Morrison Pill Box History

Discuss the historical aspects of magic, including memories, or favorite stories.

Postby Guest » 01/24/03 12:02 PM

Curious on the history of these wonderful marvels of craftsmanship. Does anyone know where the "Morrison" name came from? Would love to hear any insight, see pictures of pill boxes in your collections etc.
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Postby Jim Riser » 01/24/03 04:34 PM

Michael;
During Victorian times, pills were kept out on a table in a decorative hand turned pill box. Indeed, I have made several friends such decorative pill boxes. Such items were common at the time.

It is my understanding that a well known pill maker of the time was named Morrison and his pills were supplied in hand turned pill boxes. Everyone would have been familiar with his name and the wooden boxes. The next step would hane been to make gimmicked reproductions of these pill boxes for magic uses. In the Victorian age the "Morrison Pill Box" would have seemed like a common every day object.

If you like to look at such beauties, there are a few images of Morrison Pill Boxes on my web site.

Jim

Click here to view several Morrison Pill Boxes
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Postby Guest » 01/24/03 06:08 PM

Hi Jim,

Thank you, thats very interesting. I always figured they were styled after a traditional "Pill Box" but never heard or read about the "Morrison" part. Thats great to know. I do not suppose you have any of your Pill Boxes for sale right now? I have several examples in my collection along with many many regular ball vases and would love to add one of yours to the bunch.

Thanks again for the info!
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Postby Guest » 01/24/03 09:52 PM

I seem to remember that the correct spelling of the name is 'Morison', only one r... Asrah
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Postby Jim Riser » 01/24/03 10:17 PM

Asrah;
I've seen it spelled both ways in books. Stanyon's books (closer to the time period) spell it with two r's.
Jim
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Postby Jim Riser » 01/24/03 10:21 PM

Originally posted by Michael S:
Hi Jim,

<snip> Thats great to know. I do not suppose you have any of your Pill Boxes for sale right now? <snip>
Michael;
I keep thinking I'll get time to turn some more; but other projects have kept me making different items. I could put you on the "waiting list"
:)
Jim
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Postby Dustin Stinett » 01/25/03 12:14 AM

WARNING: Insufferable "when I was a youth" story coming.

As a teenager I did the usual Okito box stuff and always said that it was an old fashioned pillbox--as per all the instructions. Of course I never saw such a thing, but what the heck, I was a magician--we have artistic license you know. But there was always the lingering doubt and the guilt that accompanies it.

In the summer of 1974 we were preparing for a christening party for the new yacht my family was about to call home (yes, I lived on a boat for quite a while, but that's another "Oprah"). My Aunt Mary arrived very early so it was just her, my uncle and I. Aunt Mary was about a thousand years old back then (she recently passed away at about a million) and ornery as hell. Sitting in the salon, right next to the "No Smoking!" sign my parents had put up for the party, she asked me for an ashtray. "We don't have any," I said, "and Mom and Dad really don't want anyone smoking down here." Without saying a word or batting an eye she reached into her purse and, as God as my witness, pulled out a little brass box. It was a little larger than a half-dollar in diameter, about 6/8ths round with a small flat side where it was hinged. She opened the lid, dumped the pills into her purse, sparked up and used the pillbox as an ashtray. I never felt guilty about saying an Okito box was a pillbox ever again.

Dustin
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Postby Guest » 01/25/03 04:49 PM

Jim,

Yes..please please...I would love to be on your "want list" for a Pill Box. I really like that double set on your website as well. Would also be ineterested in any of your other woodturnings....you have some GREAT looking stuff. Keep me posted if you ever make anything else. Thanks so much!
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Postby Michael Edwards » 01/26/03 06:07 AM

Dustin:

Not to go "off topic," but your story brings to mind the history of the Okito box. As has been noted, for many, many years pharmacists dispensed pills and ointment in little round, metal or cardboard canisters (pill boxes). Joe Klein, Theo. Bamberg's partner in a magic shop at Broadway and 28th Street in New York City, kept such a cardboard box on his desk in the shop. Containing pills to combat indigestion, the box never attracted any attention. One afternoon (the year according to Okito was 1909; according to J.B. Bobo's version of the story it was 1911), Bamberg -- who we know as the marvellous Okito -- picked up the box and began to toy with it. The box had two white tablets in it, but when shaken it rattled as if it were full. Okito inadvertently placed the lid on the wrong side of the box, yet the box looked the same as though the lid were placed on it correctly. Klein noticed Okito playing with the box and asked him what he was doing. Okito then came up with an impromptu trick, where the pills appeared to vanish from the sealed canister only to appear in his other hand. Klein thought there must have been a hole in the box, so when Okito handed him the lid and the rest of the canister and they were ungimmicked, he was totally fooled.

Always the businessman, Klein suggested they should find a way to sell the trick. But Okito dismissed the idea at first, thinking the trick to be just a silly one. However, on the way back to Brooklyn that evening, Okito rethought the idea and came up with the notion of crafting a metal box the size of a half dollar and developing a trick using a marked coin. He then developed some very nice moves to incorporate into the handling. Okito made the first box by hand in his own workshop. Klein was so impressed they then had a gross of them manufactured by machine...all of which sold out almost immediately. More were ordered yet demand was so great for the Okito Coin Box (which sold for fifty cents back then) that they were barely able to keep up with their orders. It has remained a part of the coin workers repetoire for almost nine decades! But while they are a staple in the conjuror's arsenal, pillboxes simply are no longer everyday objects -- no matter how common they were in your aunt's era. So unless a magician is performing for someone as old as your aunt (which, I recall, you said was about a million at the time of her passing), he/she may want to find an appropriate presentation fitting -- and credible -- for a contemporary audience.

Michael
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Postby Michael Edwards » 01/26/03 07:17 AM

Jim:

Now back to the original thread.

In this instance, Ellis Stanyon and other such as Henry Ridgely Evans were incorrect. The correct spelling -- as Professor Hoffmann noted -- was Morison with a single "r" after James Morison (1770-1840). Morison was not a magician nor the creator of the method nor the designer of elaborate pill boxes but rather a trader operating in the West Indies. After contracting a chronic illness on one of his voyages, he developed a vegetable-based tablet which seemed to cure him. Always looking for a new market, he decided to open an establishment ("The British College of Health") just across from St. Pancras Railway Station to make and sell his "Morison pills." He was enormously successful. At one point in the 1830's, his sales of pills and ointments were in excess of 65,000 pounds annually. By this time, the term "Morison pill" had become a household phrase...both for the product itself and as a term to note a miraculous remedy. Indeed, the phrase can be found in such diverse literary works of that era as Dickens, Kingsley, and even Engels. Contrary to current musings, James Morison did not sell his pills in elaborate wooden contraptions that resemble ornate ball vases...but rather marketed them in modest containers, papers and bottles.

According to Eric Lewis (whose account of the Morison Pill Box in the October 1987 Linking Ring is a very good source of information on the history and workings of this apparatus), the term was first applied to billiard balls rather than to a ball box...as a result a comic turn the great Philippe took early in his career. Then performing as Talon, he would do a pratfall and call for a "Morison pill" to ease his pain. The assistant would bring out a box of billiard balls which Philippe would appear to consume. The idea of a magic pill the size of a billiard ball brought a good laugh and like many successful jokes it was soon appropriated by other performers. For some time thereafter, magicians would refer to billiard balls as "Morison pills."

It was much later that the name became attached to the version of the ball box we now call a "Morison pill box" (or as Prof. Hoffmann suggests "Morison's Pill Box"). Hope this helps.

Michael
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Postby Jim Riser » 01/26/03 10:47 AM

Michael Edwards;
You are one of the reasons that The Genii Forum is the best magic forum on the web. The experts are here and willling to share. Thanks for filling in the picture with the correct info. I should have checked my Hoffmann books; but they reside behind too many wood and metal working texts :)

The past few years I seem to spend more time in the shop and less time reading my library. Again, thanks for sharing.
Jim
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Postby Guest » 01/26/03 12:15 PM

Michael,

WOW...Jim is right...the experts are here! Thank you so much for providing such detailed information on this topic. Like Jim, I have seen it spelled both ways and have often wondered which was correct. Thank you again!
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Postby Guest » 01/26/03 10:00 PM

Michael - Thanks for reminding me of the source of my reading on the Morison Pill Box - Eric Lewis in the Linking Ring! I think I have it here somewhere... I'm going to look for it! --Asrah
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