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Lifting The Pot-lid On What The Chemist Sold

Published on: 27 Apr, 2012
Updated on: 27 Apr, 2012

Pot-lids and their bases for various types of toothpaste, cold cream, and one for a hair restorer that used bears' grease.

by David Rose

One hundred or so years ago you didn’t squeeze your toothpaste or face cream from a plastic tube – it came in a small glazed ceramic pot with a matching lid.

At the turn of the 20th century Guildford boasted a number of independent pharmacists, who not only sold national brands, but made up their own remedies and medicines which they sold in their own bottles. Some of them also sold their own tooth pastes and cold creams and even hair restorers!

These chemists have now long gone. In the High Street in about 1900 you could chose from H. Jefferies, A. Long & Co, Waller Martin, Massey’s, and Frederick Wheeler.

At the same time, Boots Cash Chemists (set up by Jesse Boot in Nottingham) was opening stores in towns and cities throughout the UK. It had opened a branch in Guildford prior to the First World War. Timothy Whites was soon to have a shop too.

The toothpaste our forebears used was a bit different from the stuff we put on our plastic toothbrushes today. It was a much harder substance and probably didn’t taste of fresh mint at all.

Guildford pharmacist Frederick Wheeler promoted his own 'Areca Nut Cherry' tooth paste on a pot-lid that featured an illustration of the Guildhall. The areca nut also acted as a de-worming agent. Chemists who did not want to pay for their own designs could buy pots and lids like the one seen right, with some general wording on it. Whether cherry tooth paste actually tasted of cherries we may never know, but the paste was usually coloured red!

You would have scraped your toothbrush (made of real bone with real animal bristles) across the paste-like substance contained in the shallow ceramic pot. When you purchased it, the all-important lid was held on top of the pot by the addition of a gummed paper strip around the edge of the pot and lid.

In many cases, these lids were made with a permanent underglaze transfer-printed design, that not only gave the name of the product and its maker, but was highly decorative – not doubt illustrated that way to help sell the product in the pot itself.

John Savage was a Guildford barber. He sold his own hair restorer in pots with a lid that had an attractive floral design upon it. Who knows whether his special balm made a person's hair grow as well as the flowers appear to be doing here.

Those pot-lids that have survived not only give a fascinating insight into the kinds of commodities that were bought and used in days gone by, but are a wonderful example of Victorian and Edwardian commercial art.

Although Guildford’s chemists appear to have sold all the national brands that were available in the 20 or so years either side of 1900, we are fortunate that some of our pharmacists (and barbers) at the time sold their own products with attractively designed pot-lids.

To find out more, why not come along and hear my illustrated talk, A Victorian and Edwardian shopping basket: Bottles and Bygones from Guildford’s Forgotten Rubbish Tips, that I am giving at Salter’s Gallery in Castle Street on Saturday, May 5, starting at 2.30pm.

The picture show and talk also includes vintage photos of some of the shops who used their own bottles and pots.

It is one of Guildford Museum’s programme of talks by local writers. I will be explaining more about pot-lids along with all the different types of bottles and other bygones issued by local traders and used by Guildford folk – from ginger beer to Bovril!

Tickets are £3.50 each, but £3 if more than one talk is booked in the current series.

For tickets and more information contact Guildford Museum, Castle Arch, Guildford GU1 3SX. Tel: 01483 444751. Email:

Henry Jeffries (as in Jeffries Passage) sold his own cold cream. The pot on the right is interesting as the lid is actually made from an early type of plastic. A case of the Victorian age meeting a material that was to become universal in its usage by the mid-20th century.

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Responses to Lifting The Pot-lid On What The Chemist Sold

  1. Andy Malecki

    May 3, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Fascinating article. Unfortunately I live abroad and will miss your talk.

    I am lucky enough to possess a Jeffries and a Savages lid.



  2. Reg Sewrey

    July 29, 2012 at 7:40 am

    Hi Andy,
    I also now live abroad (in Australia) having been brought up in Guildford in the 1940s/50s.
    How I envy you for possessing those two pot-lids, the Jeffries and the Savage.
    I collect pot-lids and bottles and ask you if you have any Guildford items you may wish to part with/sell?

  3. Andy Malecki

    July 30, 2012 at 7:45 am

    Hi Reg

    Thanks for your comments. A few years back I decided to collect Guildford bottles as they appeared on Ebay.
    I now have quite a collection which includes pot lids from Savages and Jeffries.
    As I only buy bottles and pots for my collection I do not keep spares and therefore regret that I cannot help you.
    May i suggest you just keep watching ebay and try your luck that way. Savages comes up about every three months and Jeffries about once a year, otherwise I have seen nothing else.

    All the best and good luck,