A Look Inside an Old Medicine Chest

by Lori Eggleston. 0 Comments

It’s time to take a look at another one of my favorite artifacts!


At first glance, it simply looks like a wooden chest with a lock, drawer, and dovetailed joints. Though not visible in this shot, there is also a metal handle on each side of the chest. Once you know that the chest was made for an apothecary named Dr. Thomas Ritter, you get a better idea of what it contains.


The upper portion of the chest is filled with medicine containers. It appears that only one container is missing, so it is nearly complete! In addition, all but one of the containers still retain their labels, so this gives us a good idea of the types of medicines in general use in the mid-19th century. The drawer, which is stuck shut, would have held a small set of apothecary scales and weights, and some basic medical supplies.


I discovered that Dr. Ritter wrote a book to accompany his medical chests, “A Medical Manual and Medicine Chest Companion”.  Though it pretty much starts as an ad for his product, this book also contains a list of the medicines in the chest along with their uses and dosages, “recipes” for some of the remedies of the time, and a guide for treating various ailments.

Here’s what Dr. Ritter has to say about his product, “The subscriber [Dr. Ritter] devotes his energies chiefly to the business of putting up Medicine Chests for families, ships, and plantations.  His prices for new chests, and for replenishing, have given very general satisfaction.  Having put up some thousands, he ventures to say, that for neatness of style, the excellent quality of the medicines, and for the care taken for the preservation of the perishable articles, he is exceeded by no one in the country.  In the replenishing of Medicine Chests, he is strictly careful to put up only such quantities as may be needed, never crowding the chest in order to enhance the amount of the bill.”


This view shows the wooden dividers in the upper portion of the chest, which helped to protect the medicine containers. The missing container would have been in the bottom middle section. Also, if you look carefully you’ll see a few glass containers which look a bit too small for their compartments. These containers are not original to this chest.


These chests were somewhat customizable, so that his customers could choose some of the medicines which went into them.  He charged according to the amount of containers inside the chest, which explains his comment about enhancing the bill!


This is one of the larger ironstone containers in the chest (from the top row in the photo), which held Epsom salts.


In the book there is an entry for “No. 8 – Epsom Salts” which reads, “May be taken in the dose from one to two ounces, or two to four large spoonsful dissolved in a tumbler of cold water.  They are a very cooling purge in fevers, and in external and internal inflammation. 

When a person has taken, by mistake or otherwise, an overdose of sugar of lead, or extract of lead, the best antidote to the poison is Epsom salts, dissolved and drank as soon as possible.  They decompose the poison, and carry it out of the system.”


A smaller ironstone container (from the row at the bottom of the photo) is labeled, “31- Mercurial Ointment.”


According to Dr. Ritter’s book, mercurial ointment was used, “to destroy vermin upon the human body.  Rub a little on the parts affected.  (See Venereal Diseases.)  Steel and iron, covered with a little of this ointment, will be preserved a long time free from rust.”  I like how he worked in a household use for his medicine too!


One of the square glass containers held sulphuric ether, which apparently was one of Dr. Ritter’s favorite medicines!


The entry for “No. 21 – Sulphuric Ether” reads, “This medicine ought to be in every medicine chest, and every family.  Its great variety of uses, its instant operation, renders it of great value in sudden attacks.  Its influence is felt to the ends of the fingers and toes almost as soon as swallowed.  It relieves cramps, dizziness, palpitation of the heart, cholera morbus, Asiatic cholera, faintings, wind in the stomach and bowels, producing colic.  Asthma is relieved, on breathing the vapor of ether.  It may be used for wind-colic by injection, mixed with the common laxative injection.  I have never found any remedy so speedily to compose both mind and body, in delirium tremens, or the horrors, after an emetic.  It is also useful in dyspepsia, combined with Tinct. Bark (No. 25,) three or four times a day.  It may be applied externally for headache, toothache, rheumatism, gout, ruptures.  Dose, one teaspoonful, in sugar and water, every half-hour, until relief ensues.

The water and sugar should be first mixed, and when the patient is ready to receive the dose, the ether should be added and swallowed immediately, as it evaporates very rapidly.  Great care should be taken to keep this article from a lamp, as it takes fire as readily as gun-powder.”

I just hope he didn’t discover that last part by accident!

This medicine chest is currently on display here at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, so that everyone can see it and all of its medicine containers.


Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.

You can view my entire blog at www.guardianoftheartifacts.blogspot.com.











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