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Apothecary Tile

Artist/maker unknown, English

Made in Liverpool, England, Europe

c. 1765-1775

Tin-glazed earthenware

12 1/8 × 10 3/8 × 5/8 inches (30.8 × 26.4 × 1.6 cm)

Curatorial Department:
European Decorative Arts and Sculpture

Object Location:

Currently not on view

Accession Number:

Credit Line:
125th Anniversary Acquisition. Gift of Audrey and William H. Helfand, 2000

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Additional information:
  • PublicationGifts in Honor of the 125th Anniversary of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

    Ceramics of this type, commonly known as pill tiles, were made exclusively in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for apothecaries belonging to the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London, founded in 1617. With some variations, all of the tiles are decorated with the Society’s coat of arms: surrounded by mantling, Apollo, the god of healing, vanquishes the dragon of disease while holding a bow and arrow; two unicorns act as supporters; and an often unidentifiable rhinoceros serves as the crest. The Latin motto, OPIFERQUE PER ORBEM DICOR (I am spoken of all over the world as one who brings help), is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. On one of these tiles the rhinoceros crest is surmounted by a cedar tree, a reference to those planted in the Society’s Chelsea Physic Garden in 1673. The other two tiles display the arms of the City of London.

    Generally the tiles have two pierced holes for hanging; they were intended to be displayed by the apothecaries as a means of publicly proclaiming their professional association. They are known to exist in four shapes: octagonal (the most common), shieldshaped, heart-shaped, and oval (the most rare). The tiles were painted with both polychrome and cobalt blue decoration, and were probably made in a number of the same English centers that produced delftwares, including Lambeth/London (where the earliest examples are also thought to have been made), Bristol, Liverpool, and possibly Wincanton in Somerset. The name “pill tile” has come to be associated with these ceramics because it was suggested, although without much evidence, that in addition to display they may have been used for rolling out pills. Later in the eighteenth century, tiles made expressly for this purpose were painted with a scale for measuring out uniform sections of pill material. Donna Corbin, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Gifts in Honor of the 125th Anniversary (2002), p. 26.