This week’s object is a pill roller from the Civil War time period. It has a two piece wooden body with brass cylindrical grooves on top. During the American Civil War, this object was a technologically advanced way to get medicine to soldiers in a quick and efficient manner. The physician would mix up the ingredients for the medicine in a mortar and grinded it with a pestle. When the ingredients were ground up into a dry substance, they would pour a binding agent into the mixture and dampen it. Next, the mixture would be placed onto the brass grooves, with the moveable top over the grooves. When the top was secure, the physician would carefully roll the top back and forth in order to create divided up, spherical pills.
This was a time for experimentation with various ingredients to develop the perfect medication in an effort by doctors to stop infections or illnesses that took the lives of many soldiers on the battlefield. Drug regulations during this time period were non-existent and doctors often experimented with dangerous ingredients such as mercury.
Before the nineteenth century, doctors focused on balancing the humors of the body which consisted of yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood. If these humors were in perfect harmony, a person was healthy, but if off balance, a person was ill. As the Civil War began, doctors were in transition from balancing the humors as a treatment, to treating illnesses with medication. This was the beginning of modern medicine.
This pill roller will be on display in the DuBois Fort (81 Huguenot Street) later this month as part of an exhibit of medical objects from our historic collections.
“Civil War Reenactment ~ Apothecary ~ Pill Making Machine.” YouTube (TreseMari). November 2010.
Graf, John. Warman’s Civil War Collectibles Field Guide: Values and Identification. Krause Publications. March 2005. Page 347.
Hasegawa, Guy R. “Preparing and Dispensing Prescriptions during the Civil War Era.” Apothecary’s Cabinet. No. 10, Fall 2006. The American Institute of the History of Pharmacy.
“tomlinsons chemists lytham victorian pharmacist demonstrating making pills.” YouTube (tomlinsonschemists). July 2009.