Looking for a quirky storage solution? A Chinese apothecary chest could be the answer!
Chinese apothecary chests would have once been used by apothecaries to store herbs, dried roots and medicines. With their small drawers and unique style, they look stunning and make the perfect storage solution for a whole host of small items and clutter. From jewellery, accessories or craft supplies, through to kitchen items or herbs and spices, apothecary chests offer a wonderful combination of practicality and charm.
Apothecary chests – what’s the story?
Here at Shimu we’re big fans of antique apothecary chests! We love their quirky style and as many still feature the original drawer labels painted in Chinese characters, they make a real talking point and an unusual focal point to a room. We know you love them too as when one arrives in our showroom it’s guaranteed to get snapped up very quickly.
So what’s the story behind Chinese apothecary chests? Sometimes known as medicine chests or cabinets, apothecary cabinets have been in used in China for many hundreds of years. They were originally made to store medicines, roots and herbs and would have featured painted labels, meant to be read clockwise to indicate the contents of each drawer. The number of drawers varies according to the size of the chest, ranging from 30 drawers up to 100. Each drawer is usually divided into three or four sections.
It’s also interesting to note that apothecary chests were also sometimes used in the homes of wealthy individuals as well as by apothecaries. Furthermore, you might have noticed that apothecary cabinets tend to have short legs, and the reason for this is that Chinese physicians carried out their business at floor level, rather than standing behind a counter as was the case in the West.
Chests of drawers used by apothecaries were commonly made from elmwood which, has been popular with Chinese furniture makers for centuries. In the West, elmwood is technically classed as a hardwood; however in China it is classed as a softwood because its porous nature makes it ideal for holding coloured lacquered finishes. In addition, elmwood was also appreciated by Chinese craftsmen as it often has a delightful wave-like pattern in the grain.
Antique apothecary chests are constructed without the use of nails, a technique which is a common feature of Chinese antiques. Instead, items are fixed together using glue and wooden dowels. Although no nails have been used, Chinese antique furniture made in this traditional way is incredibly strong. This nail-free joinery technique was developed in China to provide greater stability, overcoming challenges presented by the country’s warm, damp climate and the type of wood available. China’s climate fluctuates dramatically from season to season, with significant increases and decreases in humidity and temperature. This means that furniture which is in long term repeated use would be negatively affected by weather conditions, which might cause wooden joints held together by nails to weaken and loosen. So, by replacing nails with highly skilled joinery techniques, Chinese craftsmen were able to create elegant yet robust pieces of furniture which are strong enough for use in our contemporary interiors.
What will you store in your apothecary chest?
We think Chinese apothecary chests are as equally at home in today’s interiors as they were in the medicine shops of previous centuries. Granted, their small drawers do make them unsuitable for storing larger items, but they are the perfect place keeping smaller bits and bobs organised. From the living room or kitchen, through to the home office or bedroom, bringing a Chinese apothecary cabinet into your home is certain to provide a real talking point and an unusual, characterful storage solution that you'll love!