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Artifact of the Month – Medicine Chest

One thing a lot of people from my generation have a hard time relating to is how cut off from the world people were when they set out to sea in years past. Now we have access to the internet almost everywhere we go, giving us the ability to communicate with our loved ones and to seek immediate answers for our questions on Google. This point was really brought home when I began researching one of our medicine chests. Because ships could be out to sea for such long periods of time and were unlikely to have anyone with extensive medical knowledge, they would carry medicine chests with a book of instructions on how to identify and medicate various maladies. The different medicines would be numbered so that they could be easily identified and administered. For example, if one had stomach cramps, perhaps the cure was two drops of #3 and one drop of #7. And when they began to run out of medicine, they would get creative and instead of two drops of #3, maybe one drop of #6. And some poor sailor had to find out the hard way what the repercussions of that would be.

Physician For Ships

The above chest is from ca 1830’s and was used on the whaler Rousseau. Rousseau was built by Nicholas Vandusen in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for Stephen Girard, a wealthy banker. She was launched in 1801 and continued to serve as a merchant vessel for Girard until 1831 when she was sold to George Howland and turned into whaling vessel. Rousseau had a rather long life for a ship and continued whaling ventures until retiring in 1886 and being broken up in 1891.

Whaling vessels Desdemona and Rousseau, courtesy of Connecticut Digital Archives online

This medicine chest was made by a company whose name changed as often as its owner. The company was started in 1831 in New Bedford, Massachusetts by a man named Benjamin C. Taber who sold it about 1835 to a Dr. Tompkins and Brother. Not sure of the identity of the brother as I haven’t found him named in any of the documents. Whatever his name, when the brother died, James E. Blake, who had been an employee of the shop, became Dr. Tompkins’ partner.

Portrait of Dr. Silas Tompkins, courtesy of Gould Actions
James E. Blake, Courtesy of Digital Commonwealth Massachusetts Collections Online

When Dr. Tompkins died in 1853, Blake took over the business. He briefly took another partner, Frank R. Hudley, before once again becoming sole owner. Upon his retirement in 1907, Blake sold the business to his son, George A. Blake. Trade cards for all of the men who owned this company at some point or another can be found on the inside of the case, shown in the picture below.

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