Medicine Jar

Might young George have dipped his hand into this pot to cure a headache or salve a wound? It’s possible. This nearly complete delftware gallipot, or drug jar, decorated with simple hand-painted blue bands, was likely originally purchased by George Washington’s elder half-brother Lawrence Washington, but may have continued in use during George’s bachelor years at Mount Vernon. Such jars often stored prepared drugs (in powdered or pill form), medicinal ingredients, and topical ointments or salves. Throughout the 18th century, George Washington’s accounts document his regular purchases of a variety of prepared remedies and medicinal ingredients from merchants in England and local apothecaries.

This piece (ca. 1734–1758) was excavated from the South Grove Midden on the south side of the Mansion, where household and kitchen waste was deposited during much of the 18th century. The gallipot is a small example, standing at just over four inches and capable of holding just under a pint and a half of medicine. The distinct collaring, or constriction, just below the rim of the jar allowed a parchment cover to be affixed by a string, keeping the contents secure and fresh.

Vessels like this gallipot were central elements of plantation medical care in 18th-century Virginia for not just the free, but also the enslaved. Indeed, similar vessels have been recovered from the House for Families quarter, which housed many of the enslaved laborers at Mansion House Farm, the farm surrounding the Mansion.

This humble and utilitarian medicine jar from the archaeology collection tells an important story about the health and well-being of the community at Mount Vernon.

Image of delftware gallipot

Produced in Europe, used in America, and likely filled with imported and local medicines, this delftware gallipot embodies the story of the global networks of health care that existed in the 18th century. (Photo by Sierra Medellin)