Today, apothecary cabinets make a great addition to rustic-themed and other home décor. A relative of mine recently obtained one. She’s contemplating how she’ll use it — perhaps as a simple side table? Maybe use its many drawers to organize and store any number of items? I suggested she let me try it out. I could organize and store crafting supplies (including the scrapbooking stuff I wrote about recently); you know, like a furniture taste test, I told her. Unfortunately, she said no — I wasn’t too surprised given its value.
These cabinets are beautiful, yes, but certainly once served a much more useful purpose.
Apothecary cabinets were historically used by apothecaries (now known as pharmacists) — medical professionals who formulated and dispensed materia medica (a.k.a. medicine) and herbs to physicians and patients. Apothecaries would sometimes offer general medical advice. In 17th century England, they also often controlled the trade of tobacco, which, in those days, was imported as a medicine.
The apothecary cabinets specifically are multi-drawer cupboards typically shorter and wider than standard chests and cabinets. They have many pull-out labeled drawers (the number of drawers always varies) in which medicines, elixirs and herbs were stored. Tools such as spoons, scales and mortar and pestle were stored in them too. Some even had secret compartments for storing poisons and rare spices or herbs.
These cabinets (sometimes referred to as hundred-eye cabinets) have long been used in many cultures including the U.S. and Asia, as well as England. Durable wood including mahogany was popular in their construction, given its long-lasting durability.
Zitan wood was commonly used throughout Asia, in particular; according to information from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, zitan (pterocarpus santalinus) is a member of the rosewood family of trees native to Asia. It’s extremely dense, making it durable, but features a fine texture that is especially suitable for carving and engraving. Traditional Chinese apothecary cabinets were adorned with intricate lettering and ornate embellishment.
Apothecary cabinets eventually fell out of favor for their originally intended use when pills and other medicines started being mass produced. Apothecaries’ duties evolved into those of modern-day pharmacists, no longer needed to formulate medicines on their own with various ingredients. Now, medicines are organized on shelves behind the pharmacy counter — modernly efficient, sure, but not nearly as attractive to the eye.
Apothecary cabinets have become popular décor in living rooms and bedrooms. They’re dressers, storage cabinets, side tables. You can find them in all sorts of styles, although based on the traditional look. Some feature different colors, too, instead of simple wood. Pottery Barn sells them, as does Wayfair, lots of Etsy “stores,” eBay, even Target.
Antique, authentic ones are in antique stores (of course), auctions and online shopping sites including eBay. These are more expensive, as you can imagine. But from what I’ve seen, there’s nothin’ like the real thing.