Thursday, March 7, 2013

A Fake Pharmacy

     Normally when I put together an exhibit I work with artifacts which go inside the display cases, and reproductions of artifacts for what we call the immersion displays.  Usually the reproduction items are things like uniforms for the mannequins, Civil War period furniture, and surgical kits and instruments which can be purchased from various sources, or donated by generous museum patrons!  Sometimes though, I have to get creative and make them myself.

     Recently, it was decided that we needed to upgrade a portion of our Pavilion Hospital gallery.  This gallery depicts part of a fixed-bed hospital, complete with hospital beds, patients, a Sisters of Charity nurse, a surgeon, and a hospital steward.
Here’s the hospital steward reaching into the pharmacy cabinet in the Pavilion Hospital gallery. The medicine bottles and labels needed to be changed so that they were more correct for the period being portrayed.

     First, some appropriate bottles were purchased, and then I had to work on creating the labels and the contents.
The labels which came on the bottles were not appropriate for our needs, so I first worked on removing them. I succeeded in scraping off one before I decided it would make more sense to simply turn them around and put the correct labels on the other side!

     The labels were easy, since our Education Department had already reproduced some labels from Civil War medical bottles to use with some of their props.
Here are some of the reproduction labels on some of the bottles and a tin.

For comparison, this is one of the original labels on an original medical bottle. 


     The more difficult task was reproducing the contents of the medicine bottles.  I obviously couldn’t use real drugs!  I also couldn’t use any materials which could cause damage to the exhibit if they spilled, or which could attract insects. 

     I tackled the powders first.  Baking soda worked for most of them, and was fairly easily dyed various colors using food coloring.  I would put the baking soda into a sealable plastic bag, add the food coloring, and knead the bag until the color was uniformly distributed.  Tartar emetic can be simulated using plain baking soda, and potassium iodide can be simulated using baking soda tinted with some red food coloring.

     Crystals were mimicked using salt.  I used rock salt for the larger crystals, and table salt for the small crystals.  I found that the table salt could be colored in the same manner as the baking powder.  Rock salt can be used to simulate silver nitrate, while table salt can be used for sugar.

     For the pills, I found that white air-dry clay worked the best.  The clay was reasonably easy to handle, could also be colored with food coloring, and I didn’t have to deal with baking it.  I have to admit that I felt a little silly sitting in my office rolling out little balls of clay though!  White pills were used to simulate ipecac and cathartic pills.  Blue pills were used for “blue mass” or mercury pills. 
Here is my first batch of fake pills!
     The liquids were the hardest to simulate.  I did not want any actual liquids in the display, since there would be too much chance of them leaking or being spilled.  I ended up using a clear two-step resin to simulate liquids in the bottles.  I used a clear resin to simulate alcohol and a darker one to simulate iodine. 
I did have to take this one to my work room, as it required more ventilation. 

The resin worked well, and the labels seen on the backs of the bottles won’t be visible once I put labels on the fronts.
And, here are some of the finished bottles. You can see that I was able to use one real ingredient – the coffee!

     So, now our pharmacy cabinet has a much more accurate appearance.  Just don’t try to sample any of the medicines! 


Photos courtesy of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine.


  1. Very creative! We may be doing a similar display, and you've provided some valuable information! Thank you!

  2. Great work! I have been doing medical impressions (various time periods) for about ten years now. One suggestion: the sash on the figure should be green for medical staff, not red.

    1. No the hospital steward is a NCO not a surgeon the red sash is regulation