Tallinn’s Raeapteek: One of Europe’s oldest pharmacies turns 600

Raeapteek, the oldest town council pharmacy in Europe and the oldest continuously operating medical institution in Estonia, is celebrating its 600th anniversary this year.

The pharmacy – its Estonian name, Raeapteek, literally meaning “municipal pharmacy” – has been continuously operating in the same premises in Tallinn Old Town since 1422, having first been mentioned on 8 April that year. In a town council’s notebook, there is an entry by a chemist named Nuclawes who stated that the owners of the pharmacy were ten honourable men, the majority of whom are aldermen.

For over 300 years and spanning 10 generations between 1582-1911, the business was run by the Burchart family. The association started when a Hungarian immigrant, Johann Burchart Both Belavary de Sykava, moved to Tallinn from present-day Bratislava and obtained a lease from the town council to run the pharmacy.

The Burcharts were well educated and often served not only as pharmacists but also doctors, and thus played a significant role in city life. Their fame became so great that in 1725, the Russian tsar, Peter the Great, reportedly called for Johann Burchart V to attend to him on his deathbed, however, the tsar died before Burchart reached St Petersburg.

Raeapteek in 1966. Photo by the Estonian Health Museum/Heino Gustavson.

Due to the pharmacy’s location just on the opposite of the Town Hall, some important decisions were also taken here.

Selling rhino horn powder

Aside from medicinal drugs, Raeapteek once sold paper, ink, jewels, spices, sealing-wax and even gunpowder.

Sailors who sought help for their health problems, in turn quite often brought all sorts of novelty items for sale to the pharmacy. In medieval times, patients could buy mummy juice – powder made of oversea mummies mixed with liquid. If that wasn’t enough, one could treat their ailing health with burnt hedgehogs’ powder, bat powder, snakeskin potion and rhino horn powder. Various herbs and spirits were distilled on the spot.

The historical products at Raeapteek’s museum. Photo by Tiit Aunaste.

Food was also on display – such as candies, cookies, preserves, marzipan and jellied peel. When tobacco was brought to Europe and eventually to Estonia, the pharmacy was the first to sell it. One could even find a glass of claret – a locally sugared and spiced Rhine wine.

Some of these historical products are still sold at the pharmacy.

“To this day, you can still buy the famous claret, which was made and sold at the pharmacy as early as 1467. You can also buy marzipan, which has a beneficial effect on the brain, but is also known as a remedy for a broken heart. Marzipan was originally sold in pharmacies as a medicine. In the heyday of the Hanseatic League, marzipan from Reval (Tallinn’s historical name – editor) was one of the most famous marzipans in northern Europe,” Birgitta Laanmets, a manager of the pharmacy’s museum, tells Estonian World.

“But there are now other exciting Raeapteek products, such as juniper berries, herbal tinctures, tea blends, bath salts and rue. We also sell herbal-themed playing cards and a board game suitable for the whole family; the games are also translated into English,” she says.

Raeapteek today. Photo by Tiit Aunaste.

A crocodile under the ceiling

Today, the Raeapteek combines its functioning pharmacy with a museum.

“You can buy medicines from us as you would from any other pharmacy, but ours still has that old-fashioned atmosphere and ambience that gives visitors a different experience. In the museum room, you can see a variety of pharmacy equipment, as well as some of the symbols of medieval pharmacy, such as the crocodile under the ceiling and the coloured containers on the window,” Laanmets notes.

Visitors to the museum can also examine a number of strange ingredients that were used for making drugs hundreds of years ago: prepared wolf guts, rabbit ears, earthworms in oil, burnt bees, viper fat, dried toads, swallow nests, dog faeces, billy goat blood, spirit with rough woodlouses, frogspawn band aids, stallion hooves, burnt hedgehogs and fresh chicken eggshells.

The museum room at Raeapteek. Photo by Tiit Aunaste.

The Raeapteek’s anniversary will be celebrated throughout the year with special events.

The Raeapteek’s anniversary will be celebrated throughout the year with special events. What’s more, the pharmacy’s museum organises guided tours and various workshops, such as making an herbal salt in which juniper berries are added to the salt along with medicinal plants. “Historically, Estonians believed that juniper contained nine doctors and that juniper smoke warded off evil spirits,” Laanmets says.

“The marzipan workshop is also popular with the children, where, among other things, the famous marzipan legend is told, according to which this confection was first invented in Raeapteek,” she adds.

The Raeapteek’s basement is used for workshops and events. Photo by Birgitta Laanmets.

To mark the jubilee, a special book with a comprehensive overview of the history of Raeapteek will be published in April. The book is published in Estonian but has an English summary as well as photographs with English captions. An international postage stamp, “Raeapteek 600”, will also be available beginning 9 April.

Apart from being the oldest active pharmacy in Europe that has been continuously operating in the same premises, Raeapteek also holds a distinction as the oldest company in Estonia that has worked continuously in the same premises.

1 thought on “Tallinn’s Raeapteek: One of Europe’s oldest pharmacies turns 600”

  1. Easter greetings from Down Under ! You have made me feel very old printing this 🙂 ! Until the 9 March 1944 bombing of Tallinn I lived my childhood years at 4 Kaupmehe Street and this was our pharmacy ! We seemed to be forever there – well, Mom got a lot of headaches so we had to get the ‘aspiriin’ and ‘pyramidon’ and, yes, the ‘vaseliin (which I remember looking the same !) and charcoal and ‘salol’ for gyppy tummies et al !!! But in those days the ‘shop’ looked lots darker and there seemed endless rows of small drawers wherever one looked ! I was fascinated by the smells and the atmosphere of seriousness . . . And there was another attraction my parents could not figure out – there was the same itinerant guy always sitting on the steps with his cap turned inside out for ‘donations’ Well he always remembered me and smiled and talked softly . . . my Mom was shocked when she realized I collected most of my kiddycat pocket-money and slipped it into his hand whenever we were there ! Yes, I heard Mom and Dad saying it all went on vodka and not food but he PROMISED’ me when I talked to him !!! And it worked . . . I had a very fair Dad who talked to the guy and got him a ‘sulase’ post in the country . . . probably the bestest thing I remember about going to the historic Pharmacy !!! I had ‘done good’ !!!

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