All posts by helenking

My great-grandmother’s hair loss remedy

 

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By Helen King

I was recently going through the family papers — a mysterious collection of apparently random, but presumably precious, items! — and was struck by one I’d overlooked before. It’s a printed envelope containing a hand-written remedy for hair loss. When I last looked at this — which was probably when I inherited this particular batch from great-aunt Emma in the early 1980s — I hadn’t read it properly, and I hadn’t noticed that it has a date.

The outside links it to Mrs King of 24 Denmark Road; that’s in SE London. Inside, on blue paper, is a handwritten prescription. It doesn’t say what it is for, but on the back of the envelope someone has written ‘Dr Barnes (?) Hair Prescription’. The prescription lists ammonia, sweet almond oil, rosemary oil and cantharidine. The person prescribing this has insisted ‘Cantharidine and no other preparation to be used’, which is still used in some hair oils today.

This seems to be a pretty typical remedy for hair loss. Liquor ammoniae fortis and aromatic spirit of ammonia and the cantharidine were irritants, intended to stimulate the circulation on the scalp, with the other ingredients added to make the product smell rather better. There is also ‘fl. lotis’, but this seems to have been added; the ink is a little less dark and it is not set flush with the other ingredients in the list.

The prescription was taken to be filled on at least three occasions; there are three pharmacists’ stamps, all from the London area. One is dated 11 November 1890, thus telling us when this prescription was used. Something has been cut off the top right-hand corner; I’ve no idea what, when, or why.

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Of course, just because this prescription is in a Haden’s pharmacy envelope doesn’t mean it was issued there. And other factors lead me to conclude that it was simply kept in this envelope for convenience. Why? Because on the back of the envelope there is an advertisement for three ‘Products of Genatosan, Ltd’: the tonic Sanatogen, the throat tablet Formamint and the ‘safe brand of aspirin’, Genasprin. Genatosan Ltd was set up only during World War I. This later date fits with my great-grandmother’s address; the family is not registered at 24 Denmark Street in the 1891 census, but was there by 1901, and still there in 1911. In 1901, Mary Anna King, aged 39, from Brockford in Suffolk, was living there with her husband Arthur King, ten years older than her, with their four children, aged from newborn to 7. A visitor was also present at the census: Caroline Steggall, aged 36, from Broxford.

By 1911, things were very different. Now, Mary is listed as a widow, with her four children still there; two at school, one working as a dressmaker and another at a ‘jam and potted meat factory’. Caroline Steggall, needlewoman, lives permanently with them, and her identity is clearer; she is now listed as Mary’s sister. I also have a letter written by ‘your ever loving mother, M A King’ to Leonard, her youngest son and my grandfather, from 24 Denmark Road, dated February 21, 1920; so I know she was still there then. In it, Mary wishes him a happy birthday and exhorts him ‘not to leave God out of your life but in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your path’.

So the family starts to be fleshed out. But what about this recipe? Handwritten, but in an envelope advertising patent medicines, it sits between two traditions. Maybe, as the envelope does not match the recipe, it was not for my great-grandmother at all, but for a man of the family? In 1890, Mary King was only in her twenties. Was she suffering hair loss? Or was this prescription issued to Arthur, and she kept it after his death because it reminded her of him; perhaps, of his special rosemary and almond smell?

Roman remedy books?

By Helen King

If you know anything about food history, you’ll know about the ancient Roman writer, Apicius. His recipe book was reprinted in 2006 and is even available in an English translation; and you can get a pdf of the full text of 64 of the recipes at https://prospectbooks.co.uk/samples/CookingApicius.pdf

Elaine Leong’s recent post, http://recipes.hypotheses.org/367, reminded me about another sort of Roman book: the remedy books. Of course, as anyone on this blog knows, there is not much of a line between recipe and remedy…  Alun Withey’s post, http://recipes.hypotheses.org/59 about ‘what is a recipe collection?’ then made me think about this some more. So, here are some thoughts concerning collections in the ancient world.

Traditional Roman medicine is still something of a mystery. It seems to have been overshadowed by the medicine of the Greeks – despite the fact that the Romans conquered the Greeks in the second century BC. In this case, and in contrast to modern colonial history, it was the medicine of the conquered people that won the battle of the body; as the Roman poet Horace wrote, in many cultural fields Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit, ‘Captured Greece took captive her savage conqueror’.

So what was Roman medicine like before Greek medicine took over? We know that in around 160 BC, Cato the Elder (also known as Cato the Censor, 234-149 BC), wrote a book for the farmer and head of the household to use, called De agri cultura (On agriculture,  literally On the cultivation of the fields). The text survives. It includes recipes – for pudding, for porridge, for purges. In his Life of Cato, the Greek historian Plutarch later referred to a book written by Cato that does not survive: a recipe collection. Plutarch writes, ‘[Cato] himself had compiled a notebook (hypomnema) of recipes and used them for the diet or treatment of any members of his household who fell ill’. So, other than what we have in De agri cultura, what was in this book and how did it come into being? Perhaps, like early modern remedy collections, it was a ‘commonplace book’ of remedies Cato had picked up based on books he had read, or suggestions made by friends and family. Plutarch also tells us that Cato ‘never made his patients fast, but allowed them to eat herbs and morsels of duck, pigeon, or hare’ (Life of Cato 23). Sounds good so far!

We have a second source for this recipe/remedy collection. Here, in the Roman writer Pliny, it is called a commentarius, a word meaning treatise, notebook or memo. We find that it was kept by the head of household: Cato used it to treat ‘his son, servants, and household’. While Plutarch says Cato ‘himself’ compiled it, Pliny simply says that Cato ‘had’ such a book. Cato was rapidly anti-Greek. He warned against the dangers of Greek doctors, although in fact he uses enough Greek technical terms to make it clear that he had read Greek medicine for himself. So were some of the remedies in his collection taken from Greek books? And did other Roman heads of household own, or compile, collections like this one? And how did they organise them?

For that last question, we have one tantalising hint. The reason why Pliny tells us about the collection is that he says it is the origin of the recipes he gives in his Natural History. That collection of knowledge is organised in a very complicated way – it is nothing like a modern encyclopedia with an A-Z structure. Pliny implies that he has taken apart Cato’s notebook and put the recipes wherever they best fit for his purposes. So does that mean that they were arranged in some sort of structure by Cato? Cato would most likely have been writing on papyrus scrolls, so he may have just written down recipes as he acquired them, or he may have had a reorganised copy made. Perhaps, picking up an idea Elaine Leong explored, he wrote an index? The ancient world raises so many questions – and has so few answers!

Helen King is Professor of Classical Studies at the Open University; her interests range from ancient to early modern, and focus on gynaecology and obstetrics

On Pliny: Aude Doody, ‘Pliny’s Natural History’, Journal of the History of Ideas 70 (2009): http://jhi.pennpress.org/PennPress/journals/jhi/sampleArt1.pdf

Cato the Elder:

Green sickness, red plants

By Helen King

I’ve been interested for a long time in green sickness, a condition affecting girls at puberty that involved menstrual suppression, often along with some sort of dietary ‘blockage’. The remedies for it, over the 400 or so years that it was recognised as a disease, raise all sorts of problems. For example, in the 19th century it was seen as a form of anaemia, so iron was prescribed. In the 17th century, before that level of knowledge of blood existed, ‘steel filings’ were often part of the remedy, and iron is a constituent of steel. So, how did they know to use steel? Or was this nothing to do with the iron content, but instead about steel being imagined as ‘cutting through’ the blockages?

Langham’s text. From http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/insrv/libraries/scolar/digital/healthyreading.html . Copyright: Cardiff University, used with permission.

William Langham wrote ‘The Garden of Health’ in 1597. It was based on earlier recipe collections, and I came upon it when I was thinking about using recipes to tease out what exactly was supposed to be causing the symptoms – so, if the recipe involved plants that were clearly evacuative, then this could suggest that the cause of the disease was seen as a blockage. Langham arranged plants in simple alphabetical order, rather than arranging the material under the names of diseases; but, as part of his accessibility, he also gave a list of conditions with references to the different plant entries where the reader could find out more.

Langham gives a range of recipes for green sickness. One is packed full of ‘red’ plants –

‘seethe powder of the Keyes [i.e. the ash tree] with Betonie, red Sage, red Mynts, and Magerom [marjoram] in running water from a pottell [= 2 quarts] to a quart, and drink thereof a good draught with sugar warme morning and evening’

Elaine Hobby pointed out to me that this recipe also appears in 1677 in ‘The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight’ by ‘T.P.’ (possibly Hannah Woolley), but with ‘red Fennel’ instead of ‘red Mynts’. There was a second edition of Langham in 1633, and maybe the author used this.
So what’s all this red about? Betony, sage and marjoram often appear together in later collections as a gentle sternutatory. Red sage and betony are used against bilious attacks. Ash keys feature today on ‘wild food’ sites with the warning that they are very bitter and need to be boiled several times before eating, but what was used here was the ripe seed, dried and then reduced to powder. The ash-powder is used elsewhere for the stone (by provoking urination), jaundice and dropsy.

So maybe there’s something here about getting rid of obstructions. But to me, all this redness suggests the colour of blood, and the use of running water also makes me think that this is aimed at restoring or establishing a normal menstrual flow. How do we balance the known effects of the plants chosen, with the symbolic power of red? Comments please!

Helen King is Professor of Classical Studies at the Open University, UK. Her book on green sickness is  The Disease of Virgins.