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

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Each herb box in the collection had a listing of the plant’s botanical and common names, description, uses and more.
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In the past, pharmacy students created their own “self-teaching kit” with all the plants in the U.S. Pharmacopeia.
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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.

He explained that students of pharmacy needed to learn the plants physically for two reasons. First, pharmacists needed to be able to identify and determine the quality of the plants they ordered and could use the samples in the boxes for comparison. They also needed to understand the medicinal qualities of the plant material so they could make their own medicinal compounds, which was more profitable.

In going over the boxes, I noticed that the useful plant bitterroot (Lewisia redivia) was absent, despite the pharmacy being located in the Bitterroot Valley, and I mentioned this to Moore. He said, “The collection is strictly pharmaceutical and has nothing to do with regionalism. It is an accurate representation of plants of the U. S. Pharmacopeia and National Formulary.”

Together we tried to decipher as much as we could of the box labels. One box was labeled “Cambogia” or “Gamboge.” Moore researched the names in Culbreth’s Manual of Materia Medica and Pharmacology, a pharmaceutical textbook from the early 1900s, and learned that the name, “Cambogia,” not in use after 1926, is now commonly known as gambooge (Garcinia gummi-gutta). I asked why the value of cactus (labeled as Cactus grandiflorus, an outdated synonym of Selenicereus grandiflorus) was listed as “doubtful.” He explained that the plant fell in and out of favor over the years. In the era that the boxes were in use, they made preparations from dried, expressed juice, but today only the preparation from the fresh plant is considered useful as a heart stimulant. On the box labeled “Capsicum, Cayenne” it reads, “Color-red-odor-charact. & stornatatory.” Moore explained the last word as a misspelling of “sternutatory” meaning it makes you sneeze. It was a warning to the pharmacist rather than a therapeutic recommendation.

A Town’s Legacy

And what of the town the collection came from? Stevensville, Montana, in the Bitterroot Forest region, is the oldest settlement in the state and houses the oldest pharmacy in the state. That pharmacy is now called Valley Drug and Variety. Stevensville is a small town that grew up around the old St. Mary’s Catholic Mission built in 1841. Its history is rich, and people there were helpful in directing me to historians to contact.

Colleen Meyer, director of Historic St. Mary’s Mission, found that Valley Drug and Variety had once contributed an old ledger to the mission–a prescription book from the old Stevensville Drug Company dated from March to May of 1908, and it contained the name “Joe Dagenais, Reg. Pharmacist.” Could Dagenais have been the creator of the boxes? Although it’s a logical assumption, I can’t be certain.

While I may never have all the answers to the mysteries surrounding my collection, they continue to tantalize me with much to study and interpret.

More Information

To read transcripts and view more photos of the boxes and their contents, visit www.MillcreekHerbs.com.

Merry Lycett Harrison is the owner of Millcreek Herbs, and teaches classes in medicinal and culinary herbs and herb gardening. She lives in Salt Lake City.

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