Spring: when thoughts of fancy turn to itchy, watery eyes

By Lisa Smith

A number of my Tweet-friends have recently been complaining about the severity of their hay fever this spring. @KateMorant asked:

Is there any #earlymodern advice/ recipes for hay fever? I’ll try anything short of applying leeches to eyes.

Advert for Histantin, a Burroughs Wellcome and Co antihistaminic agent showing a couple eating a picnic in a field while a farmer piles hay onto a cart, 1965. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Advert for Histantin, a Burroughs Wellcome and Co antihistaminic agent showing a couple eating a picnic in a field while a farmer piles hay onto a cart, 1965. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

But… trying to figure out what people might have used to treat their symptoms in early modern England is no easy matter. The term hay fever, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was not used until 1829. What we know now as “hay fever” was first described in 1819 by Dr. John Bostock, who presented his own case for study as being “an unusual train of symptoms”: itchy, swollen and watery eyes, sneezing, and difficulty breathing. Over the years, Bostock had tried bleeding, purging, blisters, diet, Peruvian bark, steel, opium, mercury, cold bathing, digitalis… and, of course, many eye remedies. None of these had apparently helped.

Keeping in mind the relatively new description of hay fever as an ailment, I decided that the best way to track down early modern hay fever remedies would be according to symptoms. Of the symptoms typically associated with hay fever, itchy eyes are the easiest to trace—and even this was no mean feat.

I started off with the Wellcome Library’s wonderful online collection of seventeenth and early eighteenth century recipe books. Although there are lots of remedies to treat eye problems, many of these were a bit general, such as “The Lady Iveys Eye Watter” listed in the Johnson Family’s book (1694-1725). These eye drops, which included the white of a new laid egg, spring water and alum, could be used to treat “all distempers in yr Eyes pertickuler for any thing that grows”. So, although allergy-ridden eyes could in theory be treated with this remedy, it was not the most specific choice.

Fortunately, none of the remedies I looked at used this as an ingredient! Thomas Rowlandson, A Village Doctress Distilling Eyewater, 1800. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Fortunately, none of the remedies I looked at used this as an ingredient! Thomas Rowlandson, A Village Doctress Distilling Eyewater, 1800. Image Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The Brumwich family (1625-1700) may have been hay fever sufferers, as there were three somewhat more useful remedies in their collection: “A watter for eyes that are red & watterey aproved”, “A resceipt for wattering eyes” and “A water for sore eyes whose lides are all swelled”. All had an “X” or a “+” beside them, indicating—along with the one “aproved” that the recipes had been tried. The “watter for eyes” was essentially a sugar water that could be sponged or dropped into the eyes, while “A resceipt” included orris [iris] root and white copris [possibly a beetle?] steeped in water. The “water for sore eyes” used red rose water and powdered aloes. Of course, there is no guarantee that these were for allergy symptoms, especially as the third recipe was included alongside remedies for blindness and sore eyes.

None of them give me any confidence.

The English Physician enlarged (1718) by Nicholas Culpeper, however, offered some potential explanations—as well as solutions—for itchy, watery eyes. A juice of celandine, field daisies and ground ivy in clarified water with dissolved sugar was a “soveraign remedy for all pains, redness, watering”, which sounds promising, but it also treated pins and webs and skins and films (p. 10). Barley, which was ruled by Saturn, could be cooling and cleansing, especially for inflammation problems (pp. 29-30). Eye drops distilled from green barley gathered at the end of May was particularly good for sufferers who had “Defluctions of Humours fallen into their Eyes”. Both remedies suggest that symptoms might be seen as defluxions (a discharge of fluid) or inflammations. Makes sense.

But another type of classification in Culpeper put itchy, swollen eyes alongside poisons and the venemous bites. This made sense; the blood in such cases was seen as poisoned and overly hot. White beets and borage and bugloss were all ruled by Jupiter, which made them cleansing and strengthening. The beets could treat internal obstructions, headaches, venemous bites, eye inflammations and—interestingly—“wheals”, something rather like a hive (pp. 36-37). Borage and bugloss roots and leaves were good for putrid and pestilential fevers and poisons, while the leaves and seeds might help cleanse the blood and excess heats. The distilled water could be used as an eye wash for red and inflamed eyes (pp. 50-51). Modern hay fever sufferers, no doubt, will also understand this parallel with poisoning, with  pollen and dust acting as daily sources of misery.

Trying to identify hay fever-like symptoms in early modern England is a difficult business, as these eye remedies reveal. And this, before we even get to the sneezing! A quick digital search through Culpeper’s on Eighteenth Century Collections Online shows that all references to sneezing were in positive terms. For example, under “Clary, or more properly Cleer-Eye”, Culpeper noted that the powder of the dry root “provoketh Sneezing and thereby Purgeth the Head and Brain of much Rheum and Corruption” (p. 90). In other words, while Culpeper offered up lots of remedies for the eye symptoms, nothing could—or should—be done about the sneezing.

Sneezing: nature’s way of purging the body? But at least no leeches were required…


4 thoughts on “Spring: when thoughts of fancy turn to itchy, watery eyes”

  1. Thanks very much for the helpful advice, Lisa – and I’m even now assembling my distilling apparatus to produce eye drops from some recently-picked green barley. I thought, given the charming illustration of the methods of a village medical practitioner, it would be worth refining the product myself than to trust the stock of my local apothecary.

  2. Thanks for the advise. Several natural remedies and treatments have been used to treat eye allergies, including itching and redness. But make sure to contact your doctor about the safety and effectiveness of these remedies before you try them.

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