What are Dutch gapers? A story of grimace, pills and “open mouths”

CoverPic | Author Alf van Beem | Source: Wikimedia | License: CC 1.0

Have you ever heard of Dutch Gapers? They are reminiscent of figureheads on sailing ships, or, for Italians, the famous “Testa di Moro” from Sicily. Sometimes they remind of those big, moving heads with possessed eyes and open jaws which might be found at the entrance to a fortune teller’s booth in a creepy amusement park. Usually these wooden or stone sculptures represent blackamoors, Muslim or Africans. They are a typically Dutch phenomenon.

What is a gaper?

Gapers started to appear on Dutch drugstores’ signs in the 16th century. Their open mouths (gaper is the dutch word for to yawn) often showed a pill on the figure’s tongue. To the modern eye, this suggests popping a pill at a rave party. However, this was not the meaning behind gapers. The pill was a reference to the medicines sold at such establishments. What is not clear is whether their grimaces and bugged-out eyes had to do with the sour taste of medicines or if their absurd appearance was used to mock of the chemist’s apprentice.

In the beginning there were no civic numbers, therefore a gaper was hanging on a specific kind of house and not to a specific shop. For example, in 1650 on the top of a beer factory on the  Vissersdijk, in Rotterdam there was a bread bun.

Legacy of commercial trades, tool against evil spirits

There is evidence that gapers are related to a medieval cultural belief that monsters with outstretched tongue could remove evil spirits. It is still a mystery how gapers became the symbol associated with drugstores.

This figure, which mixes Turkish, Japanese and Chinese elements, became popular as the Dutch began to trade with the Ottoman empire. Among the products imported to Europe were senna leaves, opium, saffron, turmeric, resins, chews, mineral, myrrh, incense and bitumen. On European soil, these spices were dried and sold in drugstores.

From the exotic East to Napoleonic era

Each gaper is handmade and distinct, featuring characteristics to distinguish the particular drugstore to which it belongs. Whether it was a Muzelman (an archaic word for ‘Muslim’) or blackamoor,  gapers were full of eastern elements that, according to naive western vision, represented the countries with had established commercial relations with Europe.

On the other hand, the gaper was a talisman, a powerful symbol which channeled the ancient knowledge of creating miraculous medicines. Golden earrings, turbans or crowns —or a monkey perched on the figure’s shoulder— each gaper showed the mastery of a specific power.

During the Napoleonic occupation of the Netherlands, there was a version of a gaper in uniform. This style became popular when a national policy on making and selling drugs was introduced. In the same period, it became popular to make their faces darker while keeping their Turkish-style clothes.

What was the gaper’s function?

Some gapers were used to gain the attention of potential customers outside a drugstore’s entrance. Gapers might have represented miraculously healed patients.  According to other theories, they were needed to entertain customers outdoor while chemists —mean fellows according to stereotypes— prepared their recipes open air in order to save money on heating.

For long time they remained exposed, sometimes serving as road signs. Chemists did whatever they could to call attention to their shops, like rich people used ornate ‘marvel rooms’ to amaze their guests. Today a few gapers remain in Amsterdam. They no longer only represent drugstores: cafés and other establishments highlight historic gapers in their names, like De Vergulde Gaper in Amsterdam.

The end of drugstores

In 1865  a national law established that pharmacies must be separate from drugstores. The latter were forced to close or “become professional” by abandoning the gaper at the entrance. In their place, chemists had to put up classic symbols of pharmacology like the mortar and caduceus with Mercury snakes.

A disappearing sight

During the second world war, many gaper were destroyed while others disappeared. The oldest gaper in the Netherlands is dated to 1693. It hung in Lange Delft street in Middelburg. Others were looted or burned to heat houses during difficult times. Having hung outside unprotected for the elements for decades or centuries, many simply rotted away. Others were vandalised or stolen. Most surviving gapers are kept in museums in Amsterdam, Gronigen and Haarlem. Displayed as historical objects, some suggest they be removed or recontextualized, representing as they do the Dutch colonial past.



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