skip to navigation


Visitor Center Hours

11:00 AM – 5:00 PM

All Site Hours

The Morning Call: Apothecary Museum a real ‘Bethlehem treasure’

January 3rd, 2016 |

January 6, 2016 | In The News

Written by Sarah Fulton for The Morning Call

BETHLEHEM — In a time before modern medicine, Moravian physicians were at the forefront of curing their neighbors’ ailments with herbal remedies, tinctures and salves. The original and oldest operating pharmacy in the United States where these remedies were made from garden herbs can still be viewed today at the Historic Bethlehem Apothecary Museum.

The museum is among the 20 buildings operated and cared for by Historic Bethlehem. The apothecary is a tiny room by today’s standards, but it contains its original 1752 compounding hearth replete with hand-hewn mortars and pestles used to grind herbs into pastes and powders. The space was used until 1954 as part of the Simon Rau & Co. pharmacy and opened a year later as a museum.

The well-preserved facility contains original pre-Revolutionary War Delftware jars made in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, with their famous blue and white hand-painted designs and Latin names for herbs. The apothecary began in 1742 in the Gemeinhaus along Church Street and moved to its current building, behind a portion of Moravian Book Shop, in 1752.

The tiny working space contains 45 wooden drawers, hand-labeled with the names of plants and herbs from R. Valeriana, valerian root, to Sem. Anisi, star anise. Blue and amber glass vials helped an apothecary organize substances by different grades, said tour guide Loretta Hein.

“Moravians tended to rely on a lot of natural remedies and avoided heroic measures where the patient was a hero if he survived,” Hein said.

Tinctures and extracts of the powerful herbs would have been made in a show globe, which the museum has on display. The large glass vessel, similar in appearance to an ornate street lamp, would have been filled with herbs and alcohol and placed in the sun, much like making a sun tea. Hein said the show globe would have been used to signify the location of an apothecary, much like a barber’s pole.

Historic Bethlehem maintains a small herb garden behind the museum with herbs that would have been grown for medicinal use, such as sage, rosemary, lemon balm and thyme. The historical herb garden was behind the buildings on Church Street, facing south above the Lehigh River.

“We have a little herb garden here to be representative of the original,” said Historic Bethlehem President Charlene Donchez Mowers.

Wounded and ill Revolutionary War soldiers were brought to Bethlehem to recover because of the high quality of care and medicines, Donchez Mowers said.

Rita Frey and Donna Wagner of Bethlehem were on a tour last week. The two longtime city residents said they had heard of the apothecary before but never knew where it was.

“I just think it’s amazing all these things are here and in mint condition,” Frey said. “It’s a treasure, a Bethlehem treasure.”

Wagner marveled at the knowledge of the early physicians.

“To know back in the day what they could do, making their own, it’s fantastic,” Wagner said.

Donchez Mowers said the facility is completely intact due to the diligence of the Moravians. Original medicine labels, a brass scale and a ledger outlining residents’ medicinal needs are on display.

“The Moravians were good record-keepers and interested in maintaining all their history,” she said. “Everything here was handed down. Our entire collection is very unique.”

The museum is available to visit by tour or appointment. Admission varies. Call 610-691-6055 or visit for more information.

Sarah Fulton is a freelance writer.


What: Tour the 1752 Apothecary for a peek into 18th century medicinal practices

When: 3 p.m. today, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Jan. 10.

Where: Moravian Museum, 66 W. Church St., Bethlehem

How much: Admission prices range from $12 to $30; half price for children ages 4 to 12; free for younger children

What else: Artifacts include mortars and pestles, scales, Delft jars and glass bottles from before the Revolutionary War.

Information: 610-691-6055,

Read more

Our Partners


Translate the Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites website into your language of choice!