Throughout history, professionals have searched for recognizable signs and symbols to represent their occupation. These symbols serve not only to call attention to businesses, specifically in times of low literacy, but also to distinguish a career field among the rest. Much like the mortar and pestle as a sign of apothecaries, show globes, glass vessels of varying sizes and shapes, hold a significant and intriguing history as a symbol of early pharmacists.
The show globe -- an elegant symbol of the
profession of pharmacy.Explanations of how they became pharmacy's "barber pole" are as varied as the colored water they contain. Their mystery is due, in part, to the many legends of their origin.
When in Rome--The oldest and perhaps most colorful story posits that when Julius Caesar and his army were invading Ireland, he needed a marker on the beachhead to guide his troops. A nearby apothecary served the purpose. Caesar allegedly promised not to kill the shopkeeper if he would illuminate the show globes in his store window to serve as a "light house."
Another legend describes the globes as derived from urns used by pharmacists in the Middle East to store their wares. According to this story, travelers from Western Europe so admired the urns that they imitated them at home. If this were the case, however, show globes would have appeared all over Europe; in fact, they are almost exclusively Anglo-American.
Along similar lines is the theory that show globes are close cousins to maceration vessels, in which organic material is steeped in liquid in sunlight, just as "sun tea" can be made on sunny days. Although show globes could potentially be used for this purpose, it does not explain the use of brightly colored water in globes -- not to mention that England is not famous for its sunny days.
Many experts believe show globes were used by apothecaries during the Great Plague of London in 1665 to direct the sick to their shops, after healthy citizens and doctors had fled the city. The steadfast apothecaries, it is said, used the bright liquid to communicate to the frightened public that medical attention was still available.
There is also the "stoplight" theory of show globe colors, which says that after the globes had made it to Colonial America in the early 1600s, red and green were standard colors: red indicating that the town had some kind of illness or quarantine (as a warning to travelers), and green representing a healthy welcome.
Enter George Griffenhagen-- During the 1950s, the work of pharmacist George Griffenhagen, one-time acting curator of the Smithsonian Institution's division of medicine and health, laid to rest some of the stories swirling around the origin of the show globe. In fact, the November 5, 1956 issue of American Druggist called his efforts "the most thorough investigation into the evolution of the show globe, based on personal research in Europe."
Borrowed from Alchemists? The most commonly accepted origin of the show globe as pharmacy's trademark took place during the merger of apothecaries and alchemists some time during the mid-16th to mid-17th centuries. At the time, apothecaries (or druggists) sold medicinal products derived from natural and organic substances, while alchemists (or chymists) dealt with medicinal products made from raw chemicals. Many historians believe the globes originated with alchemists and that their strange aura was representative of the secretive and mysterious group.
All of the theories seem to agree that [the globe] does date back to at least 1665," which would bracket the range between the mid-16th to mid-17th centuries.
The first written account of the show globe as a specific symbol of pharmacy occurred in 1775 by a German visitor to London, who wrote in a letter: "The street looks as though it were illuminated for some festivity; the apothecaries and druggists display glasses filled with gay-colored spirit . . . [which] suffuse many a wide space with a purple, yellow, or azure light." Griffenhagen found another written account from 1788 in a reference to the Argand Lamp, which had been invented in 1782 and was used by English chemists to keep their show globes illuminated at night. According to Griffenhagen, this would indicate that show globes were not common in pharmacies until about the middle of the 18th century.
Show globes became increasingly less common in the early part of this century as old pharmacies went out of business and new pharmacies chose not to display them. But renewed support for globes in the 1930s (particularly by American Druggist) moved the Owens-Illinois Glass Co. to introduce a new style, with an electric bulb inside to illuminate the globe. Through the 1950s, American Druggist continued to urge pharmacists to bring back the show globe, terming it "the greatest trademark ever invented."
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