A Rare 19thC Painted & Gilded Cast Iron Caduceus Apothecarist’s Trade Sign c.1880


Origin: English
Period: Mid/Late Victorian
Provenance: Unknown
Date: c.1870-80
Width: 11”
Depth: 0.75”
Height: 18”

The scarce and well-cast iron trade shop sign, in the form of the Caduceus, being a short staff entwined by two serpents and surmounted by wings and terminating to a pommel end, showing several layers of paint, a black painted surface over an earlier green and then a gilded base, the whole hailing from a Victorian apothecary shop of nineteenth century England.

The condition is mainly good with a small crack and two repairs to the lower end, the rest without any damage. The gilded surface is the original one and the black and green layers probably early to mid-twentieth century so it could be taken back to the gilding if so desired. The paint is fairly loose, with one side showing more green than black, and does come away quite readily so the whole could be dry scraped well. It can be wall mounted as there are two bored holes to the wings.

Slithering their way through the iconography of pharmaceutical history, snakes appear, often wrapped around a staff, wherever you find apothecaries. Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, carried a rod with a single snake, which became a medical symbol from the fifth century BCE.

The messenger of the gods, Hermes, the Roman god Mercury, acquired an extra snake on his staff, known as a caduceus. It’s perhaps not a coincidence, then, that the element mercury was a major chemical agent in the history of medicine and alchemy. For example, the evaporated vapour of mercury combined with snake venom was injected through the centre of the scalp as an antidote to snake bite and epilepsy. Both Hermes, the god of commerce, and Mercury, the god of trade, are a good fit for retail pharmacy.

We haven’t been able to find a similar equivalent to this sign in size or material and it proves to be both a rare and decorative discovery.