History In a Box: An Adventure in Herbal and Medicinal History

| April/May 2007

I occasionally visit an online auction site and type “herbs” in the search box. I usually see the ubiquitous weight-loss herbal combinations, books, tea towels and canister sets. Last time, however, “Herbalist Collection of Herbs ca. 1920” caught my eye. A seller in Montana was offering six small, sturdy, cardboard boxes, each containing one dried herb; digital photographs showed the contents of each open box. The six herbs represented were goldenseal, cascara sagrada, buckthorn bark, cola nut, cotton root bark and sassafras. There was another photo of the six box lids, and each lid was covered in script. This tiny but legible script listed the botanical name, common names and plant part within the box, as well as its active constituents, use, a description of the appearance, characteristics, taste and preparation. All this information was contained in a 2-by-3-inch space. I was fascinated and thought the boxes might be a useful teaching tool in the herb classes I teach.

I contacted the seller to learn more about the boxes. They had come from an old pharmacy in a small town on the edge of the Bitterroot Forest in Montana. The owner of the pharmacy told the seller the boxes were there when he bought the business 40 years ago. From the little I knew about old-time pharmacies, I had a hunch that the boxes held the herbs that were used in soda tonics to treat various ailments. The seller had more of the antique sample boxes and I convinced him to sell the entire lot to me.

When the shipment arrived, I was not disappointed. There were 78 boxes in all. I spent hours looking them over, needing a magnifying glass to see the tiny writing. Some of the herbs seemed very familiar—obvious essentials for any herbal pharmacy. Others were unfamiliar, such as alkanet root (Alkanna). According to its box, this small, twisted, red root was used as a coloring agent in ointments. Some boxes did not even have plant material in them. One contained cochineal, an insect that lives on cactus and was used as a coloring agent. Another box contained barnacles, which were used to thicken rose water ointments. One box held beeswax.

I set the boxes in alphabetical order and transcribed all the writing. I enjoyed researching some of the unusual materials and descriptions in hopes that there would be clues as to the collection’s age. There were many purgatives and common flavoring agents, such as mints, citrus, saffron, anise, nutmeg, ginger, cardamom and bitter apple, and others listed as carminatives (herbs that soothe the digestive tract). Some boxes listed pharmaceutical products that contained the herb. Though each box contained a lot of valuable information, much was quaint and old-fashioned.

Digging Deeper

For more information to understand when and how the collection was used, I sent my herb teacher, Michael Moore, a few pictures of the boxes and the transcriptions. Moore is the director of the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine in Bisbee, Arizona, and a scholar of the history of botanical medicine.

Moore estimated that this homemade “self-teaching kit” for a student of pharmacy was put together around 1915 to 1925. He explained that until the 1920s most students learned the profession by apprenticing three to five years with a professional pharmacist and completing home study.

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