In the 18th and 19th centuries, mothers and midwives went to the garden for medicinal cures. Sometimes there was a clever way to remember which tea to brew.
“Use peppermint for babies gas. For older folks try sassafras.”
“He or she is so good humored.” Today this description usually refers to a person’s wit and jovial disposition. But in ancient and medieval times and even into the 18th century, good or poor humored referred to your health. The “humors” were the vital bodily fluids, such as blood, yellow bile, phlegm and black bile. Hippocrates believed that an excess or deficiency of any of the humors in a person can be a sign of illness. Disease could also be the result of the “corruption” of one or more of the humors, which could be caused by environmental circumstances, dietary changes, or many other factors.
Leeches were used in medicine since ancient times until the 19th century. It was believed that the segmented parasite would suck out the bad or diseased blood. In fact, if too many leeches were applied, a sick person could get weak or die from loss of blood. Some apothecaries (drug stores) had decorative jars that held the leeches to be sold. Some medicine practices still advocate using leeches.
1) “Honey and milk is very good for worms; so is strong salt water; likewise powdered sage and molasses taken freely. 2) A spoonful of ashes stirred in cider is good to prevent sickness of the stomach. 3) A poultice made of ginger or of common chickweed, (pictured) that grows about one’s door in the country, has given great relief to the tooth-ache, when applied frequently to the cheek. 4) An ointment of lard, sulphur, and cream-of-tartar, simmered together, is good for the piles.” (Hemorrhoids) These are a sampling of the preventative advice and cures found in the 1800s. Lydia Maria Child, newspaper woman, poet, and reformer, wrote one of the early cookbooks in America. “The American Frugal Housewife Dedicated to those who are not Ashamed of Economy” (Boston, 1833) The book contains recipes for culinary, medicinal, dyestuffs, soap and advice for home economics.
19th CENTURY FOLK REMEDIES
This will cure you! On April 30, 1796, Samuel Lee Jr. of Windham, Connecticut, received a Letters Patent for his recipe of bilious pills—a patent medicine (the first in America) that became known as “Dr. Lee’s Windham Bilious Pills.” The “True and Genuine Pill’” claimed to “remove pains in the head, stomach and bowels – – – the gripes and all obstructions” also an “excellent help for the gravel, scurvy, cholic, jaundice, dropsy . . . and therefore convenient for all travelers by sea or land.” The reputation of its maker was extremely important and Lee Jr. was the son of Dr. Samuel Lee, a respected physician on the schooner Oliver Cromwell, a privateer ship from Norwich during the Revolutionary War. As Yankee peddlers sold their wares, “Dr. Lee’s Windham Bilious Pills” soon appeared up and down the East Coast.
There are sparkling springs of water that generations believed contained healing powers. One such spring is in Stafford, CT. Legend has it that the water cured “gout, sterility, pulmonary, hysteria, and more.” Since at least 1750 travelers came seeking to restore their health. A young lawyer and future President John Adams traveled from Braintree on horseback in 1771 after overwork and exhaustion left him in a precarious state of health. He wrote in his autobiography, “I was advised to take a journey to Stafford Springs in Connecticut….I spent a few days in drinking the Waters.” In 1899 the spring water was being bottled and Dr. James Cook writes; “The water is clear and sparkling and excellent for table purposes. It has attained its greatest reputation in the treatment of blood and skin infections. It is said to be actively diuretic.” The mineral contents are: sodium chloride, potassium sulfate, sodium sulfate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium phosphate, iron peroxide, iron protoxide, alumina, lime, silicic acid, and magnesia.” The spring still flows from under the well house.
QUICK CURE OR QUACKERY?
Lydia Estes Pinkham was the inventor and marketer of “Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound” an herbal-alcoholic “women’s tonic” for “female complaints” such as menstrual and menopausal problems, prolapsed uterus, cramps, hot flashes, and pregnancy-related issues. It also assisted conception by lowering risk of miscarriage, and it treated kidney and ovarian diseases and “all manner of womanly woes.” Lydia Estes was born into a middle class family in Lynn, Massachusetts. She was well educated and advocated the causes of temperance, abolitionism and woman’s rights. Lydia wed Isaac Pinkham, a widowed shoe maker, but the family fell on hard times during the depression of the 1870s. Lydia, like many women, brewed home concoctions to cure ailments. The idea of selling her tonic to help support the family was formed. The ingredients?
PANDEMICS ARE NOT NEW
Pandemics have occurred throughout history. Here are many which caused great suffering, acts of heroism and sacrifice, and engendered stories about the aftermath. Our year and a half of Covid 19 would have been familiar to previous generations.
THE BUBONIC PLAGUE
“Ring around the rosy, Pocket full of posies, Ashes, Ashes, We all fall down.” Some documented research shows that this nursery rhyme and child’s singing game was first in print from the 19th century in English and other languages. However, many believe the legend that the poem’s origin dates to the great plague of 1665. “Rings” of the rose-colored rash, pockets of “posies” or flowers and herbs to mask the stench of disease and death. “Ashes” for the cremated bodies or in some versions “Achoo. Achoo” for the sneezing signifies the final symptom of the disease. “We all fall down.” Dead. Though some folklore scholars dispute the explanation, it is the lore and lure of the death version that lives on.
Today social distancing is recommended to stop coronavirus contagion. Since ancient times people were fearful of the sick, avoided contact with them and often shunned them as outcasts. One such disease with noticeable deformities was Leprosy. Interestingly leprosy is caused by a slow-growing type of bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae (M. leprae). It is not very contagious as it takes close and repeated contact with nose or mouth droplets from an untreated victim. The incubation period is about 3 to 5 years or more for symptoms to appear after coming into contact with the leprosy-causing bacteria. The symptoms affect nerves and loss of feeling. If untreated the patient can develop skin sores, lesions and nodules, paralysis, crippling of hands and feet, loss of digits, ulcers and blindness. Leprosy is also known as Hansen’s disease after the Norwegian scientist, Gerhard Hansen, discovered M. leprae in 1873. Each year there are about 200 cases of Hansen’s disease in the U.S. and 200,000 cases worldwide. Treatments and antibiotics are provided free of charge by the World Health Organization.
Typhoid Fever is a bacterial infection due to a type of salmonella typhi. It is spread by food or water contaminated with the feces of an infected person. The risk factors are poor sanitation and poor hygiene. Symptoms begin to show 6 to 30 days after exposure and include weakness, abdominal pain, constipation, headaches, vomiting and sometimes a rose-colored skin rash. A vaccine (developed about 1899) prevents 40 to 90% of the cases. Traveling to developing countries without adequate sanitation facilities pose a risk for typhoid infection. There are 21 million typhoid cases per year and 220,000 deaths.
Are you trying to make sense of asymptomatic disease carriers or people who spread an infectious disease but experience no symptoms? Mary Mallone (1869-1938) or “Typhoid Mary” was perhaps one of the first. She was a cook in affluent New York homes. Typhoid is spread through feces and inadequate hand washing. The bacteria may have been under her fingernails as she prepared peach ice cream or another dish that did not require cooking. (Since heating kills the bacteria.) Mary infected 51 people and three of them died. When the authorities figured out Mary was the carrier, they had to forcibly quarantine her and she spent 30 years in isolation.
THE “SPANISH” INFLUENZA
The 1918 Influenza Pandemic during WW 1 spread with the troops. The lack of vaccines or treatment became a crisis that caused 50 million deaths worldwide; 675,000 in the U.S. and 8,488 in CT. People were advised to stay home and wear masks if they had to go out. Public places, schools, and churches were closed. The Willimantic Chronicle reported that, at St. Joseph Hospital, only 3 out of 22 nurses “were on their feet.” Also, the sexton of the cemetery needed help digging graves. In Windham, 152 people died from influenza.
It was in Philadelphia on September 28,1918. In hindsight, they should have canceled the Liberty Loan Parade promoting patriotism during World War 1. But people filled the streets thinking the virus pandemic was over. No one knew that the highly contagious influenza would come back in the fall with a vengeance. Thousands in the crowd were infected that day. During the next week 4,597 souls would die.