Apothecary Chests: Carry-alls Filled with Medicines of the Day
If you like boxes, as I do, and you like ooh-jahs, as I do, you will love apothecary chests, which are boxes filled with ooh-jahs. (Ooh-jahs are all kinds of little detailed things that can make life interesting). Apothecary chests are filled with bottles and tins of medicines, scales, weights, pill tiles, pill rollers, mortar and pestles, papers and labels, etc., made all the more fascinating because you must open lids and drawers to discover them.
The apothecary chests discussed in this article, from the 18th and 19th century, range from small boxes with a lift-lid and a few bottles, to large cases with doors, drawers and lidded compartments. They were made out of pine and painted, oak, mahogany, burled woods and constructed by carpenters and cabinetmakers. Doctors dispensed medicine from them either in their offices or in the patient’s home.
Brown-painted, carpenter-made apothecary chest with hand labeled bottles, which sold for $1,100 in 1999.
One of the largest apothecary chests I had was a pine dovetailed case painted brown that opened side-to-side, filled with bottles on each side. It had a brass handle on the top and two simple hooks for closure. All the bottles were hand-labeled, and some still had contents. I estimated the chest was from the 1870’s. One potential customer was fascinated and said he was a bottle collector. He said he wanted to buy just the heroin bottle (it was empty!). I told him I wouldn’t break up the chest, but he kept insisting. He told me he would give me $50 for the bottle so I told him he could have the bottle for $1,100 and I would throw in the chest. For some reason I didn’t make that sale.
The oldest chest I have had was a Georgian chest made in England. It had a lift-lid and two doors—one front and one back—numerous drawers and cubbyholes. It was made of mahogany and was quite lovely, with two brass handles on the sides. The bottles had printed labels from the various apothecary shops in London, but all were empty, and had all the accoutrements: pill tile, glass mortar and pestle, tins, papers for powdered medicines, scales and weights.
Georgian apothecary chest, made by a British cabinetmaker of mahogany, is filled with the tools of the doctor’s trade. It sold in 2003 for $3,500.
Powdered medicine was given to the patient in doses folded into paper and labeled with the manner of taking it. The scales in an apothecary chest were hand-held and usually made of brass, but would sometimes have glass pans. The weights used in apothecaries consisted of scruples, drachms and grains; liquid measure consisted of ounces. Pill tiles and pill rollers were used in the making of pills. A future article will address these interesting items in more detail.
One of the most interesting chests I ever had was a lovely little mahogany one, filled up by the apothecary at the direction of the doctor to be used in a large English country manor house. The lady of the house could then dispense simple remedies for common ailments. Each bottle was labeled with the complaint and the dose. All the doses were the same, probably to keep from accidentally overdosing anyone. There were silver-covered pills in some bottles, and liquids in others. There was also an inoculator; in the early 19th century, the lady of the house also inoculated the household members and staff against smallpox, as was her duty. This chest was the forerunner of the homeopathic boxes.
Beautiful little apothecary or Manor House chest, designed for the head of household to dispense medicines for common ailments, sold for $2,800 at Jekyll Island in 2000.
Apothecary chests were also used by the military in field hospitals and these were usually quite utilitarian; a simple box with lift-lid filled with bottles. These could be labeled with the specific hospital, and then would be quite valuable.
Apothecary chests prove to be fascinating time capsules in respect to medicine and everyday life and so are wonderful items to collect if you love boxes and ooh-jahs.
Laura Collum is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in decoys, nautical and scientific instruments.
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