Bice - Bitter almond

Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities 1550-1820. Originally published by University of Wolverhampton, Wolverhampton, 2007.

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Nancy Cox. Karin Dannehl, 'Bice - Bitter almond', Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities 1550-1820, (Wolverhampton, 2007), British History Online [accessed 22 June 2024].

Nancy Cox. Karin Dannehl. "Bice - Bitter almond", in Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities 1550-1820, (Wolverhampton, 2007) . British History Online, accessed June 22, 2024,

Cox, Nancy. Dannehl, Karin. "Bice - Bitter almond", Dictionary of Traded Goods and Commodities 1550-1820, (Wolverhampton, 2007). . British History Online. Web. 22 June 2024,

In this section


[byse; bise]

Originally in French a brownish grey, or dark or dull blue colour, 'bis' was erroneously transferred in English, to the PIGMENTs, BLUE BICE and GREEN BICE, and the shades of blue or green which they yield. The blue pigment was in the nineteenth century prepared from SMALT, though in the seventeenth it was a product of azurite, then known as LAPIS ARMENIUS. Green bice had been applied in the seventeenth century to malachite, but by the nineteenth it was also made from smalt by adding yellow ORPIMENT [Harley (1970)].

OED earliest date of use: 1330 as a colour; 1548 as a pigment

Found rated by the POUND

Sources: Inventories (early), Rates, Tradecards.
References: Harley (1970).


The name probably had nothing to do with Bilboa, the port in Spain. A bilbo is commonly taken to mean a form of leg shackles, but the context of the only example in the Dictionary Archive [Inventories (1640)] suggests it was more probably similar to an implement found in the nineteenth century in southern England. This consisted of a wooden framework that could secure a cow's head while she was milked [Wright (1898-1905)].

Not found in the OED in this sense

Sources: Inventories (early).
References: Wright (1898-1905).

Bilbo iron

[bilbow iron]

From the place Bilbao in Spain, Bilbo IRON was another name for SPANISH IRON, which was usually shipped to this country through the Spanish port of Bilbao, often rendered in English as Bilboa. Apparently during the mid-sixteenth century, 'divers Persons of late' had 'deceitfully forged and made of certain Iron, called Bilbow Iron, like to the Fashion and Manner of Gadds of Steel, and have sold the same so forged ... for Steel' [Acts (1548)]. This practice was prohibited by the act.

Not found in the OED

Sources: Acts.


[bilbo catche]

A child's TOY also called 'Cup and ball' and 'bilbo catch', like the game played with it. This consisted of catching the ball either in the cup, or on a spike at the end of a stick. The term has been noted only once in the Dictionary Archive as 'Bilbo catches and totums' [Tradecards (1771)].

OED earliest date of use: 1743

Sources: Tradecards.


[billyme't; billimt; billent; billenent; billeme't; billemet; billement; billam't; billament; bellem't]

The OED offers various meanings, all of them indicating some form of APPAREL for the head, usually richly ornamented. It could be the decorative border, often made of GOLD and studded with JEWELs, which was used to edge the upper curve of a FRENCH HOOD and the lower (or nether) curve, but this same piece could also be worn separately as a hair ornament. Biliments have not been noted after 1660. The term was probably used sometimes elliptically for BILIMENT LACE.

OED earliest date of use: c1530

Sources: Inventories (early).

Biliment lace

[billyme't lace; billim't lace; billiment lace; billamente & silke lace; billamen lace; bileme't lase; bellem't lace]

An ornamental LACE used in the sixteenth century for trimming, and not noted after 1660.

OED earliest date of use: 1578

Found described by BLACK, black and blue, black and green, black and red, BROAD, BROKEN, COARSE, FINE, SILK, STATUTE, WHOLE
Found in units of DOZEN, LB, OUNCE, OZ, PIECE, POUND, YARD

Sources: Inventories (early).


[bille; bil]

An IMPLEMENT for pruning and cutting wood, lopping trees and hedges, etc., having a long blade with a concave edge, often ending in a sharp hook, and a handle in line with the blade, which may be long, as in a HEDGING BILL, or short, as in the HANDBILL. Bills were very numerous and often had a descriptor denoting shape, or function; hence 'Long bill' [Inventories (1769)] and 'Bramble bill', presumably for cutting brambles [Inventories (1597)]. A bill was used in a modified form as a WEAPON, when it was sometimes labelled as a BLACK BILL or a BROWN BILL.

It was also the label given to various types of document, either a handbill or advertisement promoting a business, or a record of an account of money owing (that is a shop bill), or a BILL OF EXCHANGE. This was a promissory note that would be payable at a future date. Bills in this sense were used in very much the same way as a monetary note or a cheque are used today, except that they would increase in value the nearer the date of payment came. It is in this sense that descriptors like GOOD, LONDON, at short date, were used.

OED earliest date of use: c1000

As a document: Found described by shop, for tobacconists, tradesmens

Sources: Diaries, Houghton, Inventories (early), Inventories (mid-period), Inventories (late), Newspapers, Tradecards.

Bill book


A large BOOK with lined pages in which tradespeople could keep a record of monies owing; a SHOP BOOK.

OED earliest date of use: 1774

Sources: Newspapers.

Bill of exchange

A written order by the writer or 'drawer' to the 'drawee', that is the person to whom it was addressed, to pay a certain sum on a given date to the 'drawer,' or to a third person named in the bill, known as the 'payee.' A true bill of exchange was given in consideration of value received (and this was usually stated upon the bill), but a bill was sometimes drawn, not against value received, but merely as a means of raising money on credit. It was sometimes then known as an accommodation bill. The term was also applied loosely to a promissory note; hence, bill of debt acknowledging a debt and promising to meet it at a specified date.

OED online earliest date of use: 1579

Sources: Diaries, Tradecards.


[billitting; billitt; billette; billett]

Also called 'singles', this was a thick piece of WOOD cut to a suitable length and, according to Randle Holme, cleft for use as FUEL [Holme (2000)], and regulated, when for sale, by the Assize of Fuel. This set precise measurements for billets, which were to be 3 FOOT 4 INCH long, with a circumference depending upon thickness and cut. A SINGLE was not cleft with a circumference of 7½ inch, while the various types of CAST, whether 'half round' or QUARTER cleft had to be nicked to denote size. Full details appear in the various acts [Acts (1553)]; [Acts (1710)]. Billet was also the label applied to a small bar of metal or a 'bar' or ingot of GOLD or SILVER.

OED earliest date of use: 1361 as FIREWOOD; 1502 of size regulated by law

Found described as GOOD Found describing WOOD Found in units of C, LOAD, M, THOUSAND, TON

Sources: Acts, Houghton, Inventories (early), Inventories (mid-period), Inventories (late), Newspapers.
References: Holme (2000).

Billiard ball

[billiard and missipy balls]

A small, smooth, BALL, usually made of IVORY, suitable for playing the game of billiards on a BILLIARD TABLE using a BILLIARD STICK to manipulate the ball.

OED online earliest date of use: 1637 under Billiards

Sources: Newspapers, Tradecards.

Billiard stick

The game of billiards was originally played with a curved stick, rather than the modern straight cue, which must have resulted in a different game from that played today. Randle Holme described it as 'the Tack or a Stick used at the Billiard table for the strikeing of an Ivory ball. It is generally made of Brasile, or Lignum Vitae, because they must be weighty; and if they be of Ivory it is the best, else they must be tipt with Ivory.' [Holme (2000)]. In the only example noted in the Dictionary Archive, they were made of IVORY or WOOD and listed in pairs, valued at 8s a pair - a lot of money [Inventories (1671)]. Holme suggested that the fine for breaking a 'tack' was 5s, supporting the idea that it would be costly to replace [Holme (2000)].

In one newspaper advertisement of the 1760s, these sticks seem to have been referred to as 'maces' [Newspapers (1760)].

OED online earliest date of use: 1588 under Billiards

Found described as IVORY, WOODEN Found in units of PAIR

Sources: Inventories (mid-period).
References: Holme (2000).

Billiard table

[billiard-table; billiard-board]

A TABLE for use with the table game called Billiards played in England at least from the sixteenth century, see Shakespeare, Anthony and Cleopatra, Act II, scene 5, 'let us to billiards: Come Charmian'. The object of the game was to pot the small BILLIARD BALLs into pockets by hitting them in turn with a long stick called a cue or BILLIARD STICK. The earliest tables were square-topped with a pocket under a single hole in the middle. By the mid-seventeenth century, tables were rectangular, made to fit the space available, with pockets, called hazards at each corner and at the centre of each side. A long description of a billiard table and how to construct it is given by Robert Howlett in his book called 'The School of Recreation' [Howlett (1684)]. In the eighteenth century, the modern form of a double square became common [Gloag (1952, revised 1991)]. A billiard table advertised for sale in the 1760s was '12 Feet long by 6 Feet wide', the modern size, 'in very good Condition, with above a dozen of Balls, and Maces for both French and English Billiards' [Newspapers (1760)]. The billiard board was probably similar, but may have been smaller and have had no legs [Newspapers (1707)].

OED online earliest date of use: 1641 under Billiards

Found described as FINE

Sources: Newspapers.
References: Gloag (1952, revised 1991), Howlett (1684).


Bilston is a small town in Staffordshire now merging into Wolverhampton. It lies in the Black Country, an area long noted for the production of IRON WARE. During the eighteenth century it became noted particularly for metallic TOYS decorated with ENAMEL using painted or transfer designs [Wolverhamptonart (online)]. Although 'Bilston ware' is not a phrase found in the Dictionary Archive, unlike TUNBRIDGE ware, which had some similarities, there is some evidence of the type of goods produced there and the skilled workmen who manufactured it, like John PINSON, a box maker, who died in 1751 and who had among his stock over £70 worth of 'Mettle Boxes finished and unfinished' [Inventories (1751)], or Richard LAWLEY, a japanner, who was active in the 1760s as a 'Manufacturer of Trays, Waiters and Baskets of Every Description for Home & Foreign Trade' [Tradecards (1800)].

OED online earliest date of use: 1957 under Goose-neck

Sources: Inventories (late), Tradecards.
References: Wolverhamptonart (online).

Birch water

[burch water]

The free-flowing sap, obtained from incisions in the bark of the BIRCH tree in spring, was used mainly to make BIRCH WINE, but it was also distilled on occasion into a water. The juice of the young leaves was also used in medicine, and this too was distilled into a water. Any of these four; the sap, the juice from the leaves or the two distillations, could be used, according to Nicholas Culpeper to treat kidney or bladder stones, or as a mouth wash [Culpeper (1792)]. John Gerard, on the other hand, declared that 'Concerning the medicinable use of the Birch', there was 'nothing extant either in the old or new writers' [Gerard (1633, facs. 1975)].

Both Nicholas Blundell and Mrs Raffald used 'birch water' as the basis of BIRCH WINE, [Diaries (Blundell)] and [Raffald (1772)], where they seem to have been using the term to describe the sap. This is spelt out clearly by Mary Kettilby [Recipes (Ketilby)].

OED earliest date of use: 1663

Sources: Diaries.
References: Culpeper (1792), Gerard (1633, facs. 1975), Raffald (1772).

Bird work

[with birds and bucks; birde worke; bird]

An uncommon term applied to EMBROIDERY using birds as the main motive, just as PARK WORK was given to decorative images of trees and plants. The more common name for this type of work was VERDURE.

Not found in the OED

Found describing COVERLET

Sources: Diaries, Inventories (early).

Birds eye

[byrd eyed; bird's-eye; birds ey; bird eye]

With regard to TEXTILEs, this indicates that they were marked as with birds eyes, or SPOTTED. It was also the name of a fabric woven with small figures so as to resemble birds eyes [Montgomery (1984)], hence entries like '11 yards of Byrds ey 2/ p' [Inventories (1665)].

OED earliest date of use: 1665

Found describing DRUGGET, HOOD, STUFF, WHISK
Found in units of YARD

Sources: Diaries, Inventories (early), Inventories (mid-period), Inventories (late).
References: Montgomery (1984).

Birds nest

The edible nest, made largely of the spittle of a kind of swallow found in the China Sea. The nests were imported and used to make a well-known Chinese delicacy of birds nest soup, hence the advertisement for 'India Birds Nests, and Lock Soy for rich Soups' [Newspapers (1760)].

OED earliest date of use: 1760

Found described as INDIA, 'for rich soups'
Found imported by BOX

Sources: Houghton, Newspapers.


[birm'm; birm']

A town in the West Midlands, noted for the production of BIRMINGHAM GOODS and SMALL WARE. In the early modern period the name was often in the form Brummagen, though this is less usual in trade than in common parlance.

The name of Birmingham and its local variant, Brummagem, became strongly associated in the nineteenth century with connotations of cheapness in the modern sense. This negative view of the town has a long history. In the sixteenth century, Birmingham was already noted for mundane iron products such as nails, often seen as the last resort of the poor metal worker. Its image can not have been enhanced by the extensive illegal minting there of false groats during the reign of Charles II, and the subsequent sobriquet of Brummagen given to the opponents of the king's party later in the reign. Birmingham/Brummagen thus acquired undesirable monetary and political connotations that were re-enforced in the nineteenth century by the development of a flourishing export trade in cheap decorative metal ware to the colonies.

But there were other aspects to Birmingham, and others saw Birmingham differently. By the late seventeenth century it already had some of the attributes of a fashionable town. In his 'Britannia, or a Geographical Description of the Kingdoms of England' published in 1673, Richard Blome described Birmingham as a 'large and well built town, very populous and much resorted unto'. Fifty years later, Samuel and Nathaniel Buck noted that Birmingham was 'adorned with several beautiful structures' [Hyde (1994)]. The town had an Assembly Room by 1703 [Borsay (1989)] and as late as 1776, the American Quaker, Jabez Maud Fisher commented upon the 'modern part of the town' as most elegant', with 'great Taste in regulating their streets' [Fisher (1992)]. Its rapid growth obscured some of Birmingham's handsome attributes, so that Colonel John Byng wrote of it in the 1790s as 'that great, dirty leviathan', which he wished much to avoid [Byng (1996)]. Even so, such was its reputation for culture that he had planned his Welsh tour in 1787 to return via Wolverhampton and the 'music-meeting at Birmingham', while five years later his tour included a visit to the theatre there to see Mrs Siddons [Byng (1996)].

Birmingham had the advantage of plentiful local supplies of IRON and COAL. It was less fortunately endowed with modes of transport as its meagre rivers were not suitable for river transport. However, with the building of canals in the eighteenth century, the town became a major hub of the whole system, with connections via the Trent Mersey canal to the two rivers serving the industrial north and the Potteries, the Staffordshire and Worcester canals running down to the Severn, and the Oxford/Coventry/Grand Junction connection to the Thames and London.

Birmingham was deemed of sufficient importance by retailers to use the name in their promotional material, often associated with SHEFFIELD; hence advertisements like the one for 'all Sorts of Birmingham & Sheffield Ware' [Tradecards (18c.)].

OED online earliest date of use: 1849 under Birmingham; 1637 as Brummagem in its various forms

Sources: Acts, Diaries, Houghton, Inventories (early), Inventories (mid-period), Inventories (late), Newspapers, Tradecards.
References: Blome (1673), Borsay (1989), Byng (1996), Fisher (1992), Hyde (1994).

Birmingham goods

[birmingham ware; birmingham ironware; birmingham hardware; birmingham & sheffield ware]

Goods made in BIRMINGHAM, like TOYS and IRONWARE; the term seems to have been interchangeable with BIRMINGHAM ware, and the two are treated here together. In the sixteenth century, Birmingham was noted for the production of NAILS, and it may be that in other sources, Birmingham goods or ware would have mainly denoted with type of IRONWARE at that time. However by the eighteenth century, Birmingham was much better known for its skilled metal workers, who combined IRON and BRASS with new types of finish, or who worked in SILVER, manufacturing luxury goods notable for their combinations of materials and decorative finishes [Berg (1999)]. Birmingham drew to itself skilled craftsmen from elsewhere, as well as experiencing a need for knowledgeable trade representatives to market the new wares [Newspapers (1790)]. It was also successful in acquiring its own Assay Office [Acts (1773)]. The term was often associated in trade with SHEFFIELD GOODS in phrases such as 'all Sorts of Birmingham & Sheffield Ware' [Tradecards (18c.)], and less often with London. In his promotional hand bill, Thomas Holmes of London gave some indication of the range, offering for sale a 'great variety of English & Dutch Toys', as well as 'Sheffield & Birmingham Goods' such as Knives, Sizers, Buckles, Buttons, Combs & Snuff Boxes, Likewise Silver Buckles, Buttons, Rings, Necklaces, Ear-Rings, Flowers &c. with variety of Fans & Fan Mounts' [Tradecards (18c.)]. Tradespeople from the industrial North apparently favoured barter rather than monetary means of payment, and there have been noted more than one advertisement on the lines of the one announcing 'Just arrived from Edinburgh, a large Assortment of Haberdashery Goods of different Kinds, which will be given in Exchange for Birmingham Goods' [Newspapers (1790)].

Not found in the OED online

Sources: Inventories (late), Newspapers, Tradecards.
References: Berg (1999).



The English name for the various species of ARISTOLOCHIA, the root being the part used, which was 'long, thicke, ... of a strong savour and bitter taste', according to John Gerard [Gerard (1597, 1985 ed.)]. Houghton claimed 'there is a great deal imported for physical uses'. In his day it was largely imported from the STREIGHTS, though he believed it could be grown in England [Houghton], and in fact, Gerard stated 'they all grow in my garden'.

As the English version of its name implies it was believed to help women in labour, but birthworts were used more widely in medicine. Pemberton still listed the Long (Aristolochia longa) and the Creeping Aristolochia tenuis) in the Materia Medica in 1746 [Pemberton (1746)], and he used the latter in VENICE TREACLE [Recipes (Pemberton)], while John Houghton claimed birthworts were an ingredient of an OINTMENT of TOBACCO and PARACELSUS PLAISTER [Houghton]. In his diary Thomas Turner copied out a recipe in his diary for 'preserving the health of the seamen in the Royal Navy' which included 'Aristochia Rotunda, or Birthwort Root' [Diaries (Turner)]. This suggests it may have been believed to be useful in preventing scurvy.

OED earliest date of use: 1542

Found as an ingredient in VENICE TREACLE

Sources: Diaries, Houghton, Inventories (mid-period), Recipes.
References: Gerard (1597, modern ed. 1985), Pemberton (1746).



A term found only once in the Dictionary Archive in the 1582 Book of Rates, a source full of unidentified and obscure terms. Given the measurement by piece and gross it is possible that bisilk is a scribal error for the contemporaneous term of 'bisset' - a piece of BINDING or LACE made of SILK, GOLD and/or SILVER, etc.

OED earliest date of use: not found as 'bisilk'; 1561 as Bisset

Found rated by the GROSS of 12 DOZEN - PIECE

Sources: Rates.

Bitter almond

[bitt'r almonds; bitter ditto; almonds bitter]

One of the two types of ALMOND (Prunua dulcis var. Amara or Amygdalus amara), the other being the SWEET ALMOND. The bitter taste that defines this type of almond comes from the glucoside Amygdalin, which contains the highly toxic Prussic acid, although this may be removed with treatment by water or will evaporate off in cooking [Simmonds (1906)].

An ESSENTIAL OIL was extracted by distillation, called OIL OF ALMONDS or (in Latin) OLEUM AMYGDALARUM AMARUM. It was used in PERFUMERY to make such commodities as WASH BALLs and SOAP. The expressed OIL was used for any purposes for which a fine oil was required. Bitter almonds were mainly used in MEDICINE, for example, Gerard noted that they were used to 'clense and take away spots and blemishes in the face, and other parts of the body' and that 'they mundifie and make cleane foule eating ulcers.' [Hess (1981)].

Bitter almonds were also available from nursery men as SEED [Tradecards (n.d.)].

OED earliest date of use: 1632

Simone Clarke

Found in units of LB, OZ Found among the DRUGS and GROCERY rated by the HUNDREDWEIGHT of 112 LB

Sources: Houghton, Inventories (early), Inventories (mid-period), Inventories (late), Newspapers, Rates, Recipes, Tradecards.
References: Hess, (1981), Simmonds (1904).