Apothecaries, also known as medicine chests, featuring numerous pullout drawers, were utilized during the Middle Ages in both Europe and the Far East by predecessors of our modern pharmacists.
The exact origins of medicine usage in Korea remain unknown; nevertheless, since ancient times, there was a necessity to classify and store the materials required for medicinal concoctions to prevent them from mixing with one another.
Larger chests were frequently wall-mounted in shops, while smaller, rarer pieces were employed in the homes of affluent individuals. Throughout Asia, traditional medicine incorporated various herbs, roots, mushrooms, and natural ingredients, which, once dried, were stored within these drawers. Each drawer was further divided into one to three compartments, as a substantial quantity of medicinal materials required proper organization. Consequently, it was crucial to label the names of the medicines on the surface of each drawer.
Doctors labeled each of the multiple drawers with the names of herbs and medicines. Even in Korea, most labels were using Chinese characters. The lower drawers are usually a little larger than the upper drawers, which hold herbs that are more commonly used. Also, in the same medicine cabinet, there is a door that can be locked at the bottom and a small drawer is placed inside it. It is usually locked because it stores rare medicine or poisons.
Wood is very versatile. Fruit trees such as paulownia, zelkova, fig tree, pine, maple, willow, persimmon, chestnut, jujube, pear, ginkgo, and walnut were used as materials. Among these, the most commonly used were pine, which is the most readily available in the vicinity, and paulownia, which is a high-quality wood.
In Korea, these chests were called “Yak Jang”,약장 Yak meaning medicine and Jang for chest. Illustrations for this album show different types of furniture. Original pieces, widely restored pieces and reproduction pieces.
Featured image (Top of the post): Medicine chest. 19th century. H. 97,7cm, W. 87cm, D. 42,2cm.
Collection Sookmyung University, Seoul, Korea.
MEDICINE CHEST – YAK JANG
Elm & paulownia wood, yellow brass fittings, Kyonggi province, Korea.
H. 135cm, W. 114cm, D. 40cm. Early 20th Century. Collection: “ANTIKASIA“
This chest is in its original condition with original yellow brass fittings. Chinese characters are painted on the drawers.
Medicine chest or “YAK JANG” in its original condition which is quite rare. Probably red pine wood. Provenance: Cholla province, Southern province. Mid to late 19th century. Korea. Private Collection
In North-East Asia, the medicine chest is probably the easiest piece of furniture to identify because of its design with a multitude of small drawers covering its entire front part. However, when it comes to identifying its real origin (location between the three main countries, China, Japan, Korea), many of us remain confused.
This is mainly due to the fact that the general design of the furniture, due to its function, is very similar between the three countries as well as the fact that each drawer is covered with signs in Chinese calligraphy corresponding to the names of the products stored.
In Korea, Although a phonetic Hangul, had been created by Sejong the Great (1418-1450), it did not come into widespread official use until the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was used in education, and publications during the Joseon dynasty. For the traditional creative arts such as calligraphy and painting, knowledge of Hanja was needed to write and understand the various scripts and inscriptions, as is the same in China and Japan. Many old songs and poems were written and based on Hanja characters.
Therefore, Chinese Characters were widely used in three cultures, in Chinese they are called Hanzi, in Japanese Kanji (漢字), and in Korean Hanja (한자, 漢字).
However, a closer examination, reveals some differences in design between those three countries. I want to make it clear that this is not a general rule. There are exceptions and designs that are similar between these three countries especially those regarding the drawers shapes. However, these remarks are based on the examination of many pieces over several years
In China, the furniture was very solid, built with thick wooden posts. The frame of the furniture, clearly visible on the top and sides, which ended with the feet (straight feet), was several centimeters thick (7 to 8cm). In most cases, the drawers were square-shaped (same height as length) and the chests were quite deep (50-60cm). Elm & pine woods were used to build such chests.
In Japan, the furniture was of a smaller size. Built with thinner panels, it was composed of a series of square drawers of various sizes, small on the top and relatively long at the bottom. Without feet, the medicine chest rested directly on the floor and was typically shallow (30-35cm).
Paulownia wood was preferred due to its lightweight and insect-repellent properties.
As far as its construction is concerned, the Korean medicine chest, like the Japanese, was built with thinner framed wooden panels that formed its skeleton. Pinewood was used for the structure, elm for the front of the drawers, and paulownia for the inside drawers. It was high on cabriole-shaped legs and sometimes even carved. The top panel was often longer than the width of the cabinet and its edges could be raised.
In general, unlike the Chinese chest, the drawers were often rectangular in shape. The furniture also had a space at the bottom closed by doors, used for storage of expensive or simply toxic products.