Curing Coughs and the Common Cold in Eighteenth-Century England

By Katherine Allen

It happens at every university, every year, and is often known as ‘fresher’s flu’. This cocktail of viruses arrives at the start of term, along with students and their unprepared immune systems. After countless hours spent in the germ-infested libraries, we are now experiencing a full blown assault of sniffles and coughs, all the while chanting ‘I don’t have time to get sick!’.

During a recent pharmacy visit to stock up on Lemsip, my mind wandered to recipe books and eighteenth-century strategies for battling the common cold. How did the eighteenth-century upper sorts deal with scratchy throats, and the dreaded ‘man cold’?

In the eighteenth century catching cold was linked to climate. In his popular work Domestic Medicine (1772 edition) William Buchan explained that catching cold was a result of ‘obstructed perspiration’ and that the secret to not getting sick was avoiding extremes in temperature.[1] Buchan observed that, ‘the inhabitants of every climate are liable to catch cold, nor can even the greatest circumspection defend them against its attacks’.[2] For treatment Buchan advised rest, fluids, light foods, and an infusion of balm and citrus. He also cautioned that ‘Many attempt to cure a cold, by getting drunk. But this, to say no worse of it, is a very hazardous and fool-hardy experiment.’[3]

William Buchan (1729-1805) [Wikipedia]
William Buchan (1729-1805) [Wikipedia- Credit: US National Library of Medicine]
Coughs were ubiquitous in the eighteenth century, but it would be misleading to say that this symptom (as we know it) was only associated with non-life threatening conditions. Sometimes recipes in domestic collections grouped coughs with colds, while others treated coughs associated with more serious ailments (see The Sloane Letters Blog).[4]

John Wesley divided coughs into several categories in Primitive Physick (1792 edition) including: asthmatic, consumptive, and tickling. For ‘Violent Coughing from a sharp and thin Rheum’ Wesley suggested a bolus of conserve of rose with powdered frankincense.[5] Or, one could try the milk of sow thistle which ‘has the anodyne and antispasmodic properties of opium, without its narcotic effects.’[6]

Newspapers were an excellent source for cough and cold remedies; the Weekly Amusement (February 4, 1764), for instance, had a remedy ‘A Plaister for a Sore Throat’. Made from melted mutton suet, rosin, and beeswax, this paste was spread on a cloth and pinned on from ear to ear.[7] Newspaper clippings were also pasted into manuscripts. Dr James Malone’s ‘Recipe for a Cold’, shown below, is a balsam-style remedy that boasted to be ‘almost an infallible remedy’ and was inserted into Mrs Myddleton’s book.[8]

'Recipe for a Cold' Wellcome, WMS 3656, f. 21r.
‘Recipe for a Cold’ Wellcome, WMS 3656, f. 21r. [Credit: Wellcome Library, London]
Letters indicate the regularity of which remedies were exchanged, and document how individual’s expressed their cold symptoms.  Mrs Gell thanked her sisters for ‘ye receipt which I believe very good in [this] time of yeare’ adding ‘thanke God & ye Drs skill & care & friends nursing am very well againe my cough is gon[e] & I am about house’.[9] In another case, Judith Madan wrote to her daughter giving details of an illness and declared ‘My Cough is less violent and comes seldemer. As for the Phlegm which has been my torme[n]t, it must have time to subside.’[10]

A variety of cough and cold remedies were featured in recipe books. Alongside restorative broths (like modern chicken soup), artificial asses’ milk, and milk-based diets in general, were associated with treating coughs (discussed by Sally Osborn). Topical therapies were also used, such as Emily Jane Sneyd eighteenth-century version of VapoRub; a mixture of sweet almond oil and syrup of violets along with a plaster of candle wax, saffron, and nutmeg applied to the stomach.[11] 

Syrups and electuaries were popular remedies. One seventeenth-century recipe, ‘a most excellent electuary given to Lady Lisle by Dr Lower’, was a mixture including conserve of red roses, balsam of sulphur, oil of vitriol, and syrup of coltsfoot.[12] Opiates were common in cough remedies, for sedation. Mrs Cotton suggested a mixture of liquorice, vinegar, salad oil, treacle, and tincture of opium when ‘the cough is troublesome’.[13]

Finally, lozenges were used to alleviate sore throats. Elizabeth Jenner’s recipe book (1706) includes her own method of making lozenges ‘very good for Coughs Comeing by takeing Cold’. Jenner’s method involved creating a stiff paste of sugar, herbal oils and powders, and rose water, rolling out the paste, punching out rounds with a thimble, and then drying them in the oven.[14]

'To make Lozenges for a Cough my way' Wellcome, WMS 3029, f. 30.
‘To make Lozenges for a Cough my way’ Wellcome, WMS 3029, f. 30. [Credit: Wellcome Library, London]
These treatment examples reflect the variety of sources available for medical advice. As the case of the common cold demonstrates, individuals were opportunistic by collecting and trialling new remedies, while also relying on standby cures. Kith and kin were proactive in exchanging remedies and were not shy about discussing their conditions, including ‘tormenting phlegm’.

But, despite an arsenal of remedies, advice for the common cold in eighteenth-century England appears strikingly similar to our current approach: stay home, rest, forego partying for a few days, and perhaps try some cough syrup. Feel free to post a comment on your own ‘go to’ remedies for coughs and colds, be it contemporary or historical!

 


[1] William Buchan, Domestic Medicine: or, a treatise on the prevention and cure of diseases by regimen and simple medicines [second edition] (London: 1772), 192-3.

[2] Buchan., 193.

[3] Ibid., 194.

[4] Serious coughs could be symptomatic of, for example, croup, whooping cough, consumption, or internal bleeding.

[5] John Wesley, Primitive Physick: or, an easy and natural method of curing most diseases [twenty-fourth edition] (London: 1792), 62.

[6] Wesley., 63.

[7] Weekly Amusement (February 4, 1764), Burney Collection

[8] Wellcome, WMS 3656, f. 21r.

[9] Derbyshire CRO D258/38/11/48, loose sheet.

[10] Bodleian Library Special Collections, MS Eng Misc d. 637-8, f. 39.

[11] Wellcome, WMS, 3029, f. 38.

[12] Wellcome, WMS 3295, f. 28.

[13] Bodleian Library Special Collections, MS Eng Misc es 49. f. 6r.

[14] Wellcome, WMS 3029, f. 30.

The ‘Emotional’ Nature of Recipes in Correspondence

By Katherine Allen

In this post I would like to link several themes that have been explored on this blog recently: recipe exchanges, letters, and the role of emotions. Historians are frequently asked how compilers got their recipes (something that Hillary Nunn and Rebecca Laroche raised in their post on the Countess of Exeter). In other words, we are continually searching for evidence from recipe books that suggests a wider network of information exchange.

In the case of eighteenth-century recipe books, attributions and marginalia can indicate an exchange, though these are often ambiguous. Occasionally longer anecdotes are included, revealing the circumstances of a specific recipe’s inclusion. Rarer still, letters associated with a recipe book can provide significant insight into the compiler’s health history, or domestic duties, as discussed by Elaine Leong in her recent post on Johanna St. John. Some sets of letters that are not associated with a recipe book can still tell us much about the creation and use of recipe books, as well as domestic medical care’s social milieu.

One collection of mid-eighteenth century letters that I am using in my doctoral research belonged to the Cox family, landed gentry based in Herefordshire. The majority of the letters are addressed to the elderly family benefactress, Mrs. Elizabeth Witherstone. Montserrat Cabré recently proposed that exchanging and preserving recipes can be emotionally charged. In the typical recipe collection, emotions and hidden lives are not always transparent, but they do emerge in letters that discuss recipe exchange.

Letters were crucial for keeping up-to-date on the extended family’s wellbeing and life events, and the Cox family kept each other informed about health matters in very intimate detail. Concerned for Mrs. Witherstone’s poor health, cousin Alicia Cox wrote ‘let me beg you to take care of your health, kitchen physick as Broaths, and Jellys, are the best medicines at your time of life’.[1] Mrs. Witherstone also occasionally exchanged letters containing recipes. An acquaintance, S. Phillips, thanked Mrs. Witherstone for sending a receipt of ‘Turner’s Cerate’ for her mother’s leg. In exchange, she included a recipe for the Chin Cough, which she had used for her children and was ‘of great service to them’. This remedy was an ointment of spirit of hartshorne and powdered amber, which was to be rubbed on the children’s palms, soles of their feet, and pits of their stomachs for several days, morning and night.[2]

Herefordshire County Record Office, J 38/8210 S. Phillips to Mrs Witherstone January 6, 1756
Herefordshire County Record Office, J 38/8210 S. Phillips to Mrs Witherstone January 6, 1756

In a follow-up letter, Mrs. Phillips again thanked Mrs. Witherstone for the Cerate recipe, proclaiming that her mother thought ‘it has been of great use to her for thank god she has now little or no pain. She did not put it on just on the place of the wound’.[3]

Mrs. Witherstone’s family also sent her remedies to preserve her health in old age. Upon receiving an account of Mrs. Witherstone’s illness, Alicia Bund [Cox] concluded that the woman’s blood was poor and her frame ‘languid’; restorative medicines would be beneficial. She wrote: ‘I beg you would make trial of, its recommendation is the nurrishment it affords at the same time it never loads the stomach’. Alicia’s recipe for a restorative broth was as follows:

You must get a tin can to hold about a pint & quarter with a cover to it, for it is to be  done by a slow infusion the least boiling spoils it but I will set it down as particularly as I can. Take half a pound of lean Beef cut into small pieces and pick of[f] every bit of skin and fat and put a pint of boiling water to it and let it gently stew it is reduced to a strong broath. Put in 3 or 4 pepper corns but no salt till you drink it and eat with it a bit of  toasted bread and would advice (if it agrees) to make it your Breakfast and supper.[4]

Another relative, Elizabeth Saunders, was also concerned for Mrs. Witherstone’s health and recommended an eye drop remedy that she described as ‘trifling but I have known it of use’. Confident of the remedy’s efficacy she concluded ‘I hope your next Letter will bring better News of your Eyes as you have no pain in them I flatter myself the complaint may get of the sooner.’[5]

Herefordshire County Record Office, J38/8210 Elizabeth Saunders to Mrs. Witherstone March 27 [no year]
Herefordshire County Record Office, J38/8210 Elizabeth Saunders to Mrs. Witherstone March 27 [no year]
Exchanging remedies was evidently an important part of the Cox family’s lives and these letters exemplify how the responsibility of family health care extended beyond each household to include the advice and remedies of concerned relatives and friends.

Letters are valuable resources for revealing the exchange process of a recipe’s history and the close relationship that recipe books had with the letter-writing tradition. Within these letters, expressions of authority, sympathy, hope, and desperation bring out the emotionally charged nature of recipes. Letters can provide recipe historians with a more complete picture of approaches to health care among England’s upper sorts, and they are important supporting documents for understanding the place of recipe books in a wider information exchange.


[1] Herefordshire County Record Office, J 38/8210 ‘Alicia Cox to Mrs Witherstone July 5 [no year]’.

[2] Ibid., ‘S. Phillips to Mrs Witherstone January 6, 1756’.

[3] Ibid., ‘S. Phillips to Mrs Witherstone May 25, 1756’.

[4] Ibid., ‘Alicia Cox to Mrs Witherstone Jan 11, [no year]’.

[5] Ibid., ‘Eliz Saunders to Mrs Witherstone March 27 [no year]’.

Tobacco Smoke Enemas in Eighteenth-Century Domestic Medicine

By Katherine Allen

Over the holiday I was working on a transcription of an eighteenth-century recipe book and came across an initially humorous recipe for treating ‘the winde & Collick’ (Wellcome, WMS 3500) which goes as follows:

And so is tobacco given in A pipe [when] it is well Lighted the small end to be oyled and put up into ye fundament and some body put the great end into their Mouth and blow the smoake up into the body this never fails to give ease to the winde collick you may put A small Glister pipe into the body and put the small end of the pipe Tobacco in the End of ye Glister pipe this way will Convey the Smoak into ye body very well. (fol. 87r.)

This surprising description of getting a companion’s assistance in administering the remedy has inspired me to write this post on the history of the familiar phrase ‘to blow smoke up one’s arse [ass]’ and the possible use of tobacco glisters in eighteenth-century domestic medicine.

Tobacco Plant. Image Credit: http://www.spamula.net/blog/i41/non3.jpg

Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) is a type of herb in the night shade family Solanaceae. It was smoked by indigenous peoples in the Americas as far back as 1000BC, but gained popularity in Europe and in global markets through trade in the sixteenth century. By the eighteenth century, tobacco was a popular luxury good in England and was increasingly consumed more for pleasure than medicinal treatment.

But how was tobacco used as medicine in the early modern era? Discussing the humoral and astrological qualities of tobacco, Nicholas Culpeper stated in an eighteenth-century version of his herbal that it was a hot and dry herb under the dominion of Mars. Tobacco was useful as an infusion for vomits, rheumatic pain, and piles. As a distilled oil, it was used for aching teeth however, ‘the distilled oil is of a poisonous nature; a drop of it taken inwardly will destroy a cat’. Culpeper also praised tobacco as an expectorant, a digestive aid, and a pesticide for vermin and for preventing plague.[1]

Those who are familiar with recipe collections will have surely come across at least one recipe using tobacco, and the most common recipe seems to have been a tobacco ointment. The Tyrrell Family collection has one such recipe which called for bruised tobacco leaved infused in red wine and then boiled in hog grease along with tobacco juice and beeswax.[2] Tobacco has astringent qualities and acts as a coagulant, and would have been an effective ingredient in salves for treating wounds. Another recipe stated that the tobacco salve ‘is an excellent Mundifier [cleanser] and healer of old sores, and Ulcers, if the sores be first washed with a little good brandy, which ought to be done, till the sores look fresh, which it will do in 3 or 4 dayes if this course be taken.’[3]

Wellcome, WMS 7822, fol. 11r. Image Credit: Wellcome Library

But, when and how did tobacco smoke enemas come into use and how did this treatment come to be in a household book of remedies? The phrase ‘to blow smoke up one’s arse’ means to get a rise or reaction out of someone, sometimes by giving them insincere compliments for attention. This phrase originates from the practice of using smoke enemas to resuscitate near-drowned victims via stimulation and it was first practiced by indigenous groups in North America.[4]

During the eighteenth century, tobacco smoke enemas were used by humane societies across Europe, including the Royal Humane Society in London, to resuscitate victims.[5] Culpeper included the tobacco enema under treatment advice for the inflammation of the intestines induced by colic or hernia and suggested that it ‘is of singular efficacy in obstinate stoppages of the bowels, for destroying those small worms called ascarids [roundworms], and for the recovery of persons apparently drowned.’[6] Physician Richard Mead was a proponent of the tobacco glister, using it to treat iatrogenic drowning caused by immersion therapy for hydrophobia and mania, and later Thomas Sydenham wrote a treatise on its use in bowel obstructions.[7] The use of this treatment declined in the early nineteenth century when it was affirmed that the nicotine found in tobacco can stop blood circulation if there is too much in the body, as in the case of an enema.[8] By the mid-nineteenth century the enemas were not used by the medical faculty.

Tobacco Pipe Enema circa 1773. Image Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tobacco_smoke_enema.png

There is no author associated with the tobacco glister recipe found in MS 3500, but it is likely that this information was communicated to the compiler by a physician. This particular collection is dated 1688-1727 and was owned by a Mrs. Meade (and others), but it does not appear that she was related to Dr. Richard Mead. Several of the recipes are however directly attributed to Dr. Richard Lower for treating the young Nathaniel Meade, one of which is a purge dated the 1st of December, 1688.  There is also one recipe attributed to Dr. Needham on the page before the tobacco glister recipe.

Considering that tobacco enemas were only in vogue from the mid-eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century, it is unusual to find this medical advice in a domestic collection, let alone one dated from the early eighteenth century. As it is improbable that an eighteenth-century household would have had its own tobacco pipe for administering a glister for bowel complaints, I suspect that this recipe is an example of a physician’s remedies being copied into a domestic collection. More importantly, this is an example of how recipe books were continually evolving and being updated alongside innovations in the medical faculty. What started as a chuckle over an amusing recipe has led me to explore the history of this peculiar remedy from its use by the medical faculty to its indigenous origins; giving a whole new meaning for me to the phrase ‘blow smoke up one’s ass’.

 


[1] Nicholas Culpeper, Culpeper’s Family Physician; or Medical Herbal Enlarged. Vol. 2 (London, 1782). p. 134.

[2] Wellcome, WMS 7822. Anon [Tyrrell], ‘Collection of Medical and Cookery Receipts, 17thC-18thC’, fol. 11r.

[3] Wellcome, WMS 1796. Anon, ‘Collection of Cookery and Medical Receipts, c. 1685-c.1725’, fol. 64r.

[4] Raymond Hurt et al., The History of Cardiothoracic Surgery from Early Times (London: Parthenon, 1996). p. 120.

[5] Lawrence Ghislaine, ‘Tools of the Trade, Tobacco Smoke Enemas’ The Lancet vol. 359 issue. 9315 (April 2002): 1442.

[6] Culpeper, p. 281.

[7] Thomas Sydenham, ‘Schedula Monitoria, or an Essay on the Rise of a New Fever’ in Benjamin Rush, The works of Thomas Sydenham, M.D., on acute and chronic diseases: with their histories and modes of cure (Philadelphia: B & T Kite, 1809). p. 383.

[8] Ghislaine, 1442.

‘The Art of Distillation’: Alchemy in Eighteenth-Century Recipe Books

By Katherine Allen

Two aspects of eighteenth-century recipe books that interest me are the use of distillation in domestic medicine and the relationship between print and manuscript sources of medical and scientific knowledge. Rebecca Tallamy’s recipe book beautifully illustrates the union of both these aspects as she recorded her recipes in a 1691 edition of John French’s ‘The Art of Distillation’. This alchemical guide was one of many published in late-seventeenth and eighteenth-century England, and it reflects the popularity of Paracelsianism and the growth of distillation in industry. We can therefore use this manuscript to explore briefly the ways in which the household acted as a space where domestic knowledge interacted with social and cultural developments in distillation.

The Art of Distillation
Wellcome, WMS 4759, f. 1r.

Like many recipe books, this manuscript was a family collection. The ownership tag ‘Rebecca Tallamy her book of Receipts’ appears several times, however Patience and William Tallamy were also named as owners. Evidently, the Paracelsian alchemical guide was owned by a member of the Tallamy family and presumably handed down until Rebecca gained ownership, recording her recipes between the years 1735-38. A few recipes were added by a later hand in the early nineteenth century, thus emphasising the multi-generational use of this distillation text/recipe collection.

Rebecca Tallamy's Title
Wellcome, WMS 4759, f. 40v.

But, what is distillation? Distillation is a process used to separate mixtures and purify liquids that was used by alchemists and natural philosophers to experiment in hopes of making gold, the Elixir of Life, and a range of medical cures. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries some elite households had stills for making medical waters, which were used to combat indigestion and low spirits.

What is distillation?
Wellcome, WMS 4759, f. 2r.

The manuscript is approximately 500 pages, and the majority of the pages contain printed text with handwritten additions scribbled in the margins, between figures, and overtop of text. The remaining recipes were recorded on the blank pages added at the end of the book. Rebecca’s additions included culinary recipes, housekeeping notes, and a standard collection of medicinal recipes like ‘For a Feaverish Disorder in Children or others’, which involved a poultice of tobacco and currants wrapped on the wrists (f. 28v.). This simple recipe is juxtaposed beside a detailed figure of a distillation furnace and signifies that, through the act of recording recipes, Rebecca Tallamy engaged with technical instructions on distillation. Moreover, some of her recipes were traditional cordial waters prepared via distillation. I should note it is likely that Rebecca copied at least some of her material from other sources simply because there are many duplicate recipes. There are also a number of copied botanical descriptions at the end of the manuscript resembling those found in Nicholas Culpeper’s ‘The English Physician’. Far from being purely a collection of recipes, Rebecca Tallamy’s book encompasses several genres and text types, demonstrating the scope of natural knowledge used in the home.

Distillation Furnace
Wellcome, WMS 4759, f. 28v.

The combination of manuscript and print within one material source highlights the active transmission of knowledge between textul media as well as the value placed on technical guides as sources of household information. Rebecca’s choice to record her recipes on the pages of an alchemical text shows that women were exposed to and could own ‘scientific’ and technical guides, but also indicates her interest in distillation and, more broadly, the continued presence of distillation in the household. Even by the eighteenth century, alchemy had a place in domestic knowledge.