‘Used With Constant Success’: Animal Ingredients in Eighteenth-Century Remedies, and their Success in the Beauty Industry

It’s Halloween, so it’s fitting that I’m writing about slimes and sticky oozes, though somewhat misleading. This post considers three common animal-derived medicinal ingredients found in eighteenth-century recipes. Earlier this week, Lisa Smith looked at a relatively unusual ingredient: puppies. Today’s ingredients, however–snails, honey, and asses’ milk–were staples in domestic medicine.

Although my research is on eighteenth-century domestic medicine, I also have a personal blog on lifestyle, baking, and beauty. Here we’ll explore the historical uses of these ingredients, and you can visit my blog to find out why these same ingredients are celebrities of the beauty community – I do my best to put their efficacy to the test!

One of my favourite pastimes is experimenting with skincare and makeup, and it’s intriguing that ingredients once treasured for their medicinal and beautifying properties have had resurgence in the beauty industry. A historical perspective certainly makes me think about modern cosmetics differently, especially in relation to their medicinal properties and efficacy claims.

Jennifer Sherman Roberts has written on the efficacy of an early modern pimple remedy, and the work of Michelle DiMeo, Rebecca Laroche, and Edith Snook investigate the use of animals in medicinal recipes, and cosmetic practices in early modern England[1].  

Snails:

The garden snail was one of the most used animal ingredients in eighteenth-century remedies. In my doctoral research, where I examined 5,000 recipes from 27 eighteenth-century manuscripts, I found 104 references to snails (4% of all animal ingredients).

R. Bradley, A philosophical account of the works of nature... Credit: Wellcome Library, London. 

The snail was claimed to be ‘one of the cleanest feeders in the world’,[2] and seventeenth-century physician and herbalist Nicholas Culpeper noted that ‘the reason why they cure a consumption is this; Man being made of the slime of the earth, the slimy substance recovers him when he is wasted’.[3]

In today’s cosmetic industry, snail gel is used as a moisturiser and skin brightener (see my blog for details), but the most common use of snails in eighteenth-century recipes was in the form of a distilled water. This was prevalent remedy for respiratory conditions like consumption.

A mid-eighteenth-century recipe book belonging to the Arscott family from Tetcott, Devon has two consecutive snail water recipes. The first, titled ‘for a Consumption’, used a peck of grey snails wiped clean and distilled in both asses’ milk and red cow’s milk alongside dates, raisins, liquorish, and aniseed. A second recipe, attributed to Lady Robert Russell, noted its efficacy by claiming that she had ‘experienced good in Cough, Heatick, Heals a Sharpness in the Blood’. Lady Russell received this recipe from Dr Francis Willis (famous for treating the madness of George III).[4]

See Jennifer Sherman Robert’s post on snail waters and spa treatments.

Honey:

Honey was the most frequently cited animal-derived ingredient in my research. It was used for plasters, poultices, and ointments, and was a sweetener. Honey was used for treating swelling, cancers, ulcers, and eye complaints. ‘A poultis for a Swelling by My Aunt Dorothy Pates’, for example, used honey as a binding agent.[5] Another recipe, said to be ‘approved by the best doctars [sic]’ used a clove of garlic saturated in fine English honey and put in the ear for eight days to cure pain and restore hearing.[6]   

Hair Water from the Duchess of Marlborough using honey. Kent History Centre, U1590/C43/2, f. 75r.

Honey has long been valued for its restorative properties, and today it’s a ubiquitous ingredient in hair conditioners and skincare. It also featured in eighteenth-century hair treatments. The Duchess of Marlborough was claimed to have ‘preserved her hair good to her death’ by using a hair water created from two pounds of honey distilled with rosemary flowers and wire of the vine [grape stems?]. This hair wash was said to thicken and ‘give it a gloss’.[7] On my blog, you can see how a similar hair wash using rosemary and honey turned out!

Asses’ Milk:

Another animal-derived ingredient that has been used since ancient times is asses’ milk. It was used in the eighteenth century to treat respiratory ailments. Lisa Smith has also written about the medical uses of asses’ milk on The Sloane Letters Project.

Returning to the Arscott Family, Mrs Arscott (Thomasine) suffered from breast cancer and her husband John recorded several cancer treatments in their collection. It’s unclear from the records exactly what kind of cancer she had, but it’s evident she was in pain. Mrs Arscott tried different remedies prescribed from physicians, ranging from cardus Benedictus (thistle) to opiates.    

A Mr Ranby advised in December 1748 that she must ‘never omit Asses Milk’ in her cancer treatment (and also not omit opiates). This description is followed by a detailed account of Mrs Arscott’s experience with the treatment, which did not agree with her and she had a ‘terrible return of her complaints’.[8]  

Mrs Arscott’s treatment using artificial asses’ milk. Wellcome MS. 981, insert.

It was also common practice to create an artificial variety, and Sally Osborn has written about the creation of artificial asses’ milk. Once again, the snail proves his worth as it was used to make this mock version (more information see here). Both genuine and artificial versions of asses’ milk treated respiratory problems.

For treating a ‘hectic or inward heat’, a recipe from Dr Ratcliff found in multiple recipe collections called for snails with pearl barley and candied eringo root, boiled and strained.[9] The frequency at which both snail based and genuine asses’ milk were recorded in recipe books, alongside claims of their efficacy, is testament to the credibility of these animal ingredients.

From slime and ooze to elixir of life, animals (and their derived products) held great significance in medicine and cosmetics in the eighteenth century. The snail, honey, and asses’ milk were clearly valued for their medicinal properties, and it’s fascinating that they have renewed purpose in the beauty industry. Today’s miracle anti-aging elixirs, hair tonics, and brightening creams don’t contain revolutionary ingredients. They are in fact, old news – tried and tested since 1700!

(And earlier…)


[1] Michelle DiMeo and Rebecca Laroche, ‘On Elizabeth Isham’s “Oil of Swallows”: Animal Slaughter and Early Modern Women’s Medical Recipes’, in Jennifer Munroe and Rebecca Laroche (eds.), Ecofeminist Approaches to Early Modernity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 87–104; Edith Snook, ‘“The Beautifying Part of Physic”: Women’s Cosmetic Practices in Early Modern England’, Journal of Women’s History, 20, 3 (2008), pp. 10–33.

[2] As stated in M. Mascall’s late 18th–early 19th C. collection: Wellcome Library, London, MS 7875, f. 96.

[3] Nicholas Culpeper, Pharmacopoeia Londinensis: or, the London Dispensatory (London, 1708), pp.108–9.  

[4] Arscott family, ‘Physical Reciepts [sic]’ (c. 1725–76). Wellcome Library, London, MS 981, ff. 8r.-v.

[5] Abigail Smith and others, ‘Collection of medical and cookery receipts’ (c. 1700).  Wellcome Library, London, MS 4631, f. 7r.

[6] Ibid., f. 23 v

[7] Grizel, Lady Stanhope (née Hamilton), ‘Recipe Book (culinary and medicinal)’ (1746), Stanhope of Chevening Manuscripts. Kent History Centre, U1590/C43/2, f. 75r.  

[8] Wellcome Library, London, MS 981, insert.

[8] Ibid. 53v.

Contributing to The Recipes Project – Five Years On

Editorial: This is the seventh of a series of reflection posts from Recipe Project contributors and editors.

By Katherine Allen and Sally Osborn

We’ve both had the privilege of being regular contributors to The Recipes Project for the past five years, and we’ve found it a really rewarding experience. Life as a PhD researcher can be a little lonely and disorientating, and it’s been fascinating to be able to get glimpses into other people’s research, activities and thinking in so many diverse and yet still relevant areas.

Katherine says: My first post was on distillation in eighteenth-century recipe books, with a case study on Rebecca Tallamy’s unique manuscript. I wrote that post to introduce my work to the public on a digital platform —  a task I agonised over, since I’d never shared my thoughts and writing with such a large audience — and I used the opportunity to develop my ideas at an early research stage.

What is distillation?
From Katherine’s post The Art of Distillation Image: Wellcome, WMS 4759, f. 2r.

Since that first post, my work on distillation became a focal chapter in my thesis, a published journal article, and I’ve presented that research at several events, most recently at the 2017 Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry Seminar in Oxford. These past five years I’ve enjoyed sharing different aspects of my work-in-progress, including recipes and spa culture, ‘movember’ in recipe books, medical recipes in newspapers, and emotions in communicating recipes; this was immensely helpful in formulating my arguments.

I completed my doctorate at the University of Oxford in 2015, and I’ve used The Recipes Project to stay connected to fellow historians of recipes as I dip in and out of the academic sphere. The Recipes Project remains my favourite platform on which to share my research relating to eighteenth-century manuscript recipe books, and it has kept that passion for scholarship alive while I’ve struggled to find a career path and permanent employment in an extremely competitive and precarious academic job market.

Sally says: I started a blog when I began my PhD research and found it a useful way of trying out concepts, thinking and sometimes off-the-wall connections, and just as regular exercise for my writing muscles. I therefore welcomed the chance to contribute on the wider platform of The Recipes Project, which has become a valuable network of people with a seemingly endless range of research interests.

Recipe for artificial Westphalia ham
From Sally’s post Not Quite the Real Thing Image © Wellcome Collection

Like Katherine, I shared ideas at a relatively embryonic stage, such as ‘What is a recipe?’ which became part of the exploration in my thesis of recipe categories and formats. My first contribution, ‘Chicken soup for…’, was a light-hearted look at the area of food as medicine, which I developed at much greater length in a conference paper and a chapter section on diet drinks. I’ve been able to indulge my interest in the history of food more generally with posts on ‘counterfeit’ dishes and Victorian vegetarianism. There’s also nothing like agreeing to write a conference report for encouraging you to analyse and compare the presentations you attend. Now that I’m spending my time restoring a house built in 1789, maybe I ought to look up the recipes from my post on eighteenth-century DIY – and maybe even try building that ice house…

While writing up my PhD I regularly visited The Recipes Project for ‘time out’, knowing that I was bound to find something there that would stimulate my thinking or point me to work I hadn’t come across before. It is so often the case that a stray comment in someone else’s writing will lead to that ‘aha’ moment that helps unravel a knot in your own argument. Two years later I still look forward to reading the diverse posts on The Recipes Project, finding in them an endless source of interest as well as research envy!

We’ve both enjoyed reading posts from other scholars and continue to be truly amazed at the depth and breadth of scholarship relating to recipes. We look forward to continuing to share our love of eighteenth-century recipes and remedies, and we’re excited to see what the next five years hold for this community.

Reflections on Reconstructing Eighteenth-Century Recipes

By Katherine Allen

For the ‘What is a Recipe?’ Virtual Conversation on Saturday, 24th June, I reconstructed two eighteenth-century recipes from Mary Wise’s recipe book: a lip salve remedy and a pound cake. You can find out how these experiments unfolded over at my blog, and you can also check out Twitter @KAllen622 for the tweets on making the lip salve, and Instagram @raspberrythriller62 for photos of the pound cake.

The task: choosing a manuscript recipe collection

Actually, this wasn’t difficult. I knew that I wanted to pick both recipes from the same manuscript because this gives me insight into what one individual (or connected group of people creating one collection) desired to record: whether it was out of use, interest, or preserving inherited knowledge. I’ve long been interested in the two manuscripts belonging to the Wise family of Woodcote, which are housed at the Warwickshire Record Office, so I decided to look at these manuscripts for inspiration. For more information on the manuscript I selected, and the family, please refer to this post.

What’s particularly interesting about the lip salve remedy and the pound cake recipe is that they are the third and fourth recipes recorded in Mary’s collection. This means that she could have been inspired to begin a manuscript and had these recipes in mind at the start, and they could have been her own creations or ones passed down to her. Or, she copied recipes from another collection/printed work/letters and these recipes are again among the first she selected.

It’s also worth noting that this manuscript is organised with a table of contents, with a large proportion of the medicinal recipes following the culinary ones written in two different hands. Yet, there are several intermixed medical/culinary recipes (such as these two) recorded at the start of the collection.

Much of the research involving manuscript recipe books is based on speculation and inference: why the compiler began his/her collection, why recipes were selected, if these recipes were deemed effective/valuable, and why the compiler organised the work in a specific way. As neither of these recipes have annotations or statements of efficacy to guide me in determining their value and use, they proved an exciting and unknown challenge for reconstruction. They were also safe to create and I could source the ingredients.

The challenge: selecting a medicinal remedy to re-create

I would have loved to make a plaster or medicinal drink, but I quickly found the ingredients to be prohibitive. For instance, most early modern plaster and salve remedies for treating aches or burns contain lead and turpentine (no thank you!). The main category of remedies found in eighteenth-century recipe collections is for digestive complaints, and many of the recipes I considered contain purgative ingredients such as senna and ‘true’ rhubarb. These ingredients were common since early modern medicine focused on evacuating the body as part of treatment.

I also don’t think my local Boots chemist has Peruvian Bark (cinchona) on hand, and let’s not even get started with the opiates to avoid… I also obviously don’t have access to popular early modern panaceas like Venice treacle (theriac) or mithridate, both of which were cited several times in Mary’s collection for plague and bite of the mad dog (rabies) recipes.

Even when ingredients weren’t toxic, they were difficult to source. Many remedies are herbal-based and I simply don’t have the time or resources to try and track down handfuls of fresh flowers/herbs (unless they’re available at the supermarket). I was additionally restricted by the process of creating recipes. Although my research is on household distillation in eighteenth-century England, I do not own a still and, in any case, wouldn’t feel confident trying to distil a cordial water.

‘How to make Lipsave’

For a transcription of the recipe and my troubles with re-creating it please see my blog post.

Once I settled on this recipe (a few weeks ago) I knew that I had to source beeswax, golden pippins, and orange flower water. Orange flower water could be prepared at home via distillation, and some early modern collections contain recipes, though Mary’s  does not.

As Mary may well have purchased her orange flower water, I too ordered a bottle off Amazon. Simultaneously, I was fortunate enough to find exactly a 1 ounce bar of beeswax! The golden pippins were more difficult to find. They certainly don’t sell pippins in my local shops, and it’s also the wrong season for harvesting apples. So, I opted for golden delicious.

The final line of the recipe is ‘& if you see occasion pair of the Drops’. This instruction presumably meant that you can use it in conjunction with another liquid-based remedy. However, nowhere does it specify what the drops are for, and, moreover, there is no recipe in either of the Wise family books that has ‘drops’ in the title. This leads me to suspect that Mary copied this recipe from another source, but omitted the accompanying ‘drops’ remedy.

‘How to make a pound Cake’  

Again, please see my blog post for further details on the process of creating this cake.

Sourcing ingredients for this culinary recipe was easier. I ordered a bottle of rose water at the same time as the orange blossom water off Amazon. The only ingredient hurdles I encountered were substituting medium dry sherry for sack (an antiquated term for fortified white wine), and deciding how many large eggs I would use, since early modern eggs were likely not as big.

Upon reflection, this was a hugely rewarding and enjoyable experience and I’m thankful that I was able to participate in this virtual conversation on several platforms. The challenges I faced sourcing ingredients in a modern marketplace (and interpreting instructions) likely compare to those that eighteenth-century compilers could have faced when navigating which recipes and remedies to collect and prepare. Sometimes ingredients are simply unattainable, unsuitable for one’s constitution, or undesirable. Instructions are frequently lost in translation, and households needed to improvise and adapt recipes to their available equipment and domestic circumstances.

It is a few days later and I’m still using the little pot of lip salve, and my lips feel very smooth! The cake is disappearing slice by slice.

Movember: Men’s Health in Eighteenth-Century Recipe Collections

By: Katherine Allen

November (or ‘Movember’) is men’s health  awareness month, and it focuses on prostate cancer and depression, with the added bonus of moustaches. Movember didn’t exist in the eighteenth century, but I’m curious about men’s health awareness from a recipe book perspective. What can recipe books tell us about the family’s role in providing care, and recording remedies for men?

movember-moustache
Movember: Men’s Health Awareness Month

The manuscripts I consult contain mostly non-gender specific illnesses (e.g. coughs and stomach complaints), and many include recipes for women and children; this is because these manuscripts were written by women and were family collections. There are, however, occasional references to men’s illness experiences.

Remedies for the prostate gland/ cancer don’t exist in recipe books (at least not in modern terminology). The prostate was not anatomically-defined until the late eighteenth century, and the medical interventions that developed were surgical, with John Hunter’s use of catheters being an example of treatment for an enlarged prostate.

If we look broadly at urinogenital recipes, we find men’s illnesses (on male infertility see Jennifer Evans). Urinogenital remedies were standard in domestic recipe books. These include recipes for bloody urine, stones, and difficulty urinating. In Esther Hanmer’s mid-century recipe book[1], a recipe titled ‘Given my Father. For one yt cannot make water either child or Old body’ said to take bees and stamp them, then add them to white wine and posset ale. Although it is unclear if it was used by the father, his donation of this remedy indicates a man’s awareness of urinogenital issues and potential treatment, and his sharing of medical advice with his family.

esther-hanmer-ms-p-17
For one yt cannot make water. MS. 2767. Image Credit: Wellcome Library

Similarly, Sir Thomas Mannering sent the compiler’s grandfather a remedy for sharpness of urine where a piece of antimony was infused in ale. This sharpness could be any infection, but the term frequently appeared in medical literature as a symptom of gonorrhea. Esther Hanmer’s family recipe collection thus documents men acquiring medical advice from their networks and subsequently sharing it as a component of the family’s health record and for potential future use.

esther-hanmer-ms-p-29
Against Sharpness of Urine. MS. 2767. Image Credit: Wellcome Library

Though the grandfather’s recipe does not specifically mention gonorrhea, venereal diseases were a pervasive complaint for eighteenth-century men. The absence of explicit venereal disease remedies in domestic collections is partly due to the immorality and stigma associated with the disorders. Lisa Smith has noted that recipes for ‘weak backs’ and ‘running of the reins’ (genital discharge) were linked to venereal diseases and genital ‘leakage’, suggesting that treatment for sexually transmitted infections was present in recipe books, but catalogued under more ambiguous names.[2] For instance, a late seventeenth-century collection cites a water-based remedy for a canker ‘in the yard of a man’, indicating that recipes books had remedies for suspected venereal disorders, though they were not labelled as such.[3]

Manuscript recipe books were important for documenting the whole family’s health, and the family played a central role in communicating, preserving, and utilising medical knowledge when caring for male members. Baron James Everard Arundell’s and his wife’s recipe collections are two of the few family manuscripts I have looked at that were compiled by a male family member. Many of the recipes are recorded as being specifically for Arundell, including a recommendation for Dicherion’s white Drops for Palsy, which was given to him by Lady Arundell, and which he purchased from Mr Collins – a bookseller at Salisbury.[4]

arundell-ms
Drops for James Arundell’s Palsy. MS 2667/12/40. Image Credit: Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre

Royal gardener Henry Wise corresponded regularly with Dr. Cheyne (see Spa post) and one of his recurring health conditions was  sickness when travelling. One recipe was to ‘Stop Purging when upon the Road from Bath’ from Dr. Cheyne[5], while the family’s other manuscript has a record of Mr Southill’s directions for him for ‘occasion of motion extraordinary’.[6]

Eighteenth-century elite men were invested in maintaining their health and seeking treatment– this is no surprise given the wealth of sources documenting men consuming medicine and their seeking advice from the medical professions. What is significant is that recipe books served as important records for men’s medical interactions and medical knowledge for treating men as part of the domestic medicine tradition. Some men recorded their experiences directly; in other cases it was female relations who documented their experiences and wanted (or were expected) to be knowledgeable in maintaining their men’s health as part of family care.

[1] Wellcome Library, MS.2767. Esther Hanmer and others, ‘Receipt Book’ (c. 1750–1825), pp. 17, 29.

[2] Lisa Wynne Smith, ‘The Body Embarrassed? Rethinking the Leaky Male Body in Eighteenth-Century England and France’, Gender & History, 23 (2011), pp. 26–46.

[3] British Library, Add MS 38089. Collection of Medical Recipes, p. 108v.

[4] Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, 2667/12/40. Mrs J.E. Arundell, ‘Book of medicinal recipes’ (1786), Arundell of Wardour, p. 111.

[5] Warwickshire Record Office, CR0341/300. Wise family, ‘Volume containing assorted Wise family records and recipes’ (1716–8), Wise family of Woodcote, p. 119.

[6] CR0341/301. Mary Wise, ‘Recipe book of Mary Wise’ (18th C.), Wise family of Woodcote, p. 86.