The Contents and Usage of an American Family Medicine Chest in 1818

Is that an exciting blog post title or what? Total clickbait 🙂 I’m at home today, sick on the sofa. Perhaps I need a bit of bark or snakeroot from Jonathan Webb’s medicine chest.  

Jonathan Webb, a chemist and apothecary in Salem, Massachusetts, sold family medicine chests to his customers in the early 1800s. A medicine chest was typically a wooden cabinet specifically designed to house medicine bottles and containers that were filled and labeled and/or numbered by the chemist. The preface of Mr. Webb’s 1818 volume, Particular Directions for a Family Medicine Chest is quite self-explanatory as to the purpose of his medicine chest.

Families would use the medicines in this chest and what grew in their gardens and surrounding lands to make popular remedies for their ailments. There are numerous old books containing recipes for these remedies that were composed of ingredients that were common to people then but sound rather exotic to the modern reader… or maybe just to me. What interests me about this little volume is that it’s essentially directions about how to use the medicines in Mr. Webb’s chest. The information is a little more contained that what I’ve found in other books.

Sadly, I don’t have an image of Mr. Webb’s actual medicine chest, but I found this image in the Library of Congress. This is a medicine chest that was stolen from the White House during the War of 1812 by a sailor but later returned to the White House by the sailor’s descendants during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.


Harris & Ewing, photographer. White House Secretary and medicine cabinet taken from White House. District of Columbia United States Washington D.C.. Washington D.C, 1939. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016878157/.

Below is an image of a fancier medicine chest from London.  


Mahogany medicine chest, England, 1801-1900. Credit: Science Museum, LondonCC BY

Let’s focus on Mr. Webb’s humble chest and its contents.  The box has over 50 items, but I’m going to highlight a few here.

No. 3. TINCTURE OF GUAIACUM.     Good for weakness, or pain, faintness at the stomach, and for sudden cramp-like and rheumatic pains. Dose, 25   drops, once or twice a day, on sugar.       

No. 5. OPODELDOC.     This is a very good application for strains, bruises, &c.   A little of it should be poured on a warm hand, and rubbed on the part affected; when rubbed in dry, more must be used, and the rubbing continued for some time, and the part immediately after should be covered with warm flannel.    

No. 6. LAUDANUM— BE careful ! !    Good to ease pain, and procure sleep; to check the excessive operation of pukes or purges. It is given in doses from 15 to 30 drops, in tea, wine, or water. The above dose is for an adult; more may be given if the case is an extreme one. It should never be given in large doses, unless by direction of the physician. In all cases, caution is necessary.    

No. 7.  SPIRITS OF LAVENDER.     This may be given oil sugar, or in a little wine. Dose, from 30 to 80 drops, in cases of languor, lowness of spirits, and faintness.    

No. 10. BALSAM DROPS.     Good in a bad cold, or in a high burning fever. Shake the phial, and give 20 or 30 drops in a little herb tea, and if necessary, repeat it two or three times a day. Keep the person warm in bed, and they will produce a free and gentle sweat.    

No. 11. ELIXIR VITRIOL.     Dose, from 15 to 25 drops, in a glass of water. It is good for weakness at the stomach, checks night sweats, attendant on hectic fevers, and makes an excellent gargle for inflammatory sore throats. It may be given to advantage with a decoction of any kind of Bark. It will often answer as a tonic medicine where bark fails.

No. 19. RHUBARB POWDERS.     This is a gentle purge, operating without violence. In diarrhea, or in any bad purging, where gentle physic is necessary, one of these powders, (No. 19) may be given in molasses or syrup in the morning, and worked off with water gruel.       

No. 23. SUGAR OF LEAD.     Sugar of Lead, dissolved in equal parts of vinegar and water, makes a good wash for inflammatory swellings, caused by bruises and sprains and broken bones — one moderate spoonfull of the powder (or one of these powders) to a pint of liquid. Apply a rag dipped in it to the part, and repeat it often enough to keep it moist. When the skin is broken, omit the vinegar.   

No. 25. HEALING SALVE.— (“Turner’s Cerate,)     This salve, spread on a linen rag, is proper to be applied to sores, burns, scalds, or any slight disorder of the skin.   It is also proper to skin over wounds, after they have been filled with flesh by No. 24, and to dress blisters.    

No. 26. POWDER FOR PROUD FLESH.    (Red Precipitate.)     A most excellent remedy for spongy or proud flesh.   Sprinkle on enough to cover the proud flesh, then lay on a piece of dry lint just large enough to cover the sore, and a pledget of Basilicon over the whole.    

No. 27. DIACHYLON PLASTER.     This plaster answers very well for slight wounds or sores, and to be spread on a rag, to be applied over other dressings, to keep them on the wounds.       

No. 29. BARK, (Yellow.)     Bark is an excellent tonic medicine, in convalescence from Typhus fevers; also in intermittent fevers and chronic rheumatism. It is much more effectual in the form of powder, where the stomach will hear it. Dose, one teaspoonfull every two or three hours, in a little wine or pure water. In extreme cases, it has been taken to the extent of one or two ounces in twenty-four hours. In cases of extreme debility, where putrid symptoms are threatened, it maybe taken to any extent the stomach will bear. When it is used in the form of decoction, pour one quart of boiling water upon an ounce of the bark, and boil away to a   pint. Dose, from’ one to three table spoonfulls, every three or four hours.    

No. 31. FLOWERS OF SULPHUR.     Dose, one drachm in molasses; it is a good opening medicine in piles, and eruptions of the skin. In chronic Rheumatism and Gouty complaints, a teaspoonfull of this medicine, with half the quantity of Ginger powder, in a glass of milk every morning, is an excellent remedy. Mixed with hog’s fat, it makes a very good Ointment for Itch,    

No. 33. BLISTERING SALVE.     To be spread on soft leather, and applied to any part of the body, first rubbing the part with warm vinegar till it looks red; let the plaster remain on about twelve hours, or longer if not well drawn. After the plaster is removed, slit the raised skin, and dry up the water with a linen rag,  and dress it with salve, (No. 25) twice a day. Blisters are proper in nervous fevers. When the patient is delirious, apply one to the back of the neck. They are likewise proper in convulsions and inflammation of the eyes. A Blister applied to the back of the neck, will sometimes remove a violent headache.    

No. 36. SNAKEROOT.     Virginia Snakeroot makes an excellent stimulant infusion, and determines to the skin. It is given in low fevers, either by itself, or decocted with Bark. One ounce will make one quart of tea. Dose, half a gill — when it is steeped with bark, add a quarter of an ounce of the root to an ounce of Bark.    

No. 37. CALOMEL. (Mercury.)     This is a very useful and efficacious medicine, but requires caution and judgment in its administration; it is a   preparation of Mercury; and strict attention to the directions should be adhered to, or mischief may be produced by it. After bleeding, blistering, &c. one or two grains of this medicine may be given in molasses every six or eight hours, till the disease abates, unless the looseness or weakness of the patient, (both of which it increases) forbids its longer use. It is also very good in bad pleurisies. Calomel has been used for worms by a celebrated empiric, in doses of five grains each, and in some instances it has proved efficacious.   

No. 41 ARROW ROOT.     This is a very delicate and nutritious article, and may be taken in every complaint where nourishment is wanted.   First wet a tablespoonful of the powder with a little cold water, that it may be reduced to a paste; then pour on half a pint of boiling water, stirring it at the same time, and it is done. It may be given in milk, coffee, or chocolate.    

No. 43. SQUILL PILLS.     From two to three of these Pills may be considered a Dose — taken at bed time, or twice a day. This is a powerful medicine in promoting expectoration, and increasing the secretion of urine; hence it is a valuable medicine in chronic Coughs and Asthmatic affections, attended with viscid phlegm, and in dropsical complaints.        

No. 44. ASSAFOETIDA PILLS.     This is a most valuable remedy. Its action is quick and penetrating, and it affords great and speedy relief in spasmodic, flatulent, hysteric, and hypochondriacal complaints, especially when they arise from obstructions in the bowels, Assafoetida promotes digestion, and enlivens the animal spirits, &c. From one to three of these pills may be given for a dose.    

Aside from bottles of substances, there are other useful items in this chest. Okay, I admit, I added these screenshots purely because of the gorgeous period handwriting in the margins.

Victorian Life Hacks

y family and I have been enjoying the Victorian Farm and Victorian Pharmacy BBC series on YouTube. We enjoy watching faux Victorians toil while munching on our microwaved popcorn from the comfort of our sofa. I’ve had the companion books to both series lying about for a year or two, but I hadn’t had a chance to peruse them because, up until recently, my life had been rather chaotic because of long, tiring commutes.

Yesterday as I was flipping through the pages of the companion book to Victorian Farm, the reference to The Family Save-All book jumped out at me. I looked up the book on Google books and found a delightful volume published in 1861 about how to use what we would call “leftovers” so that they possess “all the warmth and nicety of appearance of the original Cookery”, and how to cook with “secondary parts of animals” such as liver, tripe, feet and head, and hints for the “practical matters” of household. The author writes, “Perhaps there are none but the houses of the wealthier classes in which joints and other eatables are not, as a general rule, sent to the table twice or even thrice.” The book comprises thousands of hints, and, in small print at the bottom of the pages, are humorous anecdotes from Victorian life. The author, Robert Kemp Philp, wrote several books about practical daily life matters in Victorian times.

For hint one, he recommends making a pudding from cold roast beef.
MINCE about a pound of the cold Beef, add to it one teaspoonful of salt, the same of flour, and half that quantity of pepper ; mix well ; fill the paste with the prepared meat, and add a gill of water ; a little chopped onions and parsley may be added ; cover in the ordinary manner, shake well, and tie in a cloth. Boil for half an hour, or longer, if the paste is thick. Chopped gherkins, pickled walnuts, or mushrooms, may be added, or a little of the vinegar of any well-seasoned pickle.

For hint 538, he recommends saving coal by lighting fires with the following method:
BEFORE lighting the fire in the morning, thoroughly clean out the grate ; lay a piece of thick paper, cut to the form and size of the grate, at the bottom; pile up fresh coal, nearly as high as the level of the top bar; the pieces should be about the size of small potatoes or walnuts, but this is not absolutely necessary; the larger lumps should be laid in front, the smaller ones behind ; then put a liberal supply of paper, or shavings, and sticks, on the top, and cover the whole with yesterday’s cinders, adding a very little coal. Thus, it will be seen, the fire is to be lighted at the top. The results will be not only satisfactory, but astonishing… One fair trial of this system will satisfy everybody; and the servant will soon find that it will not only save her master an incredible quantity of coals, but that it will also save her a vast amount of trouble : the bell will be rung less frequently for the coal-scuttle, and the hearth will not require sweeping so often ; the fire, if properly made, will never require to be relighted during the day; there will be no soot-flakes on the furniture, and so little even in the chimney, that the services of the sweep will seldom be required.

Hint 555 is a suggestion for how to make a bed for an impoverished person.
BEECH leaves are recommended for this purpose, as they are very springy, and will not harbour vermin. They should be gathered on a dry day in the autumn, and be perfectly dried.

Hint 572 is a clever way to kill pesky flies.
TAKE some jars, mugs, or tumblers, fill them half-full with soapy water; cover them as jam-pots are covered, with a piece of paper, either tied down or tucked under the rim. Let this paper rubbed inside with wet sugar, treacle, honey, or jam-in fact anything sweet, and it must have a small hole cut in the centre, large enough for a fly to enter. The flies settle on the top, attracted by the smell of the bait; they then crawl through the hole, to feed upon the sweet beneath. Meanwhile the warmth of the weather causes the soapy water to ferment, and produces a gas which overpowers the flies, and they drop down into the vessel. Thousands may be destroyed this way, and the traps last a long time.

Hint 966 explains the tedious process of washing clothes with lime.
The method of Washing with Lime is as follows : Take half a pound of quicklime, half a pound of Soap, and half a pound of Soda. Shred the soap and dissolve it in half a gallon of boiling water ; pour half a gallon of boiling water over the soda ; and enough boiling water over the quicklime to cover it. The lime must be quite fresh. Prepare each of these in separate vessels. Put the dissolved lime and soda together, and boil them for twenty minutes. Then pour them into a jar to settle. Set aside the Flannels and Coloured things, as they must not be washed in this way. The night before washing, the collars and wristbands of shirts, the feet of steckings, &c., should be rubbed well with soap and set to soak. In the morning pour ten gallons of water into the copper,· and having strained the mixture of lime and soda well, taking great care not to disturb the settlings, put it, together with the soap, into the water, and make the whole boil before putting in the clothes. A plate should be placed at the bottom of the copper to prevent the clothes from burning. Boil each lot of clothes from half an hour to an hour. Wash the finer things first. Then rinse them well in cold blue water. When dry they will be beautifully white. The same water will do for three lots.

• Susanna’s Note: blue dye was a chemical brightener.

The last pages of the book contain many small, handy hints that I’ve excerpted below.
1057 Port Wine sediment, is excellent as a flavouring to coffee.
1058 Biscuits, broken, and biscuit dust are good for puddings.
1059 Chestnuts may be made into soups or puddings.
1060 Milk, morning, is richer than that of the evening.
1061 Leeks, green tops of, sliced thin, capital flavouring for soups.
1062 Wood ashes form a good lye for softening water.
1063 Bricks covered with baize, serve to keep open doors.
1064 Rye roasted, is the best substitute for coffee, with chicory.
1065 Turnip-peel, washed clean, and tied in a net, imparts good flavour to soups.
1066 Gold green tea, well sweetened, put into saucers, will destroy flies.
1067 Celery leaves and ends, are useful for flavouring soups, gravies, sauces, &c.
1068 Beans, roasted, form an agreeable substitute for coffee, with chicory.
1069 Walnuts, the outer green husks supply, with vinegar, a very good catchup.
1070 Cherry kernels, broken, steeped in brandy, make a nice flavouring for tarts.
1071 Mulberry juice in small quantity greatly improves the colour and flavour of cider.
1072 Wheat, roasted, forms an agreeable substitute for coffee, with chicory.
1073 Cloth of old clothes, may be made into door mats, pen-wipers, &c.
1074 Bay leaves, in their green state, allay the inflammation of bee-stings.
1075 Linen rags should be washed and preserved for various domestic uses.
1076 Apple pips impart a fine flavour to tarts and dumplings.
1077 Old shoes make excellent slippers, and being occasionally polished look very well.
1078 The Soot should be brushed from the backs of kettles daily, and the front parts be polished.
1079 Sage leaves in small quantity, make an excellent addition to tea.
1080 Lemon juice will allay the irritation caused by the bites of gnats and flies.
1081 Clothes lines should be well wiped before they are put away. Gutta percha lines are best.
1082 Ashes and soap-suds are a good manure for shrubs and young plants.
1083 Oyster shell, put into a teakettle, will prevent its becoming furred.
1084 The white of egg, beaten to a froth with a little butter, is a good substitute for cream in tea or coffee.
1085 Honey and castor oil mixed are excellent for the asthmatic. A tea-spoonful night and morning.
1086 Soap suds, and soapy water, supply a good manure for garden soils.
1087 Cold potatoes, mashed with peas, make an excellent and light peas pudding.
1088 Wooden spoons are generally best for articles that require beating or stirring in cookery.
1089 Milk when slightly acid, mixed with a little lukewarm water, is a cooling drink for invalids.
1090 Bran, dusted over joints of meat when hung, will keep them good for an extra time.
1091 As much carbonate of soda as will lie on a four-penny piece, added to tea, will increase its strength.
1092 Parsley eaten with vinegar will remove the unpleasant effects of eating onions.
1093 Fine coals are excellent for cleaning bottles. Put them in with a little hot or cold water, and shake well.
1094 Lemon Peel is useful for flavouring gravies, sauces, puddings, punch, grog, &c.
1095 Plum stones, broken, and steeped in brandy, afford an excellent flavouring for tarts.
1096 The juice of Bean Pods is an effective cure for warts.
1097 Eggs white of, useful for clearing coffee; and as a cement for broken china, with lime.
1098 A little cider added to apple tarts, greatly improves them.
1099 Fried cucumber, added to Soups, greatly improves them. They should be fried in slices.
1100 Gras meters may be prevented from freezing by keeping one burner lighted during the whole day.
1101 Scotch oatmeal, carefully dried, will keep cream cheese good and dry, if laid over it.
1102 The leaves and roots of the blackberry shrub make an excellent and refreshing tea. The berries are a corrective of dysentery.
1103 Stale bread, after being steeped in water, and re-baked for about an hour, will be nearly equal to new.
1104 Pea-shells and haulm are excellent food for horses, mixed with bruised oats, or bran. Good also for pigs.
1105 Butter which has been used for covering potted meats, may be used for basting, or in paste for meat pies.
1106 Bleeding from the nose may be stopped by putting bits of lint into the nostrils; and by raising the arms over the head.
1107 Egg shells, are useful for the stock-pot, to clarify the stock.
1108 In winter, get the work forward by daylight, which will prevent many accidents and inconveniences with candles, &c.
1109 In ironing, be careful first to rub the iron over something of little value; this will prevent the scorching and smearing of many articles.

1110 When chamber towels wear thin in the middle, cut them in two, sew the selvages together, and hem the sides.
1111 One flannel petticoat will wear nearly as long as two, if turned hind part before, when the front begins to wear thin.
1112 For turning meats while broiling or frying, small tongs are better than a fork. The latter lets out the juice of the meat.
1113 Persons of weak sight, when threading a needle, should hold it over something white, by which the sight will be assisted.
1114 Lemon and orange seeds either steeped in spirits, or stewed in syrups, supply an excellent bitter tonic.
1115 Gutta Percha is useful for filling decayed teeth, stopping crevices in windows and floors, preventing windows from rattling, &c.
1116 Potatoes may be prevented from sprouting in the spring season, by momentarily dipping them into hot water.
1117 To loosen a glass stopper, pour round it a little sweet oil, close to the stopper, and let it stand in a warm place.
1118 Raspberries, green, impart an acidity to spirit more grateful than that of the lemon. A decoction in spirit may be kept for flavouring.
1119 Acorns, roasted, form a substitute for coffee, and produce a beverage scarcely less agreeable especially if with an addition of chicory.
1120 The presence of copper in liquids may be detected by a few drops of hartshorn, which produces, when copper is present, a blue colour.
1121 Cold melted butter may be warmed by putting the vessel containing it into boiling water, and allowing it to stand until warm.
1122 Cabbages, (red), for pickling, should be cut with a silver knife. This keeps them from turning black, as they do when touched with iron.
1123 Common radishes, when young, tied in bunches, boiled for twenty minutes, and served on buttered toast, are excellent.
1124 Eel skins, well cleansed, to clarify coffee, &c. Sole skins, well cleansed, to clarify coffee, &c, and making fish soups and gravies.
1125 Charcoal powder is good for polishing knives, without destroying the blades. It is also a good toothpowder, when finely pulverised.
1126 The earthy mould should never be washed from potatoes, carrots, or other roots, until immediately before they are to be cooked.
1127 Apple pips, and also the pips of pears, should be saved, and put into tarts, bruised. They impart a delicious flavour.
1128 Potatoe water, in which potatoes have been scraped, the water being allowed to settle, and afterwards strained, is good for sponging dirt out of silk.
1129 Sitting to sew by candle-light, before a table with a black cloth on it, is injurious to the eyes. When such work must be done, lay a black cloth before you.
1130 Straw matting may be cleaned with a large coarse cloth, dipped in salt and water, and then wiped dry. The salt prevents the straw from turning yellow,
1131 Cold boiled potatoes used as soap, will cleanse the hands, and keep the skin soft and healthy. Those not over-boiled are best.
1132 In mending sheets, shirts, or other articles, let the pieces put on be fully large, or when washed the thin parts will give way, and the work be all undone.
1133 Leaves, green, of any kind, worn inside the hat in the heat of summer, are said to be an effectual preventive of sun-stroke.
1134 Cakes, Puddings, &c, are always improved by making the currants, sugar, and flour hot, before using them.
1135 It is an error to give fowls egg shells, with the object of supplying them with lime. It frequently induces in fowls a habit of eating eggs.
1136 Buttermilk is excellent for cleaning sponges. Steep the sponge in the milk for some hours, then squeeze it out, and wash in cold water.
1137 Lamp shades of ground glass should be cleaned with soap or pearlash; these will not injure noi discolour them.
1138 When reading by candle-light, place the candle behind you, that the light may pass over your shoulder and fall upon the book from behind.
1139 Walnut pickle, after the walnuts are consumed, is useful for adding to gravies and sauces, especially for minced cold meats, and hashes.
1140 Coffee grounds are a disinfectant and deodorizer, being burnt upon a hot fire-shovel, and borne through any apartment.
1141 Cold boiled eggs may be warmed by putting them into cold water and warming them gradually, taking them out before the water boils.
1142 The best plan to collect dripping is, to put it while warm into water nearly cold. Any impurities it may contain will sink to the bottom.
1143 Hay, sprinkled with a little chloride of lime, and left for one hour in a closed room, will remove the smell of new paint.
1144 Tea leaves, used for keeping down the dust when sweeping carpets, are apt to stain light colours; in which case, use newly-mown damp grass instead.
1145 Moths deposit their eggs in May and June. This, therefore, is the time to dust furs, &c, and to place bits of camphor in drawers and boxes.
1146 Bran may be used for cleaning damask or chintz. It should be rubbed over them with a piece of flannel.
1147 A cut lemon kept on the washing-stand, and rubbed over the hands daily after washing, and not wiped off for some minutes, is the best remedy for chapped hands. Lemon juice, or Salts of Lemon, will clean Sponges perfectly.
1148 Elder flowers, prepared in precisely the same manner as 1153, furnish a very cooling ointment, for all kinds of local irritation, and especially for the skin when sun-burnt.
1149 Common washing soda dissolved in water, until the liquid will take up no more, is an effective remedy for warts. Moisten the warts with it, and let them dry, without wiping.


1150 Bran water, or water in which bran has been steeped, greatly improves bread, instead of plain water. The bran may afterwards be given to fowls, or pigs.
1151 After washings, look over linen, and stitch on buttons, hooks and eyes. For this purpose keep a box or bag well supplied with sundry threads, cottons, buttons, hooks and eyes, &c.
1152 It has been suggested that the sea; of eggs may be determined by the situation of the air-cell; but careful experiments have shown that no dependence can be put upon this criterion.
1153 The leaf of the common dock, bruised and rubbed over the part affected, will cure the stings caused by nettles. Leaves of sage, mint, or rosemary are also good for the same purpose.
1154 Pudding cloths should never be washed with soap. They should be rinsed in clean water, dried, and be put away in a drawer, where they will be free from dust.
1155 Add a tea-spoonful of Alum, and a tea-spoonful of Salt, to each three gallons of Vinegar for Pickling, and immerse in it whole pepper, ginger root, and mixed spices, and it will be greatly improved.
1156 It is a great economy in serving Dinners to provide a plentiful supply of good vegetables, thoroughly hot. For which purpose they should not be served up all at once, but a reserve “to follow” should be the plan.
1157 It is an error to wash weak children, in cold water, with the view of strengthening them. The temperature should be modified to their condition, and be lowered as they are found to improve.
1158 Onions, eschalots, scallions, chives, garlic, and rocambole are pretty much the same, and may be substituted one for the other in many instances, as a matter oi convenience or economy.
1159 For Soft Corns, dip a piece of linen rag in Turpentine, and wrap it round the toe on “which the corn is situated, night and morning. The relief will be immediate, and after a few days the corn will disappear.
1160 The Juice of an Onion will relieve the pain from a bee-sting; dusting the blue from a washerwoman’s “blue bag ” will have a similar effect. The venom must first be pressed out.