Plasters, Poultices and Paregoric:
The Civil War Medicinal Cookbook

PLEASE NOTE - These medicinal recipes are not intended for actual use! At best they'll make you go "yech". At worst, they'll kill you. We present them only to demonstrate what our ancestors went through. You have been warned.

The middle of the 19th century was a terrific time to be a doctor. To be a patient, on the other hand? Eh...not so much. If you think figuring out Medicare Part D is confusing, picture yourself with a bodily affliction and a need to figure out whether a botanicist, hydropathist, orthopath, naturalist, or, Lord help us, a phrenologist, was the party to seek out for a cure.

So what was the fallback in the search for medicinal miracles? Mom, of course. Cookbooks of the period are almost as much medical textbooks as sources of courses of meals. Folk wisdom it may have been; "old wives' tales" if you will, but old wives were rare enough, given rates of mortality in both childhood and childbed, that they were usually worth listening to.

A section found in nearly every cookbook of the period is "Cooking for the Sickroom." First of all, why a separate room for the sick? While only available, obviously, to people of sufficient means to have a house big enough to designate one room just for the sick or injured, it had many advantages. Sick people are not only unpleasant to be around, but in need of quiet as well as better room-temperature control than was usually available in the days before central heating.

One of the best accounts of a properly equipped and operated sickroom is found in The Housekeeper's Encyclopedia by Mrs. E. F. Haskell, available in a reprint edition from compiler R. L. Shep. After a discussion of proper layout, suggested furnishings and the like, is some eminently practical advice is given for nurses in a day when they knew well that "treatment" consisted largely of wishful thinking:

Be careful to follow to the letter the directions of the attending physician; if he does not suit, dismiss him, and engage another; but while he is employed, he should be implicitly obeyed. In the preparations of medicines, be particular to disguise powders and prepare liquids in such a manner as to make them as little disgusting as possible. There is more art in covering powders than is usually supposed; any medicine is less nauseous taken in fluid than in a half-covered powder.

The more quiet the nurse the better. Often sewing, knitting, or any other employment which would assist the nurse in passing the time, proves a source of real suffering to her patient. Reading in a quiet voice, combing the hair, gently rubbing the palms of the hand, will often induce sleep, when anodynes fail. Another important matter not to be lost sight of in a nurse is a cheerful obliging temper. Be always ready to humor a sick person in every thing that will do them no harm; never think of your own trouble, when you can, in the smallest particular, add to the comfort of the sick...It is not well to cross a sick person, if it can be avoided. A person with a gloomy disposition is unfit to take charge of the sick.

Now that we have a proper room, correctly furnished, a suitable physician and a very quiet but upbeat nurse, what are we to do for actual treatments? We shall just go through a list at random, trying to avoid things that are too dangerous, illegal or just plain disgusting to talk about:



Three pints of water, a coffee-cup of elecampane, half as much hoarhound; steep the two together, until the water is reduced to less than a quart; strain, and add a lump of tartaric acid, the size of a small hickory-nut, and half a teacup of best honey. Take two table-spoonfuls once every half hour, until the cough is broken up.

(As noted above, we absolutely, positively, most certainly do NOT recommend any of these recipes for actual consumption under any circumstances. However, just as a matter of intellectual interest, if we were makers of mild over-the-counter medicinal products instead of historical editors, we would be tempted to look into the practicality of this potion. The ingredients seem harmless enough and have evidently been used for uncounted centuries as medicines, a practice you would think would have died out if the patients had done the same.)


A coffee-cup of flaxseed, two quarts water, boil several hours until reduced to jelly; strain through a thin cloth, squeeze in the pulp and juice of a large lemon; roll a quarter of a pound of the best raisins, mix them in the jelly, simmer, without boiling, one hour; strain again, add half a teacup of the best loaf-sugar. Take a table-spoonful every half-hour.

(We have no idea what therapeutic qualities boiled flaxseed might have, but this preparation should at least have been considerably tastier than the elecampane and hoarhound mix previously noted. Whether its effects were sufficient to justify the hours of boiling and other preparations required is another matter. )


Procure a lump of mutton suet fresh from the sheep, as large as a coffee-cup, and a lump of loaf-sugar one-third as large; put the suet in an earthen bowl, and lay the sugar on it; set it before the fire, where the heat will gradually melt the sugar and set together; when rightly prepared, the tallow and sugar is browned together in one mass. There must be no heat under the dish, or the suet will melt faster than it should. For an adult, a dose is one teaspoonful every hour, of the browned sediment in the bowl. If feverish, the patient should drink freely of nitre in water, in the usual proportion, and take no other nourishment. This rule has cured cases of this disease given over by the physicians.

("Given over" is a euphemism for "given up on", which is probably what one would be better advised to do than to partake of this treatment. Sheep fat and sugar we will take as self-explanatory. Nitre, more commonly spelled here and now as "niter," would apparently have been bought at a chemist or pharmacy shop, or from a doctor. You could buy just about anything at such a shop in those days, the concept of "controlled substances" belonging to the distant future.)


Boil two quarts of oats in a gallon of water, until reduced to two quarts; sweeten with double-refined loaf-sugar, and give two gills [1 cup] every half-hour, until the disease is checked.

(Dysentery and related ailments of the bowels were the number one killers of troops during the Civil War, a conflict in which disease killed three times as many men as did enemy fire. Besides diarrhea, alternating fever and chills were the usual symptoms resulting in a dysentery diagnosis. Lab tests being entirely unknown, what the actual underlying cause of the ailment was could hardly be determined. This recipe is at least helpful to avoiding dehydration, and avoids the toxic nitrous products of the one previous.)


A single drop of oil of cinnamon dropped on sugar, dissolved in the mouth.

Oil of cinnamon can be bought commercially at herbalist or health food shops. It must be produced from the actual bark of the cassia tree (similar in appearance but apparently not biologically related to the "true" or Ceylon cinnamon) so is not easily produced at home.


So far we have dealt with ingestible substances. For external use we have poultices and plasters in supply as well. A poultice is a damp mixture applied thickly to the skin, with or without a layer of cloth (sometimes of a specific variety) over top to hold it in place. A plaster is a poultice allowed to dry to a shell, as opposed to being kept moist or replaced when dried out. The terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Although vile in many cases, and almost uniformly useless, they managed to stick around for quite a long time so may at least have provided what is now called a placebo effect:


Heat lard, and melt in it a quantity of brimstone; apply over the whole body three times at night, rubbing in well before a hot fire.



Press the sting with the tube of a key, which will extract the sting. Then bind on a cloth, in which is a little chewing tobacco wet in ammonia. If the ammonia is not at hand, use tobacco; if neither, saleratus, onion, or, if in the woods, fresh earth, until you can do better.

(Think of the sort of key used to wind a grandfather clock. Tube or barrel keys were commonly used for good quality door or trunk locks in these days. That part of the treatment is still perfectly good, although we leave the topical application of tobacco to the past. Saleratus is an old form of baking powder.)


White wax and almond oil melted together and stirred until cold, is excellent for chapped lips.

(We have no way of knowing if the "white wax" called for here is beeswax or a petroleum-based product such as paraffin, or even more peculiar products. Beeswax is probably the best bet given the time period.)

TREATMENT FOR SPRAINS (from Mrs. [Lydia] Child's American Frugal Housewife)

A poultice of wheat bran, or rye bran, and vinegar, very soon takes down the inflammation occasioned by a sprain. Brown paper, wet, is healing to a bruise. Dipped in molasses, it is said to take down inflammation.

Paper and cloth, in and of themselves as opposed to carriers or coverings for other medicinal agents, turn up with surprising frequency. We don't know if anyone has studied this topic because attempting to search words like "medicine cloth paper" turns up nothing but books on medicine and details as to whether they were published with hard (cloth) or soft (paper) covers. Ptooey. Anyway, here's another one from Lydia Child:


Cotton wool and oil are the best things for a burn.

We would like to remind Mrs. Child that brevity is the soul of wit, not medicine, but we work with what we have. And one more:


For a sudden attack of quincy or croup, bathe the neck in bear's grease, and pour it down the throat. A linen rag soaked in sweet oil, butter, or lard, and sprinkled with yellow Scotch snuff, is said to have performed wonderful cures in cases of croup: it should be placed where the distress is greatest. Goose-grease, or any kind of oil grease, is as good as bear's oil.

Quincy, in modern terms at least, is a dreadfully dangerous form of tonsillitis. Croup is more of a symptom--a sort of barking cough, often compared to the cries of a seal-- than a name of an actual disease, as it can be caused by anything that produces swelling in the throat. In the 19th century it was often a sign of diphtheria, which could be deadly.

LOCKJAW (TETANUS) (From Mrs. Child)

A rind of pork bound upon a wound occasioned by a needle, pin or nail prevents the lock-jaw. It should be always applied. Spirits of turpentine is good to prevent the lock-jaw. Strong soft-soap, mixed with pulverized chalk, about as thick as batter, put, in a thin cloth or bag, upon the wound, is said to be a preventative to this dangerous disorder. The chalk should be kept moist till the wound begins to discharge itself, when the patient will find relief.

This is much the same treatment that is often recommended for snakebite, so the theory that pork had some attractive effect for bad things carried inward by puncture wounds of the skin seems to be prevalent. Turpentine, which was readily available almost everywhere since it was made by distillation from pine trees, would produce an intense stinging sensation which was seen as helpful. It might even have had some sort of disinfectant effect, but we don't know and have no great desire to find out.


Soak [the affected body part] in a pail of water in which turnips have been boiled. Mash the turnips, leave them in the water, and set the feet into them. A poultice of mashed turnips is also useful. The writer has seen bad cases of chilblains entirely removed, by merely soaking the feet several times.

(Chilblains are not the same affliction as frostbite, modern doctors will tell you. They are less likely to recommend mashed turnips as a solution, though. For that other ailment--


Wash the parts often in sugar of lead. If badly frosted, wet linen cloths, and keep them on the frozen parts.

(You knew, of course, that sugar of lead is not really a good cure for frostbite, or anything else for that matter, right? Stay warm.)


Apply cloths dipped in water as hot as it can be wrung out, and change them every three minutes until the pain ceases.

(We suspect this treatment will continue until the patient is in more fear of having a boiled head than they are of the pain of the headache. Then again, it might in fact work. We will stick to aspirin, thank you.)


Flannel wet with brandy, powdered with Cayenne pepper, and laid upon the bowels, affords great relief in cases of extreme distress.

These are two more afflictions defined more by their symptoms, which were obvious and unpleasant, than their causes, which were, in the days before lab testing or even a clear awareness of germs as causes of disease, unknown. Both were frequently found listed on death certificates, particularly of soldiers in confined camps or prison compounds.


Take strong clear lime-water, and mix with it as much linseed oil as it will cut; apply, as soon as possible, after the accident. It is the best cure for burns that can be had, and no housekeeper should be without a bottle in the house, ready prepared. Shake the bottle before applying, wrap the burn in cotton wadding, saturated with it, wet it as often as it appears dry, without removing the cotton from the burn for nine days, when the new skin will probably be found ready formed.

(The "lime-water" referred to here means calcium hydroxide, not anything to do with a green citrus fruit. Not that you really needed to know that, since of course you would never contemplate using this or any of the other recipes listed here, right? We note this purely for historical information.)


Press a cut together, and bind it firmly without cording; if it bleeds, use ashes, salt, or what is better, spiders' webs.

(Perhaps the question should be how anybody survived the 19th century, not why so many died of things easily cured today. And that's even without the added burden of war and suchlike disasters.)


Wet the corns every morning with saliva, and paste on them young peach leaves.

(Young peach leaves, of course, are pretty much only available in early spring. After that they become "dried out withered up old peach leaves" whose curative powers apparently wane. The matter of how one gets the saliva from the source to the affliction, most usually found on the toes and feet, we leave to the ingenuity, and flexibility, of the reader.)


Tie a string tightly around the little finger, so as to cord it. Elevate the arm, or pour cold water on the back of the neck.

(The usefulness of elevating the arm is questionable, although it was also recommended for other afflictions such as dyspepsia, or at least Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson was said to use it for that purpose. The string-on-the-finger is more likely to accomplish nothing but trading a nosebleed for gangrene. Cold water on the neck, on the other hand, might actually help in some cases, by constricting the large blood vessels and thereby discouraging the blood leakage at the source. Doing this in the winter seems more likely to exchange a brief exsanguination for long-term pneumonia.)


Brandy and salt will prevent the hair from falling out.(We assume the ingredients are to be mixed and applied to the body part that is losing the hair.

Applying the brandy internally instead would at least elevate the spirits otherwise depressed at the onset of baldness, and guzzling salt might kill off the user before the condition got any worse.)


Pare the hard skin, and touch them with strong acetic acid twice a day. If it touches the hand it will take off the skin. Milkweed will cure warts, if applied frequently.

(Acetic acid is distilled, highly concentrated vinegar. The science of chemistry was racing so fast in the 19th century that products were not infrequently devised faster than any rational use for them could be thought of. We suggest sticking to the milkweed.)



Infuse, in half a pint of brandy, one ounce of Peruvian bark, coarsely powdered, and gargle the mouth with the infusion every morning.

(Peruvian bark is better known today as cinchona. Although the plant which produces it is native to South America, the same name is used for a herbal remedy dating to ancient times in China and India, so its actual origins are unclear. It was a popular ingredient in everything from digestive powders to cures for malaria, in which latter case it may indeed have done some good thanks to the fact that it contains quinine.)


Powder one ounce of myrrh, a tablespoon of green sage, and mix them in white honey; wet the teeth and gums night and morning.

For those who thought myrrh had gone out of fashion after Biblical times, stand corrected. Unfortunately modern science seems to have regressed somewhat on the matter and sources are entirely unsure on what plant the substance is derived from or how it is made. At least the fresh sage would provide an interesting flavor for a toothpaste.


Opium products are now a no-no of the worst sort, so bad for us that our government is determined to protect us from them no matter how many of us they must imprison to do so. Do not even think about making the following products. Mrs. Haskell uses opium in some of her medical recipes, but does not mention these two, which were therefore taken from Dr. Chase's Recipes, or Information for Everybody, Dr. A. W. Chase, published in this edition in 1866 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


Best Turkey opium 1 oz, slice, and pour upon it boiling water 1 gill [1/2 cup], and work it in a bowl or mortar until it is dissolved; then pour it into the bottle, and with alcohol of 76 percent proof 1/2 pint, rinse the dish, adding the alcohol to the preparation, shaking well, and in 24 hour it will be ready for use. Dose--From 10 to 30 drops for adults, according to the strength of the patient, or severity of the pain. Thirty drops of this laudanum will be equal to one grain of opium. And this is a much better way to prepare it than putting the opium into alcohol, or any other spirits alone, for in that case much of the opium does not dissolve.

Laudanum is the tonic du jour of not just the Civil War but nearly the entire Victorian era of over half a century. Ladies were particularly famous for swilling the stuff like mad for any affliction of body or mind which came to hand. Amusingly enough it was eventually overtaken by patent medicines whose principal active ingredient was alcohol, at a time when the temperance movement was reaching the screeching heights of its power in the crusade to ban alcohol as a pleasurable beverage.


Best opium 1/2 dr.* dissolve it in about 2 tablespoons of boiling water; then add benzoic acid 1/2 dr.; oil of anise 1/2 a fluid dram; clarified honey 1 oz, camphor gum 1 scruple; alcohol, 76 per cent, 11 fl. oz.; distilled water 4 1/2 fluid oz; macerate [chop or mince]; keep warm for two weeks. Dose: For children, 5 to 20 drops, adults, 1 to 2 tea-spoons.

*"Dr." is the abbreviation for "dram, a quantity amounting to about half a teaspoon.

Just for the record, even in Dr. Chase's day they were quite aware that, despite its legality, opium products when overused were not at all good for one. He goes on quite a rip about a patent medicine popular around the time of the Civil War:

It is a well known fact that much injury is done to children by the use of anodynes, such as the above ["Godfrey's Cordial," basically laudanum flavored with syrup and sassafras to make it more palatable to children] and "Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup," which is now taking the place, to a great extent, in towns of the foregoing, for I noticed a short time ago eighty seven empty bottles with Mrs. Winslow's label upon them, sitting on a counter of one of our drug stores, which led me to ask if they put up her syrup. The answer was no, a lady in this city has fed that much to one child within the past eighteen months....

Then let it be remembered that the constant use of opium in any of its preparations on children, or adults, disturbs the nervous system, and establishes a nervous necessity for its continuation. Then use them only in severe pain, or extreme nervousness, laying them by again as soon as possible under the circumstances of the case. Of course we do not give a recipe for the Soothing Syrup spoken of, as its exact composition has not yet come out to the public, but that its soothing properties are owing to opium, there is not the least doubt.

The push to ban opium from public sale, restricting its availability first to "licensed physicians" and later forbidding it almost entirely, is often blamed on a supposed epidemic of addiction after the Civil War. An interesting paper called "Soldier's Disease and Addiction During the Civil War" suggests that this was pretty much a myth cooked up a generation later by anti-drug crusaders with agendas of their own.

Although opium was bought, dispensed and used in massive quantities by Army doctors on both sides, the amounts when divided by number of soldiers, and number of diseases and procedures for which it was used, are miniscule.

The paper's author, Jerry Mandel, concludes that

"Soldier's Disease, though, is a myth. Not one case of addiction was reported in medical records or the literature of the time; under ten references were made in the Nineteenth Century to addiction the cause of which was the Civil War; and no pejorative nickname for addicted veterans, like Soldier's Disease, appeared in the literature until 1915, and it did not become part of the Conventional Wisdom of drug experts until almost a century after Appomattox."

While we may find medicines of the era anything from laughable to terrifying from our superior perch in its future, the true tragedy of the Civil War is how many people, both in the military and civilian arenas, might have survived the time if the confirmation of "germ theory" had come just a tiny bit earlier in history.

The idea itself was not new--one source, the "germ theory calendar", traces the concept itself back to the year 50 BC!--but in midcentury there was an ongoing rear-guard battle between proponents of germs and fans of the theory of spontaneous generation. Florence Nightingale, for one, who founded her famous school for nurses in 1860, never accepted germ theory until the day she died.

Of course theory is of limited value without the ability to put it into hard practical use. Smallpox, for instance, was known to be contagious even if the method of spreading (germs) was not, and the technique of vaccination developed decades earlier. George Washington ordered his troops to be vaccinated during the Revolutionary War, for heaven's sake. And yet soldiers, particularly Confederate soldiers, particularly in prison camps, died by the scores of smallpox outbreaks.

At any rate, they lived the best they could in the circumstances they had, as do we today. They knew more than we often give them credit for, and at least did their best to distribute such help as they could give to anyone who needed it. Whether it did any good or not.


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