Popping Pills: Restoring an Apothecary’s Pill-Rolling Machine

This gorgeous artifact and fascinating piece of medical history is the latest addition to my collection of antique brassware, and is also the latest thing I won at the local auction-house…

“Ooooooh!” I hear you say.

“Wussit do?” I hear you say.

“Can I have one??” I hear you say.

Well…uh…no, you can’t have one! I’ve been chasing one of these for five years, and I finally got one!

“Awww…okay fine!…But…w-whassit do?”

Well, it’s a pill-rolling machine, from the Victorian era! Ain’t it neat?

No, seriously dude…what does it actually, like…really, do?

…I just told you. It’s a pill-rolling machine!

I know, I know, it looks like some sort of antique cheese-grater, but yes, this is actually a pill-making machine, and back in the mid-1800s, no self-respecting apothecary would’ve been without one of these proudly on display on his shop counter!

“So how does it work?” I hear you ask, “And I mean…why does it exist? I thought pills were made in factories and stuff?”

Uh, yes…they are…now. But 150 years ago, they weren’t. In this post I’ll be talking about what this device is, how it works and what it does, I’ll also be going into a few of the differences between pharmacies today, and how they were, a hundred and fifty-odd years ago, in the middle of the 19th century, when this pill-rolling machine was invented…

Your Friendly Village Apothecary

This machine dates back to the days when your local pharmacist or apothecary bought, sold, and manufactured all his own drugs, medicines and curatives to everybody who lived within the bounds of a given community, and when the dispensing, manufacturing and purchasing of medicine was very different to how it’s done today.

These days, we get sick, we go to the doctor, he’ll give us a script, we’ll take it to the pharmacist, he’ll read it off, get the medicine, give it to us and we’ll walk out of his shop with a bottle of pills, a tube of paste, a jar of ointment, and a bag of diabetic jellybeans.

Back in the 1850s and 1860s, when machines like this were invented, how you got your medicine was very different.

For one thing, you likely didn’t even go to the doctor! Back in Victorian times, physicians were usually far beyond the reach, financially, of most people. Your average, workaday schmoe likely never met a doctor professionally, unless it was a real emergency. On a day-to-day basis, most poor and middle-class people would visit the pharmacist or apothecary for the majority of their healthcare needs.

Even if you did go to the doctor, he’d write out a prescription, and the instructions he generally gave you were to take the script to the apothecary and have the chap behind the counter make up the medicine for you, which the apothecary would’ve done anyway, even if you hadn’t gone to the doctor. And that’s the key difference between a Victorian pharmacist, and one which trades and deals today: Victorian pharmacists and apothecaries MADE their drugs, whereas modern pharmacists just sell them.

Let’s make some drugs… 

Back in Victorian times, there was no such thing as off-the-shelf medicine. Every tablet, pill, suppository, ointment, potion, lotion, tincture and syrup to treat everything from a sore throat to fever, headaches to constipation, was made laboriously by hand, by the pharmacist. There was no such thing 150 years ago, of medicine-making factories like what we have today.

“So where’d they get their drugs from, then?” I hear you ask.

Well, what used to happen was that pharmacists would draw on the centuries of accumulated knowledge passed down from master to apprentice, over countless generations. This knowledge foretold of which plants, herbs, roots, leaves, barks, piths, saps, syrups, foodstuffs and various animal parts, had healing properties. It was knowing how to find these ingredients, how to identify them, how to use them and what they did, that was the biggest part of being a pharmacist or apothecary back in the Victorian era. Indeed, a lot of ancient and past medicine had far less to do with pills and potions, and more to do with herbs, roots, leaves and saps. A lot of the medicine was plant-based (it still is, we just don’t realise it, that’s all!), and because of this, a pharmacist 150 years ago did not have packets and jars and bottles of medicine – he would’ve had jars, and jars, and jars, and row after row after row of drawers, all filled with these plant extracts and component-parts.

Old apothecary shops were famous for having dozens, hundreds of jars, bottles and drawers, all filled with plant and animal components, all of which were used for treating illnesses. Stuff like willow-bark, opium, cannabis, cocaine, smelling-salts, essential oils, cold-creams, arsenic, cyanide, moisturizers, lip-balms and all other manner of countless ingredients!

What used to happen is that you’d go into your apothecary, and he would diagnose you, and then recommend a treatment based on that diagnosis, or based on the symptoms which you told him of. After making his diagnosis or recommended course of treatment, the apothecary would then make the medicine for you – on the spot, there and then. This might take a few minutes, it might take hours! You might be told to come back later to pick it up, or you might just take a seat in the corner and read the newspaper in the meantime.

Victorian-era Medicine

Medicine for most of the Victorian-era varied little from medicine in previous centuries. All medicinal plant-and-herb components were bought, sold, and used in their raw form. No aspirin – just willowbark. No sleeping-pills – just opium. No laxatives, just rhubarb!

So what happened when you had to take your medicine?

Well, to make it easier to digest, and to make the active components easier to absorb, the plant material had to be broken down. This was most often accomplished by grinding, crushing, pounding and muddling, using an apothecary’s mortar and pestle, like this one:

A lathe-spun Victorian apothecary’s mortar and pestle, made of brass to make it easier to clean, more resilient to constant daily use, and to prevent medicine or poison from absorbing into the body of the mortar (which might cause poisoning!) This one’s from my personal collection of antique brassware.

Once the medicine had been crushed, ground and pulverised into dust, it could then be either dispensed into a jar, wrapped up in sachets, sealed inside capsules, or mixed with syrup in order to form a paste, which could then be rolled, or pressed into pills or tablets. As tablets were tricky to make by hand, some medicines were simply sold as the powder they ended up as – put inside a folded piece of paper and put inside a box along with a whole heap of others. One folded piece of paper meant one dose. The medicine was unfolded, tipped into a glass of water or other convenient beverage, and then consumed. It’s the origin of the expression ‘to take a powder‘. My dad remembers having to do this when he was a child for things like painkillers when he had a fever or headache – he said it always tasted horrible!

The Victorian Pill-Roller – How Does it Work?

Hard tablets were tricky to make. The powder had to be poured into a mold, the mold was closed and then hammered to compress the powder. The mold was broken open and a single tablet would drop out. This was slow, fiddly, and imprecise. Making pills on the other hand, which didn’t require this fiddly process, was much easier. And that’s where my Victorian pill-roller comes in.

Once the necessary ingredients for the pills had been measured, crushed, ground and pulverised, a final ingredient was poured into the mortar – syrup. The syrup wasn’t there to sweeten the mixture, it was there to act as a binding-agent. You mixed the syrup into the powder until the entire thing coagulated into a paste or doughy mixture. Then you could scoop out the entire mass, and roll it into a snake or sausage – one long, continuous worm of medicine!

Obviously, nobody wants to take an entire worm of medicine, no matter how sick they are. So to make it easier, the whole mass had to be cut up and shaped into pills.

This used to be done by hand. And there’s nothing wrong with that, except that no two pills were then ever exactly alike – which could be dangerous if the medicine was exceptionally potent!

To even the odds, and to make pills more uniform, the pill-roller was invented, around the 1850s.

So, how does it work?

Well it’s very simple. It has two parts (well three, but the third one is missing – I’ll get to that later on).

The largest piece is the board. This is set at an angle and is comprised of the rolling surface, the cutting grooves, and the collection-tray. The large flat surface is for rolling out the pill-paste into the sausage that I mentioned earlier. This is then rolled towards the brass cutting-grooves. The paddle (the second piece) is flipped over so that the grooves there line up with the grooves on the board.

Rollers on the ends of the paddle roll against the brass edges of the board, and they guide the paddle straight across the grooves, taking the pill-mass with it. The grooves on the paddle and the board slice up the pill-mass and, after rolling the thing back and forth a couple of times like a rolling-pin, the circular pills – each one exactly the same size now (wow!) – roll off the grooves and into the tray at the bottom. And there you have it – two dozen pills all done in less than a minute! Talk about mass production, huh? This process could be repeated countless times and the results would always be the same – perfectly shaped pills, which were all the right size, and the right dosage.

Now, remember I said that the board was on an angle? That’s to ensure that the pills only roll one way – across the grooves from one end, to the other, turning from lumps of clumpiness on one end, to emerge as recognisable pills on the other. Now this presents a problem: Pills are round. And if you studied university-grade physics like I didn’t, then you might or might not know that round things on a sloping surface…roll. A simple application of gravity overcoming friction.

To prevent your newly-formed pills from rolling off the board, onto the table, and then all over the floor, the pill-roller came with a third component, which on this one, is missing – a removable, wooden collection-drawer. At the end of a session of rolling, the pills would land inside the drawer and remain there while you made more. When the drawer was full, you could slide it out and empty its contents into a jar or bottle, easily, and cleanly.

That said, simply rolling the pills wasn’t always sufficient. To improve their look, or to change their shape, each pill was then placed inside a highly sophisticated pill-rounding device, which is different from a pill-rolling device, in that it doesn’t roll the pills, it rounds them.

What’s the difference? One device makes the pills, the other one pretties them up for the camera.

The pill-rounder is basically a flat wooden disc or cup. You stick it over the pill (one pill at a time) and slide it back and forth and all around. This rolls the pill inside all over the place, smoothing out any lumps and bumps, so that it’s a perfect sphere. Shaking the rounder back and forth flattens out the sides so that it looks more oval than circular – one trick to differentiate pills from each other if they’re the same size or colour, but have different functions – was to make different pills a different shape. You don’t want to confuse a laxative with a sleeping-tablet…

Restoring the Pill-Roller

Anyway, so much for the pill-roller and how it works. What about fixing it up?

Well, this is what it looked like when I bought it…

As you can see, worn out, and rather dry. The wood was supposed to be a beautiful dark mahogany colour and the brass is supposed to be a gleaming gold…instead both elements look rather dusty. In that photograph it’s almost impossible to tell them apart! It took a lot of polishing with Brasso and ultrafine steel-wool to restore the brass back to its previous luster…

The brass grooves and rails after my first concentrated polishing effort. It would take a lot more to finish it off.

Apart from polishing and cleaning the brass, I also had to tighten screws, fix dents in the brass rails (which fortunately were few and easily remedied), and clean out the grit and dust stuck inside the cracks.

The biggest repair I had to do was to rebuild the one missing piece from this device: The pill-collection drawer. This involved a lot of careful measuring, tracing, cutting, and research.

Rebuilding the Drawer!

I didn’t know that this thing was missing something when I bought it. I was so excited at the possibility of owning it that this had never crossed my mind! It was only after I’d started researching it, that I’d realised that something was missing. In researching the history of these things and trying to dig out photos of them online, I started to realise that mine was incomplete. Fortunately, rebuilding the drawer looked like a relative cakewalk, so I headed out, purchased the necessary materials, and started.

The first step was to measure and mark all the pieces that I’d need, after looking at loads of photos to determine the general style and shape of the thing. The next step was to cut them out and figure out how they’d all fit together. Due to the shape of the board and the grooves which the drawer had to slide in, each piece had to be carefully sanded, chiseled, cut, measured and oriented a specific way, otherwise it wouldn’t work.

Sanding and chiseling took up the most time. The first and easiest step was to measure, cut and sand the baseboard for the drawer. This had to fit perfectly, because everything else would be measured and cut in relation to how it moved inside the pill-roller. Once its size was perfected and it could slide in and out comfortably, I started on the side-pieces. These were harder because to fit inside the drawer-space, they actually needed quite a lot of wood taken off. I accomplished this with a ruler, pencil, hammer and chisel to carefully score, chip and split off as much wood as I needed, before sanding the chiseled area smooth.

The next step was to cut the curved, quarter-circle rails that would be at either end of the drawer. One end had to be lower than the other, so that the pills would roll into the drawer easily. The other end had to be higher, so that the pills wouldn’t then be encouraged to roll out the other side! The challenge here was to cut and sand these rails to the right length. Too short and they’d fall out and be the wrong size. Too long and if I forced them between the sides of the drawer, I risked splitting the pill-rolling board in half – which would be a disaster!

The next step was to fit all the pieces together, and ensure that they would slide in and out smoothly, without jamming…

All the pieces fitted together, before final assembly.

Once I was satisfied with how they fit together, I started gluing them together. This was the easiest bit. I started with the end-stop rail first, then the rail closest to the pill-grooves. And then I glued the side-panels onto the sides of the rails and the top of the baseboard. Then I slid the whole thing into the drawer-space to compress it a bit while the glue dried. This was the result:

Drawer goes in…

…drawer comes out!

I had to be very careful with these last few steps. The drawer had to be just the right size. If it was even a fraction too small, then it would just fall out. If it was a fraction too big, then it would jam, and quite possibly damage the board. But patience paid off and the results speak for themselves. The final step was to nail the pieces together here and there, just to provide some extra strength and peace of mind, and then to stain everything with oil to bring out the grain and colour, but the project was essentially finished at this point – all the other things that still had to be done were purely cosmetic. The main ‘reconstructive surgery’ as it were, was now completed.



And there you have it. The finished product. Next comes staining, and perhaps a demonstration of how this thing actually operates, but that’ll be for another posting! Stay tuned!


Antique Chinese Ivory Chopsticks – A Quest Concluded

My grandfather, born in Nanhai, Canton, Imperial China, in 1907, migrated from what would’ve been in his youth, the Republic of China, to the British Straits Settlements, in the early decades of the 20th century, carrying all his worldly possessions with him in a punched steel steamer-trunk. China in the 20s and 30s was a volatile place and incentive to migrate was strong. Very strong. So strong in fact that places like Malacca, Penang, Johore, Singapore, Java and Sumatra were inundated with thousands of Chinese migrants every year, who had sold all they could afford, to purchase steamer-tickets to get out of China and find a new life somewhere else.

These migrants were called ‘sinkeh‘ (“Sin-Kay”), a corruption of the Chinese ‘Xin Ke‘ (‘new guest’). Despite this title, they were rarely treated like guests.

Chinese sinkeh to colonies and communities of the South Pacific in the early 20th century often ended up working hard, backbreaking, low-paying jobs – what was called ‘Ku Li’ (“bitter labour”), from which we get the English loanword ‘Coolie’. They worked as rickshaw pullers, rubber-tappers, nightsoil haulers, clog-makers, fast-food hawkers, casual hard-labourers or (especially for women) domestic servants in the homes of wealthy, well-entrenched Straits Chinese families who had lived there for centuries.

My grandfather was one of such thousands of these sinkeh, but differed in the respect that he, unlike many, was an educated man. He was a scholar, and a calligrapher, and while others might’ve brought clothing or rice-bowls or other such things from China – he brought an encyclopedia-set!

The Sinkeh Experience

Imagine this for a minute. It is 1920. You have been born into a poor, dirt-farming family, somewhere in southern China. The old imperial government is long gone and China is tearing itself apart with internal struggles and in-fighting as it tries to form a modern, Western-style democracy. While externally, China looks like a modern, democratic country, internally, warlords and political corruption lie just under the surface. Away from the big cities of Peking, Shanghai, Nanking and Tientsin, unease fills the countryside.

To escape from drought, famine, political instability and corruption, thousands and thousands of Chinese migrants flee China before, during and after the Xinhai Revolution (1911), to find safety, stability and money, in other lands. Key ports of call were Singapore, the Straits Settlements, and the Dutch East Indies.

With so many people arriving from China every week, some variety of support-network became necessary. New arrivals to Singapore or Malacca, Penang or Batavia needed to know where they could live, where they could find work, what kind of work was available, and how to survive in these new countries. This led to the creation of the ‘clan association’.

And yes, that’s ‘clan’ just like how the Scots use it. The Scottish have clans, and so did the Chinese! Your ‘clan’ was the group of people who all shared the same surname, or who came from the same province or region of China. Migrants saw it as their duty to set up these clubs and associations so that people who arrived in these new countries knew that they could immediately head to their nearest clan association building, where friendly people who had already established themselves, could help them find homes, jobs and ways of settling into their new lives.

My grandfather, educated and intelligent, with excellent Chinese writing-skills, worked in just such an association for many years. He held the posts of both the association treasurer, and later, the association secretary, keeping and looking up records and information of everybody who passed in and out of the building’s doors. New arrivals, marriages, births, deaths, departures…the whole lot of it!

For his long years of service, the association saw fit to present him with a token of their good esteem – to wit – a pair of solid ivory chopsticks, with his name (‘Cheong Kai Chor‘) engraved on them in Chinese characters.

My own pair of ivory chopsticks, above my chained silver ones, which you might recall from a previous posting.

Sadly these chopsticks are now long-gone. Whatever happened to them, nobody in the family seems to know. But ever since I was told about them, it became a dream of mine to own a pair of ivory chopsticks, and recently, that dream was realised when I picked up a beautifully-decorated pair at a local antiques shop. I shall call them an early birthday present! 😛

So…Ivory Chopsticks?

Yeah, you read it right, ivory chopsticks. Chopsticks have been made of all kinds of things for centuries, and ivory – smooth, white, clean and able to be cut wafer thin if necessary, has always been one of the most prized materials from which chopsticks were made.

Don’t worry, I didn’t go out and shoot anything to get the ivory. I bought them cheap at my local antiques shop. They’re slim and square cross-sectioned, as well as being very long and tapered – 10.5 inches long in total, tapering from squared ends to squared off tips at the base. The only slight defect is age-warping – this happens a lot with natural materials like ivory, tortoise-shell, bone, etc. Even wood! As the material gets older, it dries out. If this happens unevenly, or if it gets moistened and dries out repeatedly, in cycles, then the item can warp and bend.

Fortunately the way in which these chopsticks are warped means that they’re still usable, since the warp is the same for both sticks. The curve was so gentle, I hardly noticed it.

How Do you Tell if they’re Ivory??

This is the one question that always gets asked, the moment you mention that you own anything that’s made of ivory! How do you KNOW that it’s ivory?

Well, a decade of collecting antiques will teach you a few things! But the simple explanation is that ivory is a natural material, like wood. And, like wood, ivory can be carved, sliced, polished, and, again like wood – ivory has a grain. If you can find that grain, it’s the surest way to know if an item is ivory, bone, or just plastic!

Any natural material – ivory, bone, wood, even human skin – is not flawless. There are variations in colour, texture and tonality all over it. This cannot be reproduced by mechanical means. Any attempt to do so will result in repetitions of any patterns found in the material that it’s trying to replicate. If it looks too perfect, then it’s probably not natural, and therefore, in the case of ivory, it’s probably plastic.

Ivory grain wavers and ripples, depending on how it’s cut and sliced, you’ll be able to see the dark and light streaks and lines or changes in tone, from creamy white to a sort of darker beige and back again.

Apart from that, there’s also the texture of ivory. Real ivory has a slightly rough, gritty feel. Plastic which is trying to imitate the look of ivory will be perfectly smooth because…well…it’s plastic. Ivory – real ivory – will never feel like that.

What’ll Happen to Them?

Chances are I won’t ever use them. Once I can, I’ll find a nice little display box for them or something, and bring them out occasionally for show and tell, but until then I’ll find them a safe place on my bookcase where they’ll be out of the way of trampling feet. I’ve given them a gentle cleaning with polishing liquid to remove some of the grime, but my efforts to restore them will end there – the last thing I want to do is snap a pair of 80-year-old chopsticks in half! I do think they’re very cool, and the intricacy of their decorations is mindblowing. I wouldn’t want to damage those!