Antimony Cup

This cup was one of 13 objects investigated in 2019 as part of ‘Gendering Interpretations’: a collaborative project between the V&A, University of Plymouth, Vasa Museum (Stockholm), Lund University, Leiden University and the University of Western Australia.


18th century



Antimony Cup 1

Public Access Description

This cup was one of 13 objects investigated in 2019 as part of ‘Gendering Interpretations’: a collaborative project between the V&A, University of Plymouth, Vasa Museum (Stockholm), Lund University, Leiden University and the University of Western Australia.

In England, the popularity of cups made from antimony was initiated by John Evans, who manufactured the cups and published a book, The vniversall medicine: or The vertues of the antimoniall cup, in 1634. The theory that underpinned belief in the effectiveness of antimony cups is the same theory that underpinned early modern misogynistic discourse: particularly the idea that women were emotional and inconstant, and crying unmasculine.

Early modern people believed that illnesses and emotions were caused by an imbalance of humours (bodily fluids). The balance of cold, wet, hot and dry in the human body was controlled by the balance of blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile; if these became unbalanced, a person would feel the physiological effects. Emotions were understood to have a physiological cause, just like physical illnesses.

Consequently, drinking wine that had been steeped overnight in poisonous antimony cups – which would cause vomiting and diarrhoea – was seen as an effective medicine because it would purge the body of imbalanced humours. As Evans wrote, the antimony cup ‘purgeth and purifieth the Body from all superfluous and praeternaturall Blood, Phlegme, Choler, and Melancholy’ – that is, from the four humours believed to regulate physical and emotional health – ‘and maketh the body vigorous, strong, and lusty.’

This humoral theory also held that men were naturally hotter and drier than women, and that this determined ‘male’ and ‘female’ characteristics. Men were seen as stronger, more active, more constant and more rational. Men were also perceived to be better than women at controlling their humours, and therefore at controlling their emotions and bodily impulses.

Antimony Cup 1 Antimony Cup 2

Curatorial comment:

This cup was one of 13 objects investigated in 2019 as part of ‘Gendering Interpretations’: a collaborative project between the V&A, University of Plymouth, Vasa Museum (Stockholm), Lund University, Leiden University and the University of Western Australia. This project aimed to recover the complex gender dynamics that made objects meaningful to early modern people, and to increase the visibility of women and LGBTQ people in museum collections. Research on the V&A objects was carried out by Dr Kit Heyam.

In addition to the findings noted in the Public Access Description, research on this object revealed the following:

Antimony was popularised in seventeenth-century Germany by a 1604 book titled Triumph Wagen Antimonii (The Triumphant Chariot of Antimony), in which a probably fictitious monk called Basil Valentine extolled the virtues of antimony as a panacea. In France, though antimony was initially banned as a poison, it regained popularity after apparently saving Louis XIV from typhoid in 1657. Though some writers expressed scepticism, antimony remained popular in both countries as well as in England.

Antimony was recommended for a wide variety of gendered and sex-related diseases. The 1660 English translation of Basil Valentine’s book recommends it as treatment for syphilis (‘Morbus Gallicus’) through a case study of a woman who had contracted the disease from her unfaithful husband. John Evans’s The Universall Medicine: or The vertues of the antimoniall cup (1634) also claims that the antimony cup can treat ‘greensickness’. This was a fainting disease that affected young women and supposedly resulted from a need for sex, the woman having remained a virgin despite being of marriageable age. The theorisation of this disease provided writers with an excuse to disparage virginity in young women and encourage them to marry: it supported a gender ideology that maintained that women were weak (hence their fainting) and that their proper role was as wives and mothers. Similarly, both Valentine and Evans claim that antimony is an effective treatment for ‘hysteria’ in women.

This specific cup was owned by Mrs Ann Shaw, Goodwood, Sussex. Little is known about Ann or her use of the cup, but we know she requested instructions on its use, and received a letter as follows:

'Dr Brocklesby's Compliments to Mrs Shaw & in answer to her desire to be informed about the Antimonial Cup & how to use it. Fill the cup with Lisbon Wine, or Mosell, Wine, set it by to stand 24 hours, and then pour it into a Wine Glass, Two Table Spoonfuls are to be taken at first, & after waiting from 10 to 15 Minutes, Give a 3rd Spoonful, unless the first has begun to operate, but if 3 fail after 15 Minutes, then give a fourth or a fifth if requisite at due intervals, & most commonly the 3rd produces Nausea, Sickness & Vomiting. It is to be wrought off like another Vomit by taking at proper intervals (a pint at a time) from 2 to 3 quarts of bitter strong chamomile Tea. London 13th May 1775'

Although Ann used the antimony cup consensually, these cups were used non-consensually on other women as treatment for “diseases” attributed to women perceived as unruly. In 1718, Sarah Clerke was diagnosed with hysteria and melancholy, and confined in her room for 10 days – including repeated treatment with an antimony cup, which, her medical notes record, made her very distressed. During this time, Clerke’s brothers seized all her assets. She was eventually released following a trial, but this episode starkly illustrates the potential for misuse of this poisonous medical artefact, and the misogynistic attitudes that underpinned beliefs about its effectiveness.

In the nineteenth century, antimony was widely available under the name of ‘quietness powders’, bought by some women to discourage their husbands from drinking alcohol. This availability was, of course, open to abuse: in 1854, William Palmer poisoned his wife Ann using antimony, having taken out a life-insurance policy on her shortly before her death.

(Dr Kit Heyam, August 2019)



Key references

  • John Evans, The Universall Medicine: or The Vertues of the Antimoniall Cup (London: Printed by John Haviland, 1634)
  • R. I. McCallum, ‘Observations upon Antimony’, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 70 (November 1977)
  • Gail Kern Paster, Humoring the Body: Emotions and the Shakespearean Stage (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2004)

Further reading

  • Jonathan Andrews, ‘‘In her Vapours ... [or] indeed in her Madness’? Mrs Clerke’s case: an early eighteenth century psychiatric controversy’, History of Psychiatry, 1 (1990), 125-143
  • Lesel Dawson, Lovesickness and Gender in Early Modern English Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)
  • Haller, John S., ‘The Use and Abuse of Tartar Emetic in the 19th-Century Materia Medica’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 49.2  (Summer 1975), 254-55
  • Helen King, ‘Green Sickness: Hippocrates, Galen and the Origins of the '"Disease of Virgins"’, International Journal of the Classical Tradition, 2.3 (Winter 1996), 372-387
  • Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford, Women in Early Modern England, 1550-1720 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998)
  • StClair Thomson, ‘Antimonyall Cupps: Pocula Emetica or Calices Vomitorii’, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 19 (1926), 122-128