The History and Uses of the Mortar and Pestle

by Trevor Neve

The mortar and pestle is one of the great symbols of pharmacology. They have been used in food and medicinal preparations for thousands of years, and are one of humankind's most commonly used tool.

Depending on what your use is, there are different types of mortars and pestles for different tasks.

Mortar and Pestles were described in the Ebers papyrus from Ancient Egypt - dating back to 1550BC. It is the oldest preserved piece of medical literature discovered. It is estimated that mortar and pestles were used for 6,000 years before this for food preparation - mostly for the grinding of spices. They are unique in that their design has largely remained unchanged over the last 10,000 years. They were also commonly used in Egypt for the grinding of cosmetics. Mortars and pestles are also mentioned in the Old Testament - they were an essential tool of civilizations everywhere.


In solid state chemistry, mortar and pestles are used to prepare reactants for solid state synthesis. They were commonly used in pharmaceutical compounding across many applications until the mid-20th century and the advent of mass drug manufacturing. The first automatic mortar grinder was invented by F. Kurt Retsch in 1923, known as the "Retschmill". Mortar and pestles are still used in pharmacology today, primarily to grind powers in pharmacies. The Wedgewood Mortar and Pestle was created in 1759 from a particular type of earthenware, similar to porcelain. The pestle also combines the porcelain with wood for added strength in the handle.


Fun Fact: In Slavic Folklore, Baba Yaga is depicted as a hag who flies around in a mortar, using the pestle as a rudder!


Check out this infographic below to learn more about culinary applications of mortar and pestles!


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