Making the medicines

castelow label

Pill preparation


Today, pills are mass produced and distributed all over the world but it has not always been this way. Pharmacists have sold branded, ready made remedies since the nineteenth century but a substantial amount of the products dispensed were still made on the shop premises. This practice became less and less common but some pharmacists, such as Mr Castelow (whose shop has been reconstructed in the Streetlife Museum, Hull) continued to trade in this way - in his case, into the 1970s.

To begin the process of making a tablet, the dry ingredients were measured using sensitive scales and if they were lumpy or needed to be made into a finer powder they would be ground using a pestle and mortar.

Pestle and mortar


These have been used for centuries in the process of grinding substances. The mortar is the 'bowl' and the pestle is the implement used to grind. Pestle and mortars have been made of many different materials over the years including metals, glass, ivory and wood. Metal has the potential to react with chemicals and so became less popular. It was this that led Josiah Wedgwood to consider using ceramics as an alternative and he developed 'biscuit porcelain' c.1780 which was used to make 'composition' pestles and mortars. These became widely used in the preparation of medicines.

The amount of each ingredient would depend on the strength of medication prescribed and the number of pills needed. The dry ingredients were mixed using the pestle and mortar with a liquid substance, usually glucose, to form a paste that was firm but workable. A pill making machine was used for the next part of the process.

Pill Making Machine


Originally a slab with graduated markings on it, known as a pill tile, was used as a base on which the paste could be rolled and measured. These were replaced by pill making machines which allowed the chemist to roll mixture, slice accurate portions and gather the finished pills all with one piece of apparatus. The mixture was rolled into a 'pipe' shape on the baseboard. The pills were made by putting the pipe shaped mixture on grooves made of brass which were also on the baseboard. A separate part with two handles and similar brass grooves was pushed over it and this cut the pipe into portions. When cut, the pills collected in a drawer. The next step was to use a pill rounder to make the pills spherical.

Pill Rounder


A pill rounder was used to perfect the spherical shape of the pills when they left the pill making machine. This shape made them more attractive and easier to swallow. First they were shaped a little with finger and thumb and then the roughly shaped pills were placed under the rounder which was then moved in a figure of eight. Every so often the pills would be checked and those which were well rounded were removed. When all of the pills were spherical they were left to dry.

They could have been given to the patient at this point but often they were enhanced by rounding the pills in a little talcum powder which made them appear pearlescent or rolling them in a little varnish. Sometimes they even had a coating of gold or silver leaf! This was applied using a pill silverer. Gold or silver leaf lined the inside and the pill, made moist with liquid gum, was swirled around inside until the pill was thoroughly coated. This treatment was only for the wealthier customers!