NotesThis medicine chest was made in London and fitted out by Thomas Keating & Co, Chemists & Druggists, 79 St Paul's Church Yard (indicated by the paper label on the front of the chest). This is quite significant as makers' names are rarely found on the cabinets that now remain. The chest is made from cedar and skilfully crafted with dovetail joints and drawers that still operate smoothly.
The two booklets contained within the chest indicate that the chest was filled in 1836. Other elements of the chest furnishings confirm this as a likely date.
This medicine chest is of a fairly plain design, which is typical of the period 1820 - 1890 when medicine chests were at their most popular. Also indicative of this period are recessed handles and drawer pulls that are made from brass, as are the key escutcheons. Earlier key escutcheons were made from ivory or bone. In addition, the chest is lined with faded pink velvet (which may well have been a rich red originally), and this is standard of chests at the time. Earlier chests were unlined or lined with paper or silk. Also typical of the period are compartmentalised doors and drawers to fit specific equipment such as the glass medicine bottles, mortar and pestle, scales and weights, and pill tile.
The labels on the glass bottles are also specific to the style of medicine chest. They were applied so that they could be easily viewed upon opening the medicine chest. For cupboard style medicine chests, like this one, the labels were attached to the front of the bottles. For trunk style chests, labels were attached to the shoulder of the bottles. When a medicine was consumed, the bottle was taken back to the dispensary to be refilled. During the period 1820 -1890, chemist labels were generally attached to the glass bottles. Only a couple of labels bear the original chemist's name. The label on the quinine bottle is "Senior, Family Chemist: To his Excellency the Governor" and research undertaken by the donor's son unearthed a chemist by this name in George Street, Sydney 1884. As quinine was used to prevent malaria it is quite likely that this needed to be refilled after the ship captain's travel in the tropics. The rest contain the name of the medicine printed on a paper label.
A spatula was necessary in a medicine chest for mixing ointments and powders. The one is this chest is plain metal with a wooden handle, which again confirms the date as some time between 1820 and 1890. It has engraved on it the manufacturer's stamp MAW & STEVENSON, 11 Aldersgate. Earlier spatulas were more decorative and made from ivory, tortoiseshell or mother-of-pearl.
A flat pill tile was used for making or dividing powders and pills. The glass tile in this chest fits snugly over the drawer where the scales and weights are kept. This suggests it is contemporary with the chest, as earlier ones were made from marble or glazed tin and housed vertically within chests.
Typical funnels during this period were made from glass. The funnel in this chest is made from pewter or silver, which normally indicates earlier medicine chests. However, this funnel sits neatly within its compartment, which suggests it is contemporary to the chest.
The hand-held scales in this chest are made from brass and the horizontal beam has swan-necked ends, suggesting it fits within the period and is contemporary to the chest. The brass pans are 60mm in diameter, which was typical of the period.
Contained within the chest is a set of drachm and scruple troy weights, known as The Apothecaries Troy System of Weights. This system was used in Britain until the metric system was phased in during the 1960s. A full set of drachm and scruple weights contains 6 weights in total: 2 drachms, 1 drachm, ½ drachm, 2 scruples, 1 scruple, ½ scruple. Missing from this set is the ½ scruple. This medicine chest also contains some grain weights. These were made from flat sheet brass and usually had seven in a full set, ranging from 6 grain down to ½ grain. They are stamped with dots to indicate the number of grains per weight - remaining in this chest are six, five, four and three weights.
Mortar and pestle were used for mixing and grinding powders and leaves. They were usually made from ceramic or glass. The one in this chest is white ceramic - it may be a Wedgwood ceramic composition that was patented in 1779.
This style of medicine chest was very popular between 1820 and 1890. They were sold by pharmacies and advertised in mail order catalogues. Marketing material aimed the chests at people who would have need of them and could also afford them such as clergymen, well-off families, heads of schools and people emigrating.
It is likely that over time several pieces of equipment or medicine went missing or were replaced with more modern equivalents. Medicine chests at the time would have included an enema syringe and a measuring glass for fluids; however neither of these are in the chest. It is likely that some of the powders contained within the chest would have been consumed by wrapping the dose in paper and tipping it into the mouth; one of the empty drawers in the top row may well have contained these paper wrappers. However, it is fairly safe to assume that many, if not most, of the items in this chest are original to it.
The decline of medicine chest sales began during the second half of the 19th century, although they continued in a more compact form up until the last decades of the 1800s. The pharmaceutical firm Burroughs Wellcome had a medicine chest department in the 1880s; they made a variety of portable chests, adapted for different climates and medical needs, such as for royalty or high-profile scientific expeditions to the Antarctic. However, for the majority of the population the need for domestic medicine chests tapered off. The Industrial Revolution had brought rapid changes in the medical and pharmaceutical fields. Along with significant medical advances and new medicines came easier communication and transport and better trained medical professionals. For those who could afford it, this access meant that the need to keep such comprehensive home remedies declined.
Young, Anne Mortimer, Antique medicine chests, Vernier Press, London & Brighton, 1994.
Conversations between Don Dougan (son of the donor) and Alison Lykissas, Museum Intern, May 2011 (transcript on file)