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Leech jars a collectible with an interesting past

Feb. 10, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Since before the birth of Christ man has been using leeches to cure maladies. It was often thought the red face caused by a fever was a result of too much blood, so leeches were applied to the unfortunate patient to relieve the fever.

Leeches are a type of worm that once it bites it holds on with a sucker-type force drawing out the blood of the victim. Today we know they don't help much with lowering a fever, but it has been found that they do serve other purposes in modern medicine.

The little worms are nasty looking critters that breed in rivers and lakes where they are collected even today. The heyday in our immediate past for the use of leeches was considered the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. It is during this time one could readily buy the long black worms at the local drug store.

Drug stores or apothecary shops kept the leeches in leech jars. The jars usually were urn like in shape with a turned lip around the top so the leeches couldn't get out. Most often a lid with perforated air holes came with the jars. These vessels could be very plain or exceptionally ornate but they all served the same purpose of confining the leeches until they were sold. Authentic jars were made from glass, pottery and porcelain.

Early drug stores would display the jar in a prominent place because the leeches were sold to the general public as well as the medical community. Many of the jars came from the English pottery vicinity Staffordshire, particularly Stoke-on-Trent.

Those who collect medical antiquities covet the interesting vessels and will pay hefty prices up into the thousands for them. The prices depend on the condition, rarity and how ornate they might be. Even though the practice of using the jars was fairly widespread in the past, good examples of them have become somewhat hard to find. As with all things old there are reproductions so a person needs to have a care about the authenticity of a purchase.

Companion pieces that jar collectors might enjoy would be the leech carriers made of pewter or other metals. The well-equipped physician would take one of these with them as they made house calls. Reportedly these are harder to locate than the jars but both are interesting collectibles.

Jean McClelland writes about antiques for The Herald-Dispatch.