Category Archives: distillation

‘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].  


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 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.

The “Gentle Heat” of Boerhaave’s Little Furnace

By Ruben Verwaal and Marieke Hendriksen

Ruben Verwaal is curator of the historical collections at Erasmus Medical Centre, Rotterdam, and at the Museum for Communication in The Hague. He obtained his PhD in June 2018 with a thesis on the role of bodily fluids in eighteenth-century chemistry. Marieke Hendriksen is a postdoctoral researcher on the Artechne Project at Utrecht University and a long-time contributor to The Recipes Project. She specializes in the material culture of science and art in the long eighteenth century. Ruben and Marieke share an obsession with an eighteenth-century object that has since disappeared: a small chemical furnace.

With the introduction of chemistry into the university curriculum in the late seventeenth century, new practical needs arose for students  such as being able to perform experiments. Would it be possible to build a chemical furnace that provides a gentle heat, yields no smoke, and is safe for students to use? Herman Boerhaave (1668–1738) believed he found the perfect solution in, what came to be called, Boerhaave’s little furnace.

Portrait of Herman Boerhaave by Cornelis Troost, c. 1730.

Boerhaave was professor of medicine, botany and chemistry at Leiden University in the early 18th century.[1] Instead of starting with the most difficult experiments with metals and minerals, he was convinced that students were better off when they learned the techniques of through simpler processes, such as distilling leaves and flowers, and fermenting bodily fluids. But most chemical laboratories were equipped with elaborate devices too complicated for freshmen students, who in the eighteenth century could be as young as fourteen. Moreover, the brick-build furnaces were designed to create high temperatures, in which small and delicate materials like rosemary leaves would burn instantly.[2] Boerhaave hence needed a device that was low-cost, user-friendly, and would provide a gentle heat.

The plan for the oven, • H. Boerhaave, Elementa Chemiae, Quae Anniversario Labore Docuit in Publicis, Privatisque Scholis, (Leiden 1732).

A small wooden oven was the answer. Boerhaave claimed he had designed this type of furnace when he himself was studying chemistry in the 1690s. He opened the chapter on instruments in his chemistry textbook with the words: “I shall begin with my simplest furnace; which I invented forty years ago, when I practiced chemistry in no large study, where there was only one little chimney, and where I required several furnaces at once.”[3]

Woman at the Virginal and stove under her feet, by Jan Miense Molenaer, 1630-1640. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

This kind of device was probably inspired by ordinary foot stoves. These little stoves, also known as foot warmers, were very popular in the Dutch Republic. Coming in a wide variety of shapes (square, octagonal, cylinder), these stoves often feature in books and paintings. Filled with glowing coals or peat, women placed the little stoves under their robes or blankets to keep warm.[4] Many foot stoves were equipped with a wire bail handle for lifting and easy transportation. Such stoves were used in carriages, sleighs, at home and in church to keep one’s feet warm. This ordinary foot warmer got new applications too, namely as tea and coffee stove,   and we suspect it was the model for the ‘simplest furnace’ in the Leiden chemical laboratory.

Woman carrying a little stove, Harmen ter Borch, 1648–1677. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The gentle heat produced by Boerhaave’s small oven proved very useful in performing all kinds of chemical experiments. Take rosemary, for example, the evergreen aromatic shrub. Distilled atop a “violent fire”, it would have been turned to flame, smoke, and ashes. But when rosemary instead was distilled at “summer-heat” (approx. 85º F), the mild operation would instead reveal the most volatile, fragrant and aromatic part of the plant ordinarily exhaled in summer. The same process could be applied to Angelica, basil, and all other aromatic plants.

Students in the Leiden laboratory, in Herman Boerhaave, Institutiones et experimenta chemiae (‘Paris’, 1724). Ghent University Library.

Boerhaave, in other words, attributed the success of his device to one’s control over gentle heat. Whenever the wooden oven was filled with hot pieces of coal or Dutch turf that was no longer smoking, it established a constant and moderate heat that could be kept up to 24 hours. As such, the instrument was perfect for students to perform all kinds of heating processes and distillations. In fact, he was so excited about this apparatus, that he claimed that “I believe eggs may be hatched by it”.[5]

Was Boerhaave’s little furnace really that user-friendly and effective as he claimed it was? We checked it out by recreating Boerhaave’s stove and performing experiments with it. Check out our next blog to entry to find out whether we succeeded!

Creating an oven from two old stoves… to be continued!


[1] More on Boerhaave, see Marieke Hendriksen, “Boerhaave’s Mineral Chemistry and Its Influence on Eighteenth-Century Pharmacy in the Netherlands and England”, Ambix(2018) and Ruben Verwaal, “The Nature of Blood: Debating Haematology and Blood Chemistry in the Eighteenth-Century Dutch Republic”, Early Science and Medicine(2017).

[2] Boerhaave, Elementa Chemiae (Leiden:  Isaac Severinus, 1732), vol 2, experiment 1.

[3] Ibid., vol 1.

[4] Le Francq van Berkhey,Natuurlyke historie van Holland (Amsterdam: Yntema and Tieboel, 1769–1778), vol. 3, 706-707, 1200.

[5] Boerhaave, Elementa Chemiae, vol 1.

Tales From the Archives: A Recipe for Disaster: How Not to Distill Turpentine

In September 2018, The Recipes Project will be six years old. There’s been a lot of blogging on this platform, and we are so grateful to all our wonderful contributors. But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, once a month, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month, I have chosen a piece written by Tillamann Taape. In this post, first published in July 2013, Tillmann writes vividly about alchemical disasters. Heat, unsurprisingly, comes into play. Enjoy!


By Tillmann Taape

When sifting through early modern alchemical recipes, I am often struck by their inherent dangers which would make modern-day health and safety officers pull their hair out. Renaissance practitioners were remarkably unfazed by temperatures high enough to melt glass and metal, and they frequently recommended heating volatile and flammable liquid in sealed glass vessels which, by their own admission, had a tendency to crack if not handled with the utmost care. Surely these exploits must have gone wrong a lot of the time, resulting in burnt fingers or a faceful of boiling alcohol?

If we look at the stereotype of the alchemist in contemporary satirical literature, it seems that accidents came with the job. In his Ship of Fools (1494), German humanist and satirist Sebastian Brant echoes themes from medieval poetry in his depiction of the alchemist: a greedy and reckless fool whose dangerous and fruitless exploits leave him scarred, financially ruined and even blind. [1] As a source of historical information, satirical genres should of course be taken with a generous pinch of salt. It is significant to note, though, that early modern people saw alchemy as a potentially dangerous thing to do, even in times long before anything like today’s health and safety standards.

More direct evidence of alchemical disasters is, unfortunately, fairly rare. I would of course be delighted to be persuaded otherwise by readers of this blog, but to me it seems that while adepts of alchemy frequently wrote down instructions which sound like they might well blow up, they were frustratingly silent on whether this actually happened. I was quite thrilled, therefore, when I finally stumbled upon a first-hand account of an alchemical disaster: exploding stills, knocked-out practitioners and all. In his 700-page tome entitled Liber de arte distillandi de compositis or Large book of distillation, first published in 1512, my favourite surgeon-apothecary Hieronymus Brunschwig (introduced here and here) includes the following cautionary tale.

Brunschwig was distilling turpentine to separate the watery fraction from the valuable oil, and when nearly all of the water had come out, he was interrupted.

 I was called away to a patient, so the oil went into the water, and when I came back, a layer of oil was sitting on top of the water. I didn’t have the sense to simply decant off the oil, so I poured the lot into a new flask and thought I’d just extract the water by distillation. But I was called away again, and in the meantime the water evaporated from the oil, and some of it condensed on the side of the flask and dripped back into the oil, which rose inside the flask with a great tumult, and fumes erupted from the flask, blowing off the alembic. [2]

 A lot to handle: picture of a still from Brunschwig’s Large book of distillation. © Wellcome Images

A lot to handle: picture of a still from Brunschwig’s Large book of distillation.
© Wellcome Images

Things got worse when Brunschwig came back late at night and went to investigate the accident, telling his servant to bring along a light:

When the light arrived, the fumes touched it, and fire burst forth all around, and in the blink of an eye went out again, nevertheless burning off mine and my servant’s hair, clothes and eyebrows. We fell to the ground and did not know where we were, but before long we got up again and fetched a closed lantern so the same thing would not happen again, and threw ashes in the furnace to smother the fire. [2]

And this, dear readers of the Large book of distillation, is how you do NOT distill turpentine! Once the initial excitement about this truly adventurous tale had worn off, I realised that, to the historian, there was more to this anecdote than merely the satisfying confirmation that some procedures which look so precarious on paper did indeed go up in fire and smoke. In his description of this extraordinary incident, Brunschwig also reveals a number of interesting details about his everyday life and work. We get a glimpse of what it meant for an early modern practitioner to have multiple vocations. Juggling his alchemical activities with his duties as an apothecary and surgeon, it seems that Brunschwig could be called away to the aid of a patient at a moment’s notice, even at night. We also learn that he had at least one servant, and we can surmise that he did his distillations in an enclosed workshop, since a buildup of explosive fumes would be unlikely in the open air. Perhaps most importantly of all, this anecdote provides strong evidence that Brunschwig was actively performing many of the procedures he describes in his works, rather than just copying and compiling them for publication.

Anecdotes like these, then, are more than just an entertaining read and a well-earned reward for ploughing through hundreds of pages of Brunschwig’s Alsatian dialect with its erratic spelling. Descriptions of extraordinary events also grant us a glimpse into the reality of practicing alchemy, and into practitioners’ everyday life.

[1] On the stereotypes and changing ‘personae’ of early modern alchemists, see Tara Nummedal,  Alchemy and Authority in the Holy Roman Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007, Ch. 2.

[2] Brunschwig, Hieronymus. Liber de arte distillandi de compositis […]. Strasbourg: Grüninger, 1512.


Recipes for honey-drinks in the first published English beekeeping manual

By Matthew Phillpott

The Roman emperor Augustus is said to have asked the Roman orator, poet, and politician, Publius Vedius Pollio, how to live a long life. Pollio answered that ‘applying the Muse water within, and anointing oil without the body’ would help to keep him free of sickness. Whether Augustus took up Pollio’s advice is not mentioned. Indeed, Thomas Hill was little interested in exploring the story further when he took it from Pliny the Elder’s The Natural History in the 1560s as part of his small treatise on beekeeping, A Pleasant Instruction of the Perfect ordering of Bees (London, 1568).

Drawing of Thomas Hill from his The Art of Gardening (1568).

The story’s purpose, as an opening passage of his twenty-ninth chapter, was meant only to introduce Muses water (otherwise called Melicrate by the Greeks or more commonly, Hydromel), and to suggest that it is a drink containing various health benefits. Hill went on to explain that the Muses water can ‘ease the passage of wind or breath, soften the belly’ and cure poisoning by Henbane. He then gave a recipe;

Let eight times so much water be mixed unto your honey prepared which boil or seethe so long, until no more foam arises to be skimmed off, then taking it from the fire, preserve to your use.

Hill provides no more detail than that, but he does go on in the next chapter to give a recipe for Oenomel – ‘a sweet wine made with honey’ – that he says is ‘not only for the preservation of health but also to expel the torment of sickness’. Hill advises his readers that the best Oenomel is made of ‘old and tart wine’ with ‘the best purified honey’. His recipe;

Take one gallon and a quart of wine and mix it with half a gallon and a pint of the best honey.

There are more recipes in Hill’s treatise on beekeeping. There are several that describes a distillation of the honey, and another that describes the making of a Honey Quintessence.

Hill’s manual was the first handbook published in English about beekeeping, and it was attached to the very first handbook on gardening (The Profitable Art of Gardening), also produced by Hill. The purpose was a simple one: to bring the knowledge of ancient authorities such as Aristotle, Pliny the Elder, and Virgil, to a modern audience as a means of providing ‘their knowledge and experience’ for the profit of ‘poor husbandmen’ and the better wealth of England more generally.

It seems likely that the recipes for Hydromel and Oenomel were common knowledge and all Hill did here was to cite an authority for something that was already known (he cited Paul Aegina – a 7th-century Greek physician – and Pedanius Dioscorides – a 1st-century Greek physician and botanist). The recipes for distillation and Quintessence were more advanced and might well have been one of the earliest published recipes for these drinks in the English language (although again, the general principles were likely well known).*

By including recipes in his book, Hill emphasises the benefits of beekeeping for his readers but also makes the manual useful beyond those strictly interested in managing a swarm of bees. Landowners or their land managers, who purchased the book to improve the gardens, might equally pass the knowledge of honey recipes to others in gentry households. It would be fascinating to discover if any manuscript recipe books from this period contained references to Hill’s honeyed-drinks or whether any copy of Hill’s books contains annotations or bookmarks related to the recipes.

At the very least, by initialising the genre of beekeeping manuals in England, Hill provided precedence in terms of the structure of content, if not in detail. Many of the beekeeping manuals published in the seventeenth-century also contained recipes for honeyed-drinks and many followed a similar structure to the one that Hill provided, even where they disagreed with many of his claims. How many people followed the recipes, however, is another question entirely.

* Quintessence was described by Andreas Vesalius in 1551 in a book called A compendious declaration of the excellent virtues of a certain lately invented oil, called for the worthiness thereof oil imperial.  He described the Quintessence as ‘nothing else but aqua vitae’ (i.e. distilled wine), and does not mention honey. In 1559, Konrad Gesner’s The Treasure of Euonymus included a much more detailed description of types of Quintessence as drawn out of wine made from a variety of wood, fruits, flowers, oats, leaves, seeds, stones, metals, flesh, and spices. There is a brief mention of honey quintessence, but not a specific recipe for it. I have yet to find any other English printed work before 1568 that describes Honey Quintessence in any kind of detail.

Matthew Phillpott lives in the United Kingdom and undertook studies in early modern history at Hull and Sheffield. He now works at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, and in addition investigates early modern printed materials for ideas about knowledge, history, culture, health, and food. He has recently started a new website to talk more about his research into bee culture in the early modern period called Early Modern Bees.