Take a look in your medicine cabinet and consider with awe the treasure it truly is. Whether we are referring to prescription medications or over-the-counter treatments, you know that the products have been standardized, and must at least meet minimum standards for safety and efficacy. But where did these products come from? A phrase in a letter written by Isaac Newton in 1675 provides relevant insight. He said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” In terms of modern pharmaceuticals, one of the early giants in that field was a man named Nicholas Culpepper, who published a book named The English Physitian (sic) in 1652. An expanded version was published in 1653 now known as The Complete Herbal by Nicholas Culpepper.
This book, The Complete Herbal was the authoritative reference to herbal medicines for centuries and is the foundation upon which a number of modern medicinal compounds are derived. It was also a primary source material for those in the apothecary trade, that of selling medical compounds as a retail product. Households in the mid-1600s who could afford to purchase the book did so, identifying which plants were available in their region, and which would grow there if cultivated. As word spread of the book, it Households wrote the remedies that worked into receipt books (an archaic name for recipe book) and these were passed from generation to generation, added to when a new treatment was identified, edited when improvements were discovered. New brides would bring carefully copied pages from their mother’s and grandmother’s books, incorporating the best ones into the book kept by her husband’s family. These books were highly prized, often with detailed notes and instructions. Ironically, the receipts in them were sometimes closely guarded secrets, an entirely different mindset than that of Culpepper, who believed that knowledge should be freely shared and made available to all.
By the time the Regency period arrived, many households had at least one person with a degree of expertise in the basics of collecting and preparing medicinal plants. Apothecary shops were experiencing a slight decrease in customers, so they did what any good business person would do – they expanded by extending their services to include house calls. Upon their diagnosis of the malady, the apothecary used the opportunity to sell their specialized compounds and pills to the patient in addition to procedures such as bloodletting.
All manner of plant life: herbs, shrubs, trees, algae, and fungi were used medicinally. The receipts often incorporated other organic substances such as honey, beeswax, tallow and oils, various types of excrement, snails, and even the kidney stones of a man. In addition, minerals, metals, and gemstones both precious and semi-precious were sometimes included in the receipts. Stillroom medicinals varied from something as simple as a cup of tea to concoctions that took weeks or even months to produce.
The most common types of remedies produced in the stillroom included:
- Teas. These might come in the form of a Decoction made from the roots and bark, or an Infusion, made of the leaves and blossoms.
- Extracts. Extracts employ a solvent such as alcohol, vinegar, glycerine, or sometimes water to remove the nutrients and active factors from the plant, which are then suspended in the extract solution.
- Oils. The pure oil of a plant may be extracted into an “essential oil,” or an “Oil of Herbs” can be made by heating the herb in a carrier oil, suspending the herb’s properties in an oil base. Works on the same principle as an extract.
- Tinctures. Tinctures are extracts that exclusively use alcohol or vinegar.
- Poultices. In a fresh poultice, fresh herbs are crushed and mixed with enough water to make them into a paste. In a poultice made from a dry herb, a quantity of the herb is powdered and mixed into something like cornmeal or flour in order to to make a paste. Some poultices are applied directly to the skin, others have a barrier cloth between the body and the paste. The poultice paste may be warmed prior to application. It is covered with a cloth and changed when it dries out. In the Georgian period, certain types of poultices were called a plaster, such as a mustard plaster. The modern meaning of a bandage was not yet in play.
- Fomentation. Also referred to as a compress. Usually made from a tea, a cloth is saturated with the liquid and placed or wiped on the skin.
- Elixer or Syrup. A sweetened liquid that includes at least one medicinal ingredient. The cordials I discussed two months ago would often be considered elixirs.
- Salve. Also called an ointment, balm, combines one or more oil of herb(s) with a carrier such as beeswax or tallow. For application on the skin.
So while they didn’t have aspirin, any arthritic of the day could tell you that a decoction of willow bark helped with the pain. People who suffered from headaches knew that drinking some coffee might provide relief. People who suffered from depression or anxiety might have used lemon balm, a member of the mint family to alleviate their symptoms, or as the 1814 edition of Culpepper’s book put it, “to cause the heart to become “merry”, to help digestion, to open “obstructions of the brain”, and to expel “melancholy vapors” from the heart and arteries.” While this particular effect isn’t recognized today, it remains a popular flavoring, perfume, and essential oil. Can a bright fragrance make you feel happier?
Next month we’ll talk about some of the sundry products of the Stillroom. Today though, I’d love to hear your comments on this fascinating aspect of the Georgian/Regency era. If you’re curios to peek at The Complete Herbal, I’ve linked to the Project Gutenberg eBook in paragraph 2.
Disclaimer: The remedies and medical references presented in this blog post are not intended to diagnose or treat any illness or condition of the reader. The information is intended only to educate on stillroom practices in the historical context of the Georgian-era household.