Olive Oil

Shop Card for Mrs. Holt's Italian Warehouse

This image is a trade card for "Mrs. Holt's Italian Warehouse" in Ireland.  Used as an advertisment for the shop.  Features one barrel of olive oil behind the figure of Mercury and another being loaded onto the ship.

An History of the Earth and Animated Nature in Eight Volumes, Volume VII

Excerpt from An History of the Earth and Animated Nature.  This section includes a discussion of the snakebite incident and the olive oil remedy.

Olive oil is one of the traditional and fundamental ingredients in gazpacho.  Cultivated from time immemorial in the eastern Mediterranean, this simple oil forms the base of many European dishes.  Olives may have first been domesticated in the Middle East as early as 3500 B.C., in the areas of modern Syria and Israel.[1]  By the Bronze Age, approximately 3000 B.C., Crete had taken up the crop and was the major producer of olive oil in the Mediterranean until this title was extended to Greece during the Iron Age.[2]   As the millennia wore on, the Etruscans brought olives into Italy.  The Romans acquired the knowledge of the cultivation of the olive tree and the extraction of oil around the year 600 B.C.[3] From that point onward, the exportation of olives and olive oil exploded across the Roman Empire from Italy to Gaul and, perhaps most significantly, to the Iberian Peninsula where the climate allowed the tree to flourish.  Spain became the chief exporter of olive oil throughout the early modern period, introducing the product to the New World where it was eventually cultivated in Mexico and California.[4] 

In the classical world, olive oil had religious and social uses as well as culinary uses.  Athletes in ancient Greece, believing that olives were a gift from the goddess Athena, rubbed the oil on their skin for strength and wisdom.  Chrism, olive oil mixed with balsam for added fragrance, was used in Jewish, Christian, and Orthodox rites from ancient times, through the early modern period, and into the present day.  The kings of Israel were anointed with this holy oil.  It was, and continues to be, used in confirmations and chrismations in the Western and Eastern rites of Christianity respectively. 

The health benefits of olive oil continued to be emphasized in the early modern period especially.  Oliver Goldsmith was an Irish playwright and novelist.  In addition to his fictional works, Goldsmith wrote An History of the Earth and Animated Nature in 1774.  He emphasizes the healing capabilities of the oil as he discusses serpents.  Goldsmith remarks that though viper catchers take precautions, they do get bitten, but “by the application of a fallid-oil, the bite is effectually cured.”[5]  Goldsmith gives an anecdote about William Oliver, a viper-catcher in 1735 who was bitten in front of a large crowd.  Oliver suffered from “pain, resembling that of burning, triekle [sic] up his arm…his eyes began to look red and fiery….faintness, shortness of breath, and cold sweats… his belly began to swell… vomitings and purgings.”[6]  “Trusting to the speedy effects of his remedy, which was nothing more than olive oil” he was healed of some of these symptoms as “his wife rubbed in the oil with her hand, turning his arm continually round as if she would have roasted it over the coals.”[7]  Any symptoms that were not healed by the topical application of the oil were remedied with “a glass or two of olive oil drank down.”[8] 

The healing properties of olive oil were characteristic of the way people of the early modern period thought of the product.  Those properties would then be incorporated into dishes like gazpacho.  The oil in the soup refreshed the body in much the same way as it healed Oliver’s snakebite.  Every household, from the poorest farmer’s to the wealthiest aristocrat’s, had access to olive oil as a result of the vast trade initiated by the Romans and continued by the Spanish.  

In addition to those healing properties, the art of the early modern period illustrated the universal appeal, desirability, and accessibility of the product.  The accompanying image is a shop card from Mrs. Holt’s Italian Warehouse in England.  William Hogarth, an accomplished English illustrator, engraver, and print maker, created this engraving to make advertisements for the shop, suggesting that it was a widespread image.  Hogarth emphasizes the reputability of Mrs. Holt’s shop by associating her products with the great cities of Italy and making them appear valuable.  At the same time, they are available to the common people, swiftly carried across the seas by Mercury.  Both of these characteristics are applied to the olive oil by extension.

The shop card depicts Mercury, the Roman messenger god, talking with a beautiful woman who represents the powerful city of Florence.  At her feet are various trade goods, including olive oil, a hat, and a violin.  The god appears to be in motion, ready to board the ship and whisk it and its contents across the seas to various destinations.  Those objects are not luxury goods in themselves, but their association with Mercury and Florence makes them appear more valuable.  Further, the crest on the top of the frame is that of the Medici, the extremely influential Florentine family.  The crest adds further legitimacy to the products that will stock Mrs. Holt’s shop and marks them as essentials in any reputable household, from the Medici’s to those of the common people.  

Another aspect of the image that signifies the central role olive oil played in the early modern era is the inclusion of the other Italian cities.  Hogarth places the cities of Naples, Venice, Genoa, and Leghorn (Livorno) in each of the corners of the image.  All are major trading ports, exercising widespread influence throughout the Mediterranean.  Their inclusion demonstrates the types of markets in which olive oil was distributed. 

The skyline of Rome is present in the background of the image.  The placement is subtle, yet powerful.  Great leaders of the period all sought the legitimizing power of Rome.  On a smaller scale, the holy city lends that legitimacy to the shop.  The olive oil Mrs. Holt sells also goes to Rome, marking it as a superior product.  All of the iconography in this shop card serves to emphasize the importance of the products to the early modern world as much as it tries to generate business for the store.  Olive oil is available throughout the Mediterranean in shops like Mrs. Holt’s, shipped largely from the major Italian ports.  Those trade routes, originally developed by the ancient Romans, allowed products like olive oil to become a staple in early modern dishes like gazpacho.  The textual and artistic sources both highlight the importance and value of olive oil in the medicine cabinets and kitchens of the early modern world.


-Kim McCarthy


[1] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "olive", accessed November 10, 2014, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/427691/olive.

[2] Kiple, Kenneth F., and Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas, eds. The Cambridge World History of Food. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Cambridge Histories Online. Web. 09 November 2014. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CHOL9780521402149

[3] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "olive", accessed November 10, 2014, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/427691/olive.

[4] “History of Olive Cultivation in Mexico,” Olivares de la Sierra, accessed November 4, 2014, http://olivaresdelasierra.com/en/history-of-olive-cultivation-in-mexico/

[5] Oliver Goldsmith, An History of the Earth and Animated Nature, (Hathi Trust Digital Library, 1774), accessed November 2, 2014, http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=chi.095531169;view=1up;seq=217

[6] Ibid.

[7] Oliver Goldsmith, An History of the Earth and Animated Nature, (Hathi Trust Digital Library, 1774), accessed November 2, 2014, http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=chi.095531169;view=1up;seq=217

[8] Ibid.

Olive Oil