bottle, early to mid 1900s

Window display bottle, photographed in Winchester Museum.

These bottles were for decorative purposes only and were not, as far as I know, medicines. I suppose that they were to indicate that the pharmacist concerned was well-trained because he was able to mix his own medicines rather than just selling pre-packed concoctions.

One thing I remember about our local chemist was that he gave us children what he called an Oracle which was no doubt issued as a publicity stunt by some manufacturer. We had to light a match, blow it out and while it was still warm, touch it on the sheet of paper that was the Oracle. This would slowly burn out a picture.

Bottles and storage drawers in a Victorian or Edwardian chemists' shop

Chemists' storage bottles and drawers for medicaments. Note the pestle and mortar for grinding powders and the scales for weighing babies. Photographed in the Black Country Museum.

Our local local chemist for where I lived on the Huxley Estate in Edmonton was a Mr Chipchase whose shop was at the corner of Warwick Road and Silver Street. He was a very refined person. To be in the pharmacy business you had to have qualifications, which meant that your parents had money, so he was looked upon as only a step below a doctor and was respected as such. In fact he served as an unpaid doctor and our mothers would ask his advice before calling in the doctor who would always did charge.

Behind the counter of a Victorian or Edwardian chemist's shop

Left: Behind the counter of a chemist's shop. Photographed Blists Victorian Village. Photographed in the Black Country Museum.

The 1911 census shows that my mother's memory was absolutely right: Charles Herschel Chipchase, 55, a retail chemist, born in Stepney, lived at 75 Silver Street with his wife Emma Chipchase, 54, born Hackney. Their shorthand typist daughters, Muriel Irene, 24, born Bow, and Constance Winifred, 4, born Tottenham, lived with them.

Pat Cryer, webmaster
and daughter of the author

In 2009 this chemist shop was Alan's Pet and Seed Shop. There was or is still a bricked-up side elevation window in Warwick Road which, according to Alan, was where the chemist dispensed prescriptive medicines out of hours.

Cliff Raven

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