Items in Medicine Cabinets a Hundred Years Ago

17-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

 Thursday, December 12, 1912:  My eyes are getting better, but everything looks misty to me now. Expect tomorrow to be a busy day for me.

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Grandma—I’m glad that you’re finally getting over the pink eye. Stay healthy!!

As many ailments as the Muffly’s have had, I hope that they had a well-stock medicine cabinet.

I found a hundred –year-old list of what should be in a family medicine cabinet (or as they called them back then “medicine closet.”) The list was in the appendix of a book called The Care of the Baby.

List of Articles for Medicine Closet

Those liquids marked with an * are for external use or are dangerous. They should be in poison bottles.

  • Glass graduate marked with fluidrachms and fluid-ounces
  • Minium glass
  • Accurate droppereye.dropper.a
  • Hard-rubber syringe
  • Small druggist’s hand scales for weighing medicines
  • Camel’s-hair brushes
  • Small straight dressing forceps
  • A pair of scissors
  • Absorbent cotton
  • Several one-inch and two-inch roller bandages, one to three yards long
  • Patent lint
  • Old linen
  • A spool of rubber adhesive plaster
  • Court plaster
  • Paraffin paper or oil silk
  • *Alcohol
  • Whiskey
  • Olive Oil
  • Ammonia-water
  • *Turpentine
  • Glycerin
  • Distilled fluid extract of hamamelis (witch-hazel) for bruises
  • *Soap liniment for sprains
  • *Tincture of iodine
  • *Solution of boric acid for washing cuts
  • *Solution permanganate of potash, 4 grains to the dram
  • Flaxseed meal
  • Mustard
  • Magnesia
  • Vaseline
  • Castor oil
  • Zinc ointment
  • Soda-mint
  • Baking soda
  • Sweet spirit of nitre
  • Aromatic spirits of ammonia
  • Bromide of potash in 2o-grain powders to be divided according to the age
  • *Tincture of digitalis
  • Syrup of ipecacuauha
  • Tannic acid for use in poisoning
  • Epsom salts for poisoning
  • Vinegar for poisoning
  • Jeaunel’s antidote for poisoning

What the heck are most of these items? . . and how do you use them to treat illnesses and wounds?

30 thoughts on “Items in Medicine Cabinets a Hundred Years Ago

  1. Yeah no wonder it was called a medicine “closet” – they needed a closet to hold all those items – they definitely were more organized and prepared for whatever may come up – they needed to. We are used to getting instant solutions and people don’t seem to plan and organize to that extent anymore.

    1. Whenever I find treatments for colds and other ailments in hundred-year-old books it amazes me how it gives directions for combining ingredients of things with names that sound like chemicals. Apparently the public just “mixed” medicines up back then using their eye droppers and specialized glassware.

    1. It’s crazy how much they were encouraged to have in their medicine closets. I guess that for some it was more difficult to get to town to buy things back then.

      1. When we were young and grazed our knees or shins falling off our bikes my dad used to try to pin us down and seal the wounds with some sort of black antiseptic pine tar. We would have rather bled to death.

    1. It’s the same in my house–Kitchen: vinegar, olive oil

      Garage: turpentine (Why in the world would turpentine be in a medicine cabinet?)

      . . . and so on.

      1. My Dad swore by turpentine. He used it to remove “tar” from our feet (we got it at the beach from WWII spills and turpentine was the only thing that would take it off). He also used it for “nits” – a scalp parasite that attacked school children. You could get gum out of hair too – for kids who fell asleep with bubble gum in their mouths.! I don’t keep it in my medicine closet though… but I remember it always being around in our garage.

        1. Your comment brings back bad memories of the time that I had head lice and nits when I was a kid. I think that my parents bought a commercial product to treat it, but it still wasn’t pleasant.

  2. I am not sure I like the idea to have things on hand for “poison” Yikes…I would not want to make Helena mad!! LOL My husbands grandfather was a druggist 100 yrs ago. He would make the medicine right there as needed. He even had a soda fountain.

  3. Holy Cow. No wonder they needed a whole closet. This story isn’t going to end up like Mary on Little House on the Prairie is it? I dont think I could take it if poor Helena ends up blind…

  4. I was curious, so I had to look some of these up.

    Patent lint – you can read about it at Basically though, it appears to be gauze and is used for dressing a wound.

    A spool of rubber adhesive plaster – Better known as adhesive tape. If you go to you can see a 1918 ad that gives uses both medical and non-medical (it was the duct tape of its day). 😉

    Court plaster – A piece of fabric with adhesive used for dressing a small wound. Basically a band-aid. The term comes from its use by ladies at court for beauty spots.

    Ammonia-water – I found this was just another name for Ammonia. Besides its normal cleansing properties, I did find one site that said it could be used as a water purifier. I also thought perhaps it would be used in place of smelling salts to revive someone that fainted.

    *Turpentine – from WikiPedia – Turpentine and petroleum distillates such as coal oil and kerosene have been used medicinally since ancient times, as topical and sometimes internal home remedies. Topically it has been used for abrasions and wounds, as a treatment for lice, and when mixed with animal fat it has been used as a chest rub, or inhaler for nasal and throat ailments. Many modern chest rubs, such as the Vicks variety, still contain turpentine in their formulations.
    Taken internally it was used as treatment for intestinal parasites because of its alleged antiseptic and diuretic properties, and a general cure-all as in Hamlin’s Wizard Oil. Sugar, molasses or honey were sometimes used to mask the taste. Internal administration of these toxic products is no longer common today.

    *Soap liniment for sprains – (Med.), a liniment containing soap, camphor, and alcohol.

    *Solution permanganate of potash, 4 grains to the dram – could be used as a disinfectant.

    Flaxseed meal – Ground flaxseed. Has some anti-inflamatory properties, and has other properties as a digestive aid. Is thought to help lower blood pressure. Depending on the use, it could be used in a poultice, or taken internally.

    Mustard – Even though I’ve never had one, I have heard that mustard plaster or poutice could be used to relieve congestion.

    Magnesia – I’m thinking like Milk of Magnesia here – heartburn relief.

    Zinc ointment – For skin irritations, such as sunburn or rash.

    Soda-mint – This is a brand name. We know it better as Sodium Bicarbonate (baking soda).

    Sweet spirit of nitre – a four percent solution of ethyl nitrite in alcohol, formerly used in medicine as a diaphoretic, diuretic, and antispasmodic.

    Bromide of potash in 2o-grain powders to be divided according to the age – From what I’ve read it looks like it was used as a sedative and an anti-convulsive.

    *Tincture of digitalis – I knew this one had to do with the heart, but I’m surprised it would be a regular in a household medical closet. If not administered carefully, this one could be fatal.

    Syrup of ipecacuauha – To induce vomiting.

    Tannic acid for use in poisoning – used against mushrooms, strychnine and ptomaine.

    Epsom salts for poisoning – I saw other uses for them, but not for poison

    Vinegar for poisoning – Main one I saw this used for was poison ivy and poison oak.

    Jeaunel’s antidote for poisoning – I found the recipe for it in a book on baby care

    1. Thanks for sharing the research you did. Some of the things on the list bring back memories of similar things I used to have in my medicine cabinet. Do parents today keep Ipecac syrup in their medicine cabinets?

      My mother used to swear by Zincofax zinc oxide ointment as a cure for diaper rash. And, my parents always had a few liniments in the medicine cabinet.

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