Reproduction 1880's Era Upjohn Cabinet  

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Written by Robert Hunt R.N., Eli Lilly Clinical Research, retired 2014. 

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 himself.

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 someday. 


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