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.
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
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:
INTERNALS: WHEN A SPOONFUL OF SUGAR WON'T BE MUCH HELP
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.)
FLAXSEED JELLY FOR A COUGH
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. )
CURE FOR DYSENTERY
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
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
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.
EXTERNALS: AT LEAST YOU DON'T HAVE TO
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
OINTMENT FOR THE ITCH
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.
STINGS OF INSECTS
(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
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
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 OR CROUP
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.
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.
LOCKJAW (TETANUS) (From Mrs.
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.
FOR FROSTBITTEN HANDS AND FEET
(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.
DYSENTERY AND CHOLERA-MORBUS
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
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
(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.)
TO STOP A BLEEDING OF THE NOSE
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.)
CURE FOR WARTS
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.)
ORAL HYGIENE: REMEMBER TEETH WERE PULLED
TINCTURE FOR TEETH
Infuse, in half a pint of brandy, one ounce of Peruvian bark,
coarsely powdered, and gargle the mouth with the infusion every
(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.)
TO CLEAN THE TEETHPowder 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.
MAD, BAD AND DANGEROUS TO TAKE (OR MAKE FOR THAT MATTER)
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
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