New Hampshire Glossary: Drug Mill

Sketch of Coffee-Spice-Drug Mills, hand cranking from Enterprise Manufacturing Co. catalog 1901. Internet Archive.

The term ‘drug mill’ had a very different meaning in the early years of America’s existence than it does now. A drug mill was a term used to describe both/either the actual “mill” used to process medicine OR the building in which it was processed.

It was a perfectly legal shop or manufactory where large quantities of medicinal herbs (roots, leaves, seeds, flowers, etc) were collected, and dried.  Then it was ground, macerated or crushed, and processed into its final liquid or solid form. The final product was then packaged and labeled for sale to apothecary resellers and physicians. The drug mill would also create preparations for a multitude of problems. Prepared compounds were the forerunners of the soon to be called ‘patent medicines.’ 

Advertisement mentioning drug mill. Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics
Saturday May 21, 1836. MEAD POWDERS – Carbonated Sarsaprarilla Mead. For sale at the Drug and CHemical Store of WM BROWN 481 Washington-Street, Coston. For sale in this town by BRACKETT HUTCHINGS.

During the colonial period, as America’s population grew, so did medical advances, especially in the area of herbal and chemical compounds. A colonial apothecary [the same term is used for the man and for the shop] often acted as doctor, making house calls to treat ailing patients, and prescribing medicine and drugs. According to the book The Apothecary in Colonial Virginia, “William Davice of Boston is generally considered to have been the earliest owner of an apothecary shop in the American colonies, based on a 1646 order requiring a “payle” or fence be built before his apothecary shop window probably to enclose a medicinal herb garden.”

In response to a need for centralized access to oral medicines, apothecaries could be found in all the major cities and larger towns. The need for these shops grew exponentially around the time of the American Revolution when imports from Great Britain were scarce or absent. Even as early as 1721 there were 14 apothecary shops in Boston, with these type of shops showing up in colonial America’s larger cities first. In smaller towns and villages, a section of the local grocer or dry goods shop often had herbal preparations available.

1859 advertisement in the Independent Democrat by W.H. ALLISON, C.S. EASTMAN, Concord NH . “HILL’S NEW BLOCK. MEDICINES, CHEMICALS, TRUSSES, SUPPORTERS, BRACES, SURGICAL AND DENTAL INSTRUMENTS, PAINTS, OILS, VARNISHES…. having procured a “Drug Mill” at considerable expense for pulverizing Roots used in compounding our Tinctures and Syrups, thereby relieving ourselfs of the necessity of purchasing and using those that are pulverized, which are so liable to adulteration, that our Preparations are of a superior quality to those prepared by persons of less experience….”

During the American Revolution, apothecaries were included with the medical doctors who tended to the soldiers America’s First Apothecary General was Andrew Craigie, a Bostonian (1754-1819) who was appointed commissary of medical stores on April 30, 1775. 2 months later he reportedly cared for the wounded at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

There is no doubt in my mind that New Hampshire’s first apothecary shop probably was in one of the seacoast towns as that area was populated first.  A well-known early New Hampshire apothecary, Dr. Samuel Curtis, was a surgeon in the Army of the Revolution. When the war ended he moved to Amherst NH where he kept a tavern, and was an apothecary keeping a drug shop in his inn.  New Hampshire’s famed historian and compiler of the N.H. Register, Dr. John Farmer (1822-1838), had the title doctor due to his study of medicine and work as an apothecary (but he was never a medical practitioner).

Where the general apothecary shop usually used a mortar and pestle to produce its drug combinations and to crush components, a drug mill had a greater handling capacity due to the use of a “drug mill” that would crush and finely mill whatever was put into it. Since fresh components were important, drug mill factories would have been found in the countryside near larger urban areas, but where apothecary components would be found or more easily grown.

–Examples of early New Hampshire apothecaries–
Note: this is not a complete list or even the earliest, just a sampling

– 1843 Nashua & Nashville NH Directory –
Atwood John, botanic med. Atwood’s building.
Batchelder, Simon, botanic physician, Pearl st.

The History of the city of Nashua, N.H. states that Dr. Thomas H. Gibby moved to Nashua about 1851 or 1852 and “carried on an apothecary trade in the old drug store under the Baptist church…”

In 1853 Nashua NH had the following Apothecaries: White & Hill, Cor. Main and Factory; E.S. Russell, Eayrs’ b.; N.P. Carter, Botanic Physician and Apothecary on Factory Street.

In 1853 (per the Hillsborough (NH) County Record, the following Apothecaries existed in Manchester New Hampshire: C.P. Skelton, 3 Granite b; J.A. Perry, 86 Elm; E.W. Carlton, (Tebbetts’) 17 Merrimack b; A.B. Smith, Crosby’s b; J.R. Hanson, 22 Elm; H.G. Conner 45 Elm; A.G. Tucker, 4 City Hall; J. Caldwell (Botanic) 10 Stark b; E. G. Gilford (Botanic drugs) 6 and 7 Hanover.

1860 Nashua City Directory (partial list)
-Samuel Cutis Barnes [b 20 March 1831 in Hillsborough NH (Town) living in Nashua NH, Apothecary son of Samuel & Bestey Barnes ]
-Calvin B. Hill [b abt 1827 East Douglas, Worcester MA, d. 9 May 1889 Nashua NH, son of Micah & Sally (Marsh) Hill.]
-Elias Smith Russell [b 21 Nov 1819 Middleton MA, d. 17 Aug 1904 Nashua NH (also 1870)]
-Adaline S. Fassett  b abt 1831 Vermont]  She is in the 1850 and 1860 U.S. Census living in Nashua NH as an apothecary. This is the only reference I have seen anywhere to a female apothecary in New Hampshire during this time period.
-J W White [ b abt 1819 MA]
-Parris H. Hill, [[b abt 1823 MA]

1870 – Apothecaries in Nashua NH (partial list from City Directory)
-John J. Whittemore [b abt 1837 NH, son of Collins & Ruth (Jacobs) WHittemore, died 13 Aug 1884 Nashua N]
-Forest Crowell [b abt 1858 NH (Deering)]


Book: The Botanic Physician, 1830

Drug Production in the 17th Century


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6 Responses to New Hampshire Glossary: Drug Mill

  1. What an interesting article. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Amy says:

    My father-in-law was a pharmacist (who wanted to be a doctor but faced quotas for Jews in the 1920s when he would have been applying), so this article was of great interest to me.

  3. Melinda Johnson says:

    I grew up in NH but have lived in Indiana for 20 plus years now. Indianapolis is the home of Eli Lilly and company, one of the larger pharmaceutical companies. In one of our state museums here, they have a permanent exhibit of Eli Lilly’s original apothecary complete with actors that play Eli Lilly and his employees. It’s so cool to watch them make the pills and talk about remedies. They have to stay in character and won’t talk about anything that they weren’t familiar with back then. Anyway, that’s what I thought about when reading this particular article. Thanks for sharing this history!

    • Janice Brown says:

      Melinda, first thank you for reading my blog article and for commenting. It is wonderful that a local museum wants to provide an exhibit about the history of Eli Lilly. These apothecaries were the early “pharmacies” with some of them growing into large concerns that exist today. I think we tend to think of pharmaceuticals as something new when it is actually something very old.

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