Arts & Antiques

The History of Pill Boxes

These antiques date back to 1,500 BC.

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In a time of high technology that offers us a digital app for every possible human activity, there is something delightfully retro in owning an antique pill box—especially one made of china or silver. If one has to take medications, these classic containers somehow make it more agreeable. Pill boxes should be added to that huge list of not necessary, but very nice, personal accessories like pocket watches, cuff links, flasks and fountain pens.

Pills and tablets to help cure us of our ills have been around since ancient times, historians calculate at least back to 1,500 BC, offering precise dosages, portability, easy administration and a minimum of discomfort that other methods of treatment do not. Before this, herbs and other elements were simply added to whatever the patient was drinking. 

A German pillbox with original writing by the pharmacist
A German pillbox with original writing by the pharmacist

Crude pills were first made by incorporating the same medicinals in something sticky, such as small, rounded blobs of honey, dough or grease. The Greeks called them katapotia or “things you swallow,” but the Roman Pliny gave us our modern term: pilula.

Hand manufacturing of modern pills began in the 1830s when gelatin pills were invented. The agglomerated ingredients were stuck with a pin, inserted into hot gelatin, then left to dry, much as we would dip a strawberry into melted chocolate. Sugar pills—a term still used, but usually for placebos—used gum as a base and were coated with sugar as a reward. Eventually, machined-press powder was used to make tablets, another form of pills.

As the online auction site, Invaluable.com, puts it: “Collectible pill boxes are artifacts of more civilized points in history when storage was as much an art form as it was a functional need.”

As with every other type of box or container, artisans used whatever material was at hand for construction. Wood, not surprisingly, was the first to cradle pills, along with animal bones, ivory and every metal imaginable—tin, copper and gold—in addition to jade.

This unusually shaped pillbox features a classical scene.
This unusually shaped pillbox features a classical scene.

“Pill boxes featuring repoussé [embossed], figurines or mosaics tend to sell at much higher prices at auctions,” says Mark Busacca of Busacca Gallery in San Francisco. “Chinese or Italian silver pill boxes are highly collectible, as well as silver boxes which are formed in the shape of a purse or a book.”

Although some pill boxes were meant to be kept on a bedside table or atop a dressing room vanity, many were meant to be portable, something a lady (very few men carried pill boxes) could stash in her purse. Hence, they became miniaturized, which was convenient as long as you weren’t taking an apothecary of medicines. And with miniaturization, pill boxes gradually came under the heading of “jewelry.” Many jewelry artisans, including Tiffany, designed their own line of pill boxes, and today many jewelry stores still carry pill boxes, modern or antique.

The value of antique pill boxes varies greatly, and Busacca offers some examples of those sold at auctions in recent years—both expensive and not:

  • An Italian sterling silver box went for an amazingly affordable $20.
  • But a Russian silver, enamel and jeweled box was gaveled down for $26,400 (about $46,000 at the time).
  • Linda Roberts Gallery in Glen Allen, Va., a good source for pill boxes, sold a silver one in the shape of a book pendant for $90.
  • A Pennsylvania dealer found a buyer for a 19th-century Russian silver box with scrolled decorations for $325.

In spite of their creators’ efforts to make pill boxes works of art, even expensive ones could fall short. Those suffered from attempts to cram too much art into too small a space. Artisans from previous centuries loved to scale down famous scenes or paintings onto enamel, especially, which resulted in blurred lines and almost grotesque figures. This is an especial criticism of Italian enamels, so often highly prized in other applications. The same problems with miniaturization can apply to the “chasing” or engravings on metal boxes. 

Men’s pillboxes often featured sporting scenes.
Men’s pillboxes often featured sporting scenes.

Pill boxes are sometimes confused with snuff boxes, a close relative in size, if not in use, although the latter is usually a bit larger. Snuff boxes were especially in vogue in the 18th and 19th centuries when both ladies and gentlemen used the finely ground tobacco as a nasal transport for a quick hit of nicotine followed by a resounding sneeze. 

Snuff, aka smokeless tobacco, is mainly administered today between the lip and gum, with baseball players traditionally making up its main group of adherents. Of course, no self-respecting shortstop or center fielder would be caught dead with a snuff box in his locker. A final note on snuff boxes: If you come across one, it is likely to be much more valuable than its diminutive cousin because of its provenance and the artistic possibilities of its larger size. 

While pill boxes today are not on the endangered species list, they are less common for one reason: People tend to forget to take, or forget whether they have already taken, their daily meds. Drug companies were quick to notice this and came up with pill counters and weekly “SMTWTFS” pill schedulers, which are good not only for patients but also for drug companies. A pill not taken is a pill not sold. And no one has ever bothered to make these plastic counters works of art. 

For those shopping for a classic pill box, or wanting to sell one, there are many online sites to look into. You just need to type in “antique pill boxes” to locate them. 

Finally, there is a possible repurposing of the pill box that may be a further incentive to own one. They’re just the right size to hold those high-priced skin rejuvenators that come in capsule form. Sometimes, we should just think inside the box. 

The Hunt Fall 2017  Issue

This article was published in Arts & Antiques from the Fall 2017 issue.
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