Written by Robert Hunt R.N., Eli Lilly Clinical Research,
About 15-20 years ago, I wanted to make a replica of a very
interesting cabinet that my friend and fellow pharmaceutical antique
collector Dan Russell had acquired.
Like Dan, I also worked at Eli Lilly. I had always been an
antique collector, and while working with Dan for a few years in
the early 1990's, he introduced me to the interesting area of
antique drugstore and pharmaceutical. With Eli Lilly being such
a venerable institution, with history and artifacts all the way
back to 1876, there are many Lilly related antiques available.
This particular cabinet of Dan's however was Upjohn, not Lilly.
Nonetheless, I found it very intriguing. I had long planned to
make a replica of the 1880's era Eli Lilly promotional drugstore
display cabinet (since it's so difficult to acquire an original
one). I had seen numerous examples of the Lilly cabinet, but
never an Upjohn. Being a fairly serious woodworking hobbyist, I
realized that the Upjohn cabinet was fully doable, plus, I liked
the reverse glass lettering on the Upjohn cabinet, and wanted to
try some reverse glass gilding. Knowing I could have close
enough access to Dan's cabinet to make a really accurate
example, right down to a stencil from the original lettering,
and carvings made it a no-brainer.
The big problem was that Dan's cabinet was incomplete. Someone
had actually sawed off the top several inches of the cabinet top
at some point, partially removing a portion of the carving
reliefs, as well as any hint of what the top of the cabinet
really looked like. This was a complete showstopper for making
an accurate reproduction.
A few months later,though, Dan discovered that an antique dealer
he knew (Mark McNee, "Nostrums and Quackery") had a complete
and original cabinet, and was able to obtain a photograph. From the photo of Mark's cabinet, the mystery was solved, and I
was able to clearly visualize the top gallery of the cabinet
(nothing like what I had guessed) and the whole outline of the
distinctive hand carving on the front doors.
Together with the detailed measurements of Dan's cabinets, I
finally had everything needed.
I challenge myself when making a historic reproduction like the
Upjohn cabinet to make it as absolutely accurate as possible, in
every way. I duplicate the same species of wood, in the same
manner, and all decorative details. The carving on the front
doors for example was hand carved. Fortunately, I have taken
some woodworking courses over time, including some taught by a
master carver, so understood exactly how the carvings had been
executed, and have the tools (and training) to duplicate them.
The doors were made of quarter sawn White Oak, a popular choice
for antique cabinet doors, due to the durability, and
dimensionally stability of that particular cut, which famously
resists warping. The sides were made of oak as well, but the
more common, and less expensive flat sawn cut of the lumber. The
back panels were made of very thin (1/4 inch) , but very wide
(Tulip) Poplar boards with half lapped edges. Because the edges
of the back boards overlap each other at the edges, even though
the back boards would shrink over time, the joints never
separate enough to show a crack between adjoining boards and be
distracting. The shelves were also interesting. Primarily poplar
wood, except the "show front edge" of each shelf seen through
the glass was a band of oak, so that it would match the wood on
the front doors when seen through the glass. This type of
construction was not uncommon in old cabinets, keeping the costs
of the shelves down a bit, but just as sturdy. The adjustable
shelving supports inside the cabinet were similar to other
cabinets I'd worked on from the late 19th Century, and
straightforward to reproduce. My reproduction cabinet attempted to faithfully replicate all of
the details above.
Part of the real pleasure I get from re-making a cabinet like
this is not just creating something that "looks" like an
original, but being able to place myself mentally alongside the
original maker. I want to know and use his materials, his tools,
and learn from his clever shortcuts, and craftsmanship. The
final product is something ,faithfully crafted to original
intent, design and methods, hopefully similar to if he had made
A few days ago, Dan sent me an image from an 1895 Upjohn catalog
where the cabinet is pictured and offered as an incentive to
drugstores who made certain sized orders. There were evidently
two versions, a #1 Version, which required a wholesale purchase
of $100 (about $3,000 in inflation adjusted 2021 dollars), and a
#2 Version, which was a bit smaller, slightly less fancy, and
only required the purchase of $50 in product ($1,500 in 2021).
The #1 was advertised as 53" tall, the #2 was 48". I quickly
measured my cabinet to compare. My cabinet is 47" tall. This
indicates two things. I had slightly misjudged the overall
height of the cabinet in the Mark McNee photo, and clearly,
it's a #2.
All fun stuff, and a great heirloom (and story) to pass down