Treasure troves: medicine chests

(National Maritime Museum, London, 2012)

In this research project, I made a comparative analysis of four nineteenth-century medicine chests from the collection of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, and the lives of their owners, shows that although the nineteenth century saw a rampant growth in medicinal consumer goods, the availability of effective self-prescription drugs remained limited, even to those affluent enough to acquire a ‘personal’ medicine chest. This resulted in a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Victorian Culture, in which I showed that retail medicine chests sold by high street chemists fitted into broader socio-economic developments, such as the increased mobility of Victorian Britons and the rise of the high street and consumer culture. Moreover, the chests were personalized by their owners, and functioned simultaneously as practical objects and status symbols, distinguishing the psychology of nineteenth-century health consumers from their modern counterparts. Analysis of the contents of medicine chests gave a vivid impression of the palliatives available to nineteenth-century naval men and their families, as well as of the gendering of consumer goods that appear neutral at first sight. Moreover, a comparison of high street medicine chests used by Navy personnel with an institutional medicine chest from the same period clarifies the differences and similarities between self-prescription and institutional medicine. I have argued that using the materiality of similar objects used by a distinct social group such as these medicine chests gives us a novel insight in to the influence of the rise of consumer culture on both the personal and institutional lives of that group, and used this article as a plea for more object-based historical research.