Making Musk Julep: Sugar Coating a Bitter Medicine

The Thibetian [Tibetan] Musk, Native of Asia. Sir William Jardine. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The Thibetian [Tibetan] Musk, Native of Asia. Sir William Jardine. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By Susan Brandt

Popular eighteenth-century pharmacopoeias often included animal-based substances such as musk, which might seem nauseating to the modern palate. In The New Dispensatory Containing the Theory and Practice of Pharmacy (London, 1753), William Lewis describes musk or moschus as “a grumus substance like clotted blood, found in a little bag in the umbilical region” of the Asian musk deer, “an animal met with in China, Tartary, and the East Indies” (162). To harvest the musk gland, male deer were trapped and killed in large numbers, leading to musk deer’s current endangered status. According to Lewis, the “musk pod” was “the size of a pigeon’s egg, covered with short brown hairs” and it exuded a scent that attracted female deer (162). Although musk was an expensive product, in minute quantities it formed the basis for perfumes, as well as for pharmaceuticals and culinary recipes. Based on Lewis’ description, eighteenth-century users were likely ambivalent about the idea of ingesting the pungent-smelling contents of an animal’s gland with the texture of coagulated blood. However, users were torn between their potential aversion and their desire for a substance with aphrodisiac and medical potential.  

Contents of a Musk Deer’s Gland. Source: Abdes Attar, www. profumo.it.
Contents of a Musk Deer’s Gland. Source: Abdes Attar, www. profumo.it.

Unpleasant medicines, such as musk, were often mixed with sugar or sweet tasting substances to form a more palatable “julep.” The New Dispensatory’s author admitted that although the musk ingredient was often dried into a powder, musk julep still had a feral-smelling “strong perfume.” Nonetheless, for those who could bear the repugnant taste, it “proves of great service in lowness, fainting, &c.,” as well as for convulsions and “the bite of a mad dog.”  In humoral medicine, musk julep’s “bitterish sub-acrid taste” might even convince reluctant sufferers of its efficacy in expelling maladaptive humours from the body. (162, 434).

William Lewis, The New Dispensatory Containing The Theory and Practice of Pharmacy (London, 1753). Source: Archive.org
William Lewis, The New Dispensatory Containing The Theory and Practice of Pharmacy (London, 1753). Source: Archive.org
 

Despite musk julep’s loathsome savor, the remedy appears in eighteenth-century English and North American pharmacopoeias, popular medical manuals, and women healers’ recipe books, which demonstrates the overlap between the prescribing practices of doctors and non-physician practitioners. To make “Julepum e Moscho or Musk Julep,” William Lewis advised the reader to “Take of Damask rose water, six ounces by measure; Musk, twelve grains; Double-refined sugar, one dram. Grind the sugar and the musk together, and gradually add to the rose water” (433). Due to its expense and pungency, musk was measured in grains or 6.5% of a gram. Nonetheless, in his popular self-help manual, Domestic Medicine, William Buchan gave directions for a larger batch of musk julep by increasing the amount of musk in his recipe to half a drachm (30 grains) and adding eight times as much sugar. He substituted cinnamon and peppermint water for the rose water. Like Lewis, he recommended musk julep for convulsions, “nervous fevers,” and “spasmodic affections.” Although the medicinal uses of musk had its origins in ancient Asian medical practice, it came into increasingly popular use in eighteenth-century Britain and its colonies.

During the American Revolution, the widowed Quaker healer, Margaret Hill Morris prescribed musk julep in her Burlington, New Jersey medical and apothecary practice. Creating medicines such as musk julep required hands-on skills in chemistry and botany, and it allowed women to produce novel scientific knowledge and products. Morris likely obtained the musk julep recipe from her personal copy of Buchan’s Domestic Medicine. Women’s home-production of medicines was particularly important in the face of shortages of imported pharmaceuticals due to the Royal Navy’s blockades of American port cities during the war. However, while Morris was compounding musk julep one afternoon, her fetid concoction spilled onto a letter that she was writing to her sister. The sugary liquid pooled and stained the fabric-like texture of the cotton and linen paper. Morris apologized and explained, “Son John [and I] had been making musk julep for [Neighbor] Carey, on the Counter where my paper laid and scented it.” Although Morris had apprenticed her son to her physician brother-in-law, she relished his visits home, where “the business of an Apothecary be still carried on by a diligent apprentice, & watchful Mother.”[i] Morris’s kitchen was a site of medical education as well as odiferous medicinal production.

As new Western European theories of the nervous and vascular systems influenced humoral medicine in the eighteenth-century Atlantic world, doctors and non-physician healers became interested in the stimulating power of musk. The expense, exotic origins, pungent taste, and gelatinous consistency of the fur-encrusted musk gland added to the medicine’s mystique. The intermixture of cinnamon, peppermint or rose water, along with sugar, added complexity and sweetness, making musk julep’s earthy taste more appetizing. Musk julep recipes highlight how the unique flavors and textures of a global trade in pharmaceuticals enlivened eighteenth-century medical prescriptions and practices.


[i] Margaret Hill Morris to Hannah Hill Moore, ca. 1780, G. M. Howland MS Coll. 1000, Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections, Haverford, PA; Susan Hanket Brandt, “‘Getting into a Little Business’: Margaret Hill Morris and Women’s Medical Entrepreneurship during the American Revolution,” Early American Studies 4, no. 4 (2015): 774-807.

Susan Brandt teaches history at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Her dissertation, “Gifted Women and Skilled Practitioners:  Gender and Healing Authority in the Delaware Valley, 1740-1830,” was awarded the 2016 Lerner-Scott Prize for the best doctoral dissertation in U.S. Women’s History by the Organization of American Historians. Brandt has published an article in Early American Studies and a chapter in Barbara Oberg, ed., Women in the American Revolution: Gender, Politics, and the Domestic World. She is under contract with Penn Press to publish a book based on her dissertation. Prior to pursuing a career in history, Brandt worked as a nurse practitioner.


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