Medicine Chest

English domestic medicine chests were made in large quantities from 1820 to about 1900. They were advertised for use of ‘clergymen, private families, heads of schools and persons emigrating’.

A fitted chest like this, with its padded velvet lining holding the bottles in place, would have been a major expense for many migrants, but a necessity on board ship and in a new and undeveloped land where a doctor or any kind of medical aid was a rarity.

The contents are very much of their time, before antiseptics and antibiotics, when sometimes the cure was worse than the complaint. Victorians believed in the use of purgatives to cleanse and balance the blood as a treatment for many ailments, so there are several different kinds.

Cooling Powders for Children, Essence of Peppermint, Lunar Caustic, Toothache Tincture, Laudanum (opium, used to assist sleep, and for pain relief), Spirits of Sal Volatile (for reviving a swooning or unconscious person), Arnica Tincture and Pure and Best Castor Oil complete the picture.

Medicine chest, England, 19th Century, wood, metal (brass), glass, medicines, bone, cloth, cardboard, printed paper

Medicine Chest containing bottles of medicine and other medical paraphernalia.

What was it used for?

Antimonial Wine

Antimony and potassium tartrate dissolved in water and added to sherry-type wine. Used as a purgative and worm treatment


Mercuric chloride. A purgative and sedative, useful for dysentery and cholera.

Cooling Powder for Children

For fevers and teething discomfort.

Essence of peppermint

Calms the stomach, acts as a purgative, and prevents griping.

Lunar Caustic

Silver nitrate: used to cauterise wounds – has some antiseptic properties.

Spirits of Sal Volatile

Restorative (like smelling salts) in cases of fainting or collapse.

Tincture of Rhubarb

Rhubarb, cardamom seed and coriander: used in mixtures as an astringent bitter and a mild laxative for infants.

Ipecacuanha Wine

An expectorant, a purgative and an emetic.


Opium: used as an analgesic, to assist sleep, for diarrhoea, gut and kidney problems, and pain relief.

Mercury pills

Used for apoplexy, worms, child bearing, tuberculosis, toothache, and constipation.

Powdered Turkey Rhubarb

A purgative

Toothache tincture

Probably contained oil of cloves.

Tartar Emetic

Antimony and potassium nitrate: small doses as an expectorant, larger doses as an emetic. Also used to treat venereal disease.

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Medicine Chest
Medicine chest, England, 19th Century, wood, metal (brass), glass, medicines, bone, cloth, cardboard, printed paper

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