These figureheads were used outside buildings to indicate that it was a pharmacy. The one pictured at right is still above a pharmacy (on Herenstraat) but one near this is the sign for the “de Vergulde Gaper” a cafe on Prinsengracht.
They’re named “gaper” because they appear to be yawning, in fact they’re not yawning they’re receiving medicine – sometimes you can see a pill resting on his tongue.
Most of the surviving gapers feature Moors, with black skin, turbans and bright clothes, but older ones, now in museums, had white Dutch faces. You can see examples of this in the City Archives.
The Gaper represents the apothecary’s assistant, who would travel with him to local markets, and would demonstrate the efficacy of his medicines by being magically cured. At some point it became popular to have a Moor take this role – whose coloured costume and lively dance added to the show.
After about 1500 cities started to develop to the point where shopkeepers had permanent stores rather than going to a market. Pharmacists took on the Gaper as a symbol over the door that the, still largely illiterate, public would recognise.