Auxiliary Label: The ancient, mysterious history of pharmacy show globes

Pharmacy show globes: a tradition, a mysterious history

Show globes — large glass urns or vases filled with colored liquids — are found in many traditional pharmacies. What do they mean? Well, that depends. Victoria Hammond, Pharm.D. Class of 2022, investigates for the School of Pharmacy's Auxiliary Label.

Posted by VCU School of Pharmacy on Thursday, December 6, 2018

By Victoria Hammond
Auxiliary Label Staff

Unless you have been to an apothecary museum or know someone who is a pharmacist, you probably have not heard of a show globe, but you may have seen one. Show globes are pieces of glassware that are often vase shaped and filled with colorful liquid, often seen in apothecary’s front window displays.

Show globes are ancient and have been symbols of pharmacy for a long time. They still are used today; in fact, in Pennsylvania it is illegal to display a show globe at a place of business that is not a pharmacy.

There are many theories about the purpose of show globes but nothing definite about their purpose is known.

One theory is thought to date from around the 16th century. Apothecaries needed a symbol to grab the attention of a mostly illiterate population. In this time period streets were crowded and needed a symbol that was bright, unique and easily recognizable to draw in business.  

Another theory suggests that show globes date as far back as Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain around 53 B.C.  According to the story, an apothecary was located across from a dock for boats. The apothecary would place lanterns behind multiple show globes which would guide boats carrying troops safely to shore.  When the troops arrived safely, the story goes, Caesar allowed all apothecaries to keep show globes in their front windows.

It has also been hypothesized that show globes were used to relay messages to travelers about the health in the town.  Red liquid in a show globe meant that there was an epidemic and to stay away from the town. Green liquid in a show globe would mean that all is well in the town. Another theory also hypothesizes that show globes were used to send messages but to sick individuals during the Great Plague of London. It is thought that the colored liquid would show where individuals could find medical care.  

The final hypothesis of show globes involves maceration. Maceration is a process that involves softening or breaking up solids through soaking into a liquid. It was thought that directions of maceration involved the process to be done in light in a container that could hold 2 to 3 gallons.  This process would normally be done in an area with the best light: the apothecary’s front window.

Not much is known about the purpose of show globes, but they continue to be a symbol of the profession and are a unique piece of pharmacy history.

Auxiliary Label is a student-created blog examining pharmacy life, education and research at the VCU School of Pharmacy from a student perspective. It is overseen by Greg Weatherford, the school’s director of communications. Contact him here.

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