Every week we shine a light on a different object from our collections that you may not have seen before. This week we are looking at a Victorian Pill Making Machine, a fascinating part of medicinal history. This object was kindly donated to the museum in 2009. It is likely of an 18th century date and is made from mahogany and brass.
Before factory production became commonplace in medicine, dispensing was considered an art and pill machines such as these were a vital component of any chemist’s collection. This machine dates back to the days when your local chemist or apothecary bought, sold, and manufactured all his own drugs and medicines to everybody who lived within the local community. In Victorian times, there was no such thing as off-the-shelf medicine. Every tablet, pill, suppository, ointment, potion, lotion, tincture and syrup to treat anything from a sore throat to fever, headaches or constipation, was made laboriously by hand, by the chemist.
Pill machines such as these first appeared in the mid-1700s and quickly became a staple of the Victorian chemist’s shop. A ‘pill mass’ of medicinal powders mixed with a binding agent would be hand-rolled into a pipe on the tile at the back of the machine. This would then be placed across the grooved brass plate and cut into equal-sized pills using the corresponding side of the roller.
Once all the necessary ingredients for the pills had been measured and ground with a pestle and mortar a final ingredient was poured in, syrup – this acted as a binding-agent. You could then roll it into a sausage shape.
The largest part of the machine is the board. This is set at an angle and is comprised of the rolling surface, the cutting grooves, and the collection-tray. The large flat surface is for rolling out the pill-paste into the sausage shape. This is then rolled towards the brass cutting-grooves. The paddle (the second piece) is flipped over so that the grooves there line up with the grooves on the board.
Rollers on the ends of the paddle roll against the brass edges of the board, and they guide the paddle straight across the grooves, taking the pill-mass with it. The grooves on the paddle and the board slice up the pill-mass and, after rolling the thing back and forth a couple of times like a rolling-pin, the circular pills roll off the grooves and into the tray at the bottom.
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