Curing Coughs and the Common Cold in Eighteenth-Century England

By Katherine Allen

It happens at every university, every year, and is often known as ‘fresher’s flu’. This cocktail of viruses arrives at the start of term, along with students and their unprepared immune systems. After countless hours spent in the germ-infested libraries, we are now experiencing a full blown assault of sniffles and coughs, all the while chanting ‘I don’t have time to get sick!’.

During a recent pharmacy visit to stock up on Lemsip, my mind wandered to recipe books and eighteenth-century strategies for battling the common cold. How did the eighteenth-century upper sorts deal with scratchy throats, and the dreaded ‘man cold’?

In the eighteenth century catching cold was linked to climate. In his popular work Domestic Medicine (1772 edition) William Buchan explained that catching cold was a result of ‘obstructed perspiration’ and that the secret to not getting sick was avoiding extremes in temperature.[1] Buchan observed that, ‘the inhabitants of every climate are liable to catch cold, nor can even the greatest circumspection defend them against its attacks’.[2] For treatment Buchan advised rest, fluids, light foods, and an infusion of balm and citrus. He also cautioned that ‘Many attempt to cure a cold, by getting drunk. But this, to say no worse of it, is a very hazardous and fool-hardy experiment.’[3]

William Buchan (1729-1805) [Wikipedia]
William Buchan (1729-1805) [Wikipedia- Credit: US National Library of Medicine]
Coughs were ubiquitous in the eighteenth century, but it would be misleading to say that this symptom (as we know it) was only associated with non-life threatening conditions. Sometimes recipes in domestic collections grouped coughs with colds, while others treated coughs associated with more serious ailments (see The Sloane Letters Blog).[4]

John Wesley divided coughs into several categories in Primitive Physick (1792 edition) including: asthmatic, consumptive, and tickling. For ‘Violent Coughing from a sharp and thin Rheum’ Wesley suggested a bolus of conserve of rose with powdered frankincense.[5] Or, one could try the milk of sow thistle which ‘has the anodyne and antispasmodic properties of opium, without its narcotic effects.’[6]

Newspapers were an excellent source for cough and cold remedies; the Weekly Amusement (February 4, 1764), for instance, had a remedy ‘A Plaister for a Sore Throat’. Made from melted mutton suet, rosin, and beeswax, this paste was spread on a cloth and pinned on from ear to ear.[7] Newspaper clippings were also pasted into manuscripts. Dr James Malone’s ‘Recipe for a Cold’, shown below, is a balsam-style remedy that boasted to be ‘almost an infallible remedy’ and was inserted into Mrs Myddleton’s book.[8]

'Recipe for a Cold' Wellcome, WMS 3656, f. 21r.
‘Recipe for a Cold’ Wellcome, WMS 3656, f. 21r. [Credit: Wellcome Library, London]
Letters indicate the regularity of which remedies were exchanged, and document how individual’s expressed their cold symptoms.  Mrs Gell thanked her sisters for ‘ye receipt which I believe very good in [this] time of yeare’ adding ‘thanke God & ye Drs skill & care & friends nursing am very well againe my cough is gon[e] & I am about house’.[9] In another case, Judith Madan wrote to her daughter giving details of an illness and declared ‘My Cough is less violent and comes seldemer. As for the Phlegm which has been my torme[n]t, it must have time to subside.’[10]

A variety of cough and cold remedies were featured in recipe books. Alongside restorative broths (like modern chicken soup), artificial asses’ milk, and milk-based diets in general, were associated with treating coughs (discussed by Sally Osborn). Topical therapies were also used, such as Emily Jane Sneyd eighteenth-century version of VapoRub; a mixture of sweet almond oil and syrup of violets along with a plaster of candle wax, saffron, and nutmeg applied to the stomach.[11] 

Syrups and electuaries were popular remedies. One seventeenth-century recipe, ‘a most excellent electuary given to Lady Lisle by Dr Lower’, was a mixture including conserve of red roses, balsam of sulphur, oil of vitriol, and syrup of coltsfoot.[12] Opiates were common in cough remedies, for sedation. Mrs Cotton suggested a mixture of liquorice, vinegar, salad oil, treacle, and tincture of opium when ‘the cough is troublesome’.[13]

Finally, lozenges were used to alleviate sore throats. Elizabeth Jenner’s recipe book (1706) includes her own method of making lozenges ‘very good for Coughs Comeing by takeing Cold’. Jenner’s method involved creating a stiff paste of sugar, herbal oils and powders, and rose water, rolling out the paste, punching out rounds with a thimble, and then drying them in the oven.[14]

'To make Lozenges for a Cough my way' Wellcome, WMS 3029, f. 30.
‘To make Lozenges for a Cough my way’ Wellcome, WMS 3029, f. 30. [Credit: Wellcome Library, London]
These treatment examples reflect the variety of sources available for medical advice. As the case of the common cold demonstrates, individuals were opportunistic by collecting and trialling new remedies, while also relying on standby cures. Kith and kin were proactive in exchanging remedies and were not shy about discussing their conditions, including ‘tormenting phlegm’.

But, despite an arsenal of remedies, advice for the common cold in eighteenth-century England appears strikingly similar to our current approach: stay home, rest, forego partying for a few days, and perhaps try some cough syrup. Feel free to post a comment on your own ‘go to’ remedies for coughs and colds, be it contemporary or historical!

 


[1] William Buchan, Domestic Medicine: or, a treatise on the prevention and cure of diseases by regimen and simple medicines [second edition] (London: 1772), 192-3.

[2] Buchan., 193.

[3] Ibid., 194.

[4] Serious coughs could be symptomatic of, for example, croup, whooping cough, consumption, or internal bleeding.

[5] John Wesley, Primitive Physick: or, an easy and natural method of curing most diseases [twenty-fourth edition] (London: 1792), 62.

[6] Wesley., 63.

[7] Weekly Amusement (February 4, 1764), Burney Collection

[8] Wellcome, WMS 3656, f. 21r.

[9] Derbyshire CRO D258/38/11/48, loose sheet.

[10] Bodleian Library Special Collections, MS Eng Misc d. 637-8, f. 39.

[11] Wellcome, WMS, 3029, f. 38.

[12] Wellcome, WMS 3295, f. 28.

[13] Bodleian Library Special Collections, MS Eng Misc es 49. f. 6r.

[14] Wellcome, WMS 3029, f. 30.


One thought on “Curing Coughs and the Common Cold in Eighteenth-Century England”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *