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Apothecary's sign, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1650-1800

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This apothecary sign shows the coat of arms of the Dutch city of Amsterdam supported by a lion, an example of the numerous trade signs that were once familiar sights on city streets across Europe. The symbols and imagery shown on the sign would have indicated the nature of the business at a time when many citizens couldn’t read. The design includes a red shield with three St Andrew crosses in white on a black strip. A snake is intertwined around the crosses. This was added to signify the medical nature of the apothecary’s work – a snake coiled around a rod being the symbol of Asklepios, the Greek and Roman god of healing. There is also a mortar and pestle showing the tools of the apothecary’s trade. These were used to grind up drugs and plants for medicines.

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Glossary: sign

An entity that signifies another entity. Often a publicly displayed board giving information

Glossary: pharmacy

The preparation and medicinal dispensing of drugs.

Glossary: apothecary

A term used until about 1800 to describe someone who prepares and sells drugs or compounds for medicinal purposes. Today the term ‘pharmacist’ or ‘pharmaceutical chemist’ is used instead.