A closer look at the Chemist shop

Humber Museums Partnership - A closer look at the Chemist shop

About the project

The Chemist Shop

On the first floor of the Rural Life Museum at Normanby Hall Country Park, we have many displays telling the story of North Lincolnshire’s Rural Life. One of these is the chemist shop. The actual display case and counter were made for a temporary exhibition at North Lincolnshire Museum, which was called Up the High Street, which was on display in 2013. After the exhibition closed the chemist shop and the general store display were moved to the Rural Life Museum.

There are many objects on display in this relatively small space, more than 300! When cleaning the objects, I get to see them a lot closer than visitors do. During the last clean I was working with my colleague who was great at asking questions about the objects. Some I could answer, some not so much. But those especially made me want to know more about these things. What are they, how were they used, did these lotions and potions really heal people, etc ?

So here are some of the objects we had a closer look at and researched their use and history.

A Shop Till

The Gledhill Patent Cash Till. This till was used at W. & G. Woolsey, a shop in Scunthorpe. Woolsey was a “Sports Outfitters”, selling sports equipment, saddlery, bags and trunks.

The till is a little different from the tills we use today. The money does go in the drawer, but the receipt was not handed to the customer. This till’s receipt roll was just used for the shopkeeper’s administration. The mechanism inside unrolls the roll, making a small amount of paper available to use through the opening at the top. The shopkeeper would note down the sales using a pen. When used again, for the next customer, the paper is rolled down further and inside the mechanism rolls the paper back onto a different bar.

Inside the till

The customer would get a separate handwritten receipt. Many shop keepers had fairly plain receipt paper, but we have some beautifully decorated receipt papers in our collection as well. Unfortunately, we do not have one of Woolsey’s. But here is an example from a different shop:

Ornate customer receipt

Pill Roller

The pill roller is a tool that all chemists would have had in their shop. A pill roller is a device that created pills of equal sizes. Prior to this tool all pills were of different sizes. It also made the process a lot faster. Pills were made by mixing the medicinal ingredients and adding a binding agent such as liquorice or a sugar solution. The mixture was rolled out into long thin strips. The paste was placed horizontally over the brass grooves. The top section of the device was then placed on top and moved forwards and back-wards until the paste was cut into 24 equal sized pills. These would drop into the wooden tray. The chemist then hardened and coated the pills.

Pill Roller

This chemist shop also contains some items that once were used to heal the sick or clean your house, but they could, in some case do more harm than good.


In the 20th century a common poison found in many everyday items and food was arsenic. Famously it was used in wallpaper to create vivid arsenic-green colours. People got terribly ill, both physically and mentally, unaware the cause was their wallpaper. The arsenic pigment used for wallpaper was also used in the production of other goods, such as paints, shoes, canvasses, wood, books, fabric, and toys. It was even used in baby powder. During the 1870s Violet Powder killed at least 13 children due to its high levels of arsenic.


Carbolic Acid

Chemicals bought from the chemists were not always clearly marked and so people could easily mistake poison for a cooking ingredient. One such poison is carbolic acid, used in cleaning products and as an antiseptic. There are many historical cases in which it was mistaken for soda or baking powder. The ingestion of carbolic acid could be deadly.

Carbolic Acid (second from the left)

The Crown Feeding Bottle

In the 19th Century bottle feeding started to be popular. The Crown was one of the names used as a marketing ploy to make women think it was better for the baby, getting fed by bottle instead of breastfeeding. Queen Victoria’s children were bottle fed and popular household writer Mrs Beeton also promoted the use of bottles.

But they came with a risk; people were not told to clean them thoroughly. Mrs Beeton wrote not to clean the teat at all for the 2 weeks these were used. This resulted in a large amount of bacteria, which could be deadly to a baby. Due to the shape of the bottle and the rubber tube and teat (porous material) it was very difficult to clean thoroughly.

The Mavis Minor bottle is an early 20th century bottle, the more improved shape made it easier to clean.

Baby bottles, The Crown on the right

The Magneto Electric Machine

And finally, a beauty that was used by ‘doctors’. The Magneto Electric Machine, this is an electric shock machine, which was used to treat nervous diseases. In the 1800s, mild electric shocks were a popular treatment for a range of aches and pains, especially those associated with the nerves. Electricity was produced using the large magnet. The amount of electricity was regulated by how fast the crank was turned. The brass handles were placed on the patient’s body to deliver the shock. Placing wet sponges inside the handles would minimise the discomfort for the patient. This machine dates to c.1862.

The Magneto Electric Machine

Come to the Rural Life Museum to see all the strange, interesting, and beautiful objects on display in the chemist shop.