Revisiting Chelsea Clark’s The Wonders of Unicorn Horns: Preventions and Cures for Poisoning

Editor’s note: Today, we revisit a wonderful post from Chelsea Clark in 2012 on the intersection of magic and medicine from Early Modern England. Drawing on the seventeenth century  manuscript ascribed to the herbalist Johanna St. John, Clark examines the symbolic power remedies to unwind magical forces.  In this case, the remedy for the malicious magic of poison rests on unicorn, bezoar stones, and the bones of stag hearts.  Magical ailments, after all, would necessitate magical cures.  R.A. Kashanipour


By Chelsea Clark

Johanna St John’s Book, Credit: Wellcome Library, London

In Johanna St. John’s recipe book, the mysterious “Banister’s Powder by Dr Bates” lay nestled between the equally intriguing “Mrs Archers way of makeing My Lady Kents Powder” and the beginning of the letter “R” section of St. John’s efficiently organized recipe book. There is no indication what type of recipe this “Banister’s Powder” was, besides a powder, or what it’s intended use was. Following several pages of recipes for “pox” and “pills” this “Powder” is the tail end of St. John’s letter “P” section, however, even knowing this context offers little information. An analysis of the “Banister’s Powder” ingredients suggests a link between St. John’s early modern medicinal recipes and the presence of magical beliefs associated with medicine in the early modern period.

The first three ingredients required to make the “Banister’s Powder” are: powdered Unicorn horn, east bezoars, and the “bones” of a stag’s heart. Each of these ingredients had longstanding associations with the belief they were capable of preventing or countering the effects of poisoning. To a modern eye, these appear strange items to reside alongside many complicated recipes which rely on an expansive knowledge of medicinal, rather than magical, properties. These ingredients indicate that magical beliefs remained acceptable practices among home practitioners in the early modern period. This is possibly because the science to disprove them was not advanced and medical practitioners were only beginning to be skeptical and move away from such unreliable remedies.

The prevention and cure of poisoning was a genuine concern before and throughout the early modern period. It was quite common to be bitten or stung, to consume poisonous berries, roots, or herbs, or to believe a spell had been cast by a witch (Jackson, 96). It was also common for physicians to diagnose poison as the cause when they could not determine the source of an ailment (Auble, 17). This led to the necessity for remedies to detect, prevent and cure poisoning.

Rhinoceros Horn Vessel, Credit: Wellcome Library, London

 

Pharmacy sign, Credit: Wellcome Library, London

Unicorn horns were actually believed to come from the mythical creature and possess its symbolic purity and strength, though they were most often a narwhal tooth or powdered rhinoceros horn. The horns were commonly powdered and used in poison antidotes or as vessels to drink from before or after ingesting poison (Jackson, 97). Unicorn horns were also believed to have properties which allowed them to detect poison (Knight, 245). In addition to being thought to detect, prevent or cure the effects of poison, the horns were also thought to strengthen your heart, relieve headaches, resist the plague and pestilence, expel measles and small pox, and cure “falling sickness” in children (Brockbank, 3) all of which were reoccurring ailments in the early modern period.

 

Bezoar stones were solid masses from the intestines of goats, sheep or deer that were primarily believed to detect poisons but also, in some cases thought to provide a cure if small amounts of the stone were consumed. “Oriental” or “East” Bezoars, as St. John called for, were the most valuable type which came from a Persian wild goat (Jackson, 97). It was occasionally consumed, but more commonly mounted on a chain and dipped in to drinks to nullify the effects of poison if there was any (Jackson, 97). Queen Elizabeth I reportedly kept one “sett in golde hanging at a little Bracelett … The most parte of this stone being spent” indicating the Queen mounted and consumed her stone (Auble, 18).

Mounted Bezoar Stone, Credit: Wolfgang Sauber

The belief in the magical powers of the “bones” from a stag’s heart originates from a folk tale. The tale is that stags ate poisonous snakes by sniffing them out of holes and then after which they rushed to drink water. The “bones” in their heart were believed to be what protected the stags from being poisoned. The “bones” were actually caused by the degeneration of arteries into flat, oblong bone like objects. Powdering and consuming this “bone” was seen as a preventative measure to protect against the effects of poisoning (Jackson, 97).

Unicorn horn, bezoars and “bones” from a stag’s heart, were the key ingredients to the “Banisters Powder” in St. John’s recipe book. Because of the longstanding beliefs about these ingredients and their associations with poisoning detection, prevention and cures, this recipe was perhaps intended to cure or prevent poisoning. One can imagine the remedy would have been thought to be fool-proof against poison because it combined the powers of each of these ingredients. Although there was a movement away from magical remedies and cure-alls among physicians in the Early Modern period, belief in the curing power of magical objects was still present in the lives of home practitioners such as Johanna St. John. What we would consider scientifically impossible, they were only beginning to discover.

A strong belief in unexplainable phenomenon was common practice and popular beliefs are difficult to dispel, especially when they hold significant symbolic value. Just the other day the North Korean state media associated the discovery of a Unicorn Lair with their new young leader. It is hoped this association would strengthen the nation’s confidence in their young leader because of the symbolic meaning of the Unicorn and its ties to the state’s history. This example illustrates that a belief in the symbolic power of an object, like a Unicorn or its horn, bezoars, or “bones” from a stag’s heart can transcend both time and logic, persisting even when its truth is questionable.

Works Cited:

Auble, Cassandra. “The Cultural Significance of Precious Stones in Early Modern England.” Dissertations, Thesis, & Student Research, Department of History, University of Nebraska Paper 39 (2011).

Brockbank, William. “Sovereign Remedies: A Critical Depreciation of the 17th-Century London Pharmacopoeia.” Medical History 8.01 (1964): 1-14.

Jackson, William A. “Antidotes” Trends in Pharmacological Sciences 23.2 (2002): 96-98.

Knight, Katherine. “A Precious Medicine: Tradition and Magic in Some Seventeenth-Century Household Remedies” Folklore 113.2 (2002): 237-247.

Recipes for the Inner Chamber: Vernacular Manufacturing in Early 20th Century China

By Eugenia Lean

In the 1910s, a curious print culture phenomenon appeared in China’s urban areas.  Journals such as the Ladies’ Journal (Funü zazhi) and Women’s World (Nüzi shijie) began to run columns and articles that provided recipes for manufacturing soap, hair tonic, perfume, and rouge at home.[i] They often explained the chemistry behind the manufacturing process and promoted the use of modern lab equipment and glassware to produce the desired items. The pieces deemed their detailed technical manufacturing information as highly appropriate for genteel women to apply in their inner chambers.

The cover of the January 1915 issue of Women’s World features a respectable woman who was the ideal reader of recipes for manufacturing cosmetics at home. Source: Chinese Collection of the Harvard-Yenching Library, Cambridge, Mass.

A typical example of the gendered portrayal of domestic manufacturing in these publications can be found in the piece titled, “An Exquisite Method for Manufacturing Hair Oil,” that appeared in first run of the Women’s World (1914–1915) column, “The Warehouse for Cosmetic Production” (hereafter, “The Warehouse”), and its companion piece that appeared in the February issue. As the editor noted in the February entry, the first article had elicited much interest and a woman reader by the name of Mme. Xi Meng had already sent in a request for more tips (Tianxuwosheng 1915, 3). The February issue included a recipe for hair tonic, which listed its ingredients in both Chinese and Latin:[ii]

  • 純粹硫酸                                                      Acidum Sulphruicum [sic]
  • 檸檬油                                                          Oleum Limonis
  • 精製植物油即前節製原料法中自製之油
  • 玫瑰精                                                          Spiritus Rosae
  • 硼砂                                                              Borax
  • 橙花水                                                          Aqua Aurantii Florum
  • 酒精                                                              Spiritus
  • 洋紅細粉亦須自製
  • 丁香油                                                          Nelkeuöl [sic]
  • 肉桂油                                                          Oleum Cinnamomi
  • 橙皮油                                                          Oleum Aurantii Corticis
  • 屈里設林                                                      Glycerin
  • 白米澱粉即本節製法中自製之水磨粉
  • 白檀油                                                          Oleum Santali

(Chen Diexian 1915, vol. 2 [February], 4)

Many of the items could be purchased in Shanghai’s pharmacies, but since spiritus rosae was particularly expensive, the editor wanted to make its recipe readily available. The recipe instructed:

Extract the fragrance of fresh flowers, and attach it onto something solid, so that it lasts and does not disappear. There are many ways of doing this. One can use a method for suction; the method for squeezing, the method for steaming, the method for soaking. None of these are as ideal as the method for absorption. To make spiritus rosae, use the method for absorption (Tianxuwosheng 1915, 6).

What followed was a highly detailed and technical description of how to achieve this method at home. The tools, instruments, and materials needed include bottles, tubes, alcohol burners, hydraulic acid [sic], and no less than five pounds of marble.

China had a long history of manufacturing cosmetics at home. The knowledge behind this domestic production tended not to be written in recipes, but was embodied and passed down from generation to generation. Domestic producers would thus not have been likely consumers of these printed recipes.

As urban consumption of makeup and toiletry items grew in the 1910s, manufacturing such items at home would also seem less pressing. To understand why these pieces appeared when they did — and who was consuming them and why, it is worthwhile to consider what was unprecedented about them.

Appearing in China’s burgeoning mass media, new-style columns like “The Warehouse” made certain skills public, presented them in new terms for new purposes, and made them readily available for a far greater reading and practicing audience than ever before. The new epistemological frame within which the knowledge was presented (chemistry and physics) and the material accoutrement (lab equipment and modern glassware) stipulated as necessary also attracted readers.

The application of these recipes would have required considerable investment in resources and time. Chemistry knowledge was necessary and some called for considerable lab equipment. The instructions to manufacture the spiritus rosae ingredient for hair oil, for example, listed the following items as necessary:

Alcohol Burner—1; Alcohol—2 lbs; Glass tube of 2 centimeter diameter—½ stem; Long-necked glass funnel—1; Double-opening bottle—1; Washing ‘gas’ bottle—1; Wide-mouth bottle that holds 1 lb—1; Wide-mouth bottle that holds 5 lbs—1; Marble—5 lbs; Hydrochloric acid—1 lb (Tianxuwosheng 1915, 4).

Given the nascent state of China’s glassware industry, chemical apparatuses were often imports and available for purchase at a cost at exclusive scientific-appliance stores such as Shanghai’s China Educational Supply Association. Once producers procured the ingredients and equipment, they then had to follow detailed instructions.

To achieve the method of absorption, practitioners were instructed to drill holes into stoppers that were to plug the glass bottles; the holes had to be large enough for a glass tube and funnel to be inserted; the glass tube then had to be bent. Instructions on how exactly to use an alcohol burner to heat the glass and mold it to the appropriate shape were provided.

Visual of lab equipment needed for a recipe on how to manufacture spiritus rosae, an ingredient for hair oil, in “The Warehouse” column in the Women’s World. Source: Tianxuwosheng 1915, 5.

While genteel women were the supposed readers of these recipes (and those with the curiosity, means and knowledge to apply these recipes could have done so), participants in the reading community of these recipes included men. Male consumers of these pieces included connoisseurs of technology, dabblers in chemistry, young students and budding industrialists.

It was far from automatic for the well-educated, male or female, to turn toward production and manufacturing as the literati had long felt a severe distaste for hands-on engagement with things for subsistence or commercial purposes. Yet, by 1915, there was a growing sense that this was necessary. The persistence of internecine warfare and imperialist aggression dashed the initial hopes of the 1911 republican revolution. With the chaos of republican politics threatening national strength many of China’s lettered men and women started to explore new regimes of knowledge and experiment with new social and occupational roles, including those of the once taboo realms of industry, manufacturing and commerce.

It was in this context that these recipes helped cleanse the hands-on work in industry and manufacturing of its negative connotations. These “how-to” pieces became sites where experiential engagement with chemistry and manufacturing was promoted as crucial in strengthening China, as well as a sign of good taste and bearing. They became part of the arsenal of strategies available for readers navigating their new cosmopolitan identities in a post-civil-service-examination arena of urban playgrounds and industrial centres. By appreciating these pieces with a sense of refined curiosity or in a posture of playful leisure, readers could define their sense of exclusivity based on notions of production that were tasteful and authentic in terms of their scientific, domestic, and noncommercial nature.

The domestic realm as a site of production also served as a metaphor for the larger marketplace in treaty ports that existed beyond the reach of the state. There, scientific, commercial, and manufacturing knowledge increasingly displaced moral knowledge and statecraft as the preferred epistemological foundations for a competitive nation.

Just a few years later, a strong reaction rose against presenting chemical experimentation and manufacturing as a dilettantish endeavor appropriate for genteel women. With the May Fourth Movement in 1919, Sai Xiansheng, or “Mr. Science,” would emerge as part of the slogan “Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy,” and science was, along with democracy, promoted as the foundation of a powerful nation. The portrait of the genteel woman engaging in leisurely production of cosmetics at home became emblematic of a “traditional” culture that had long fettered China’s modernization.

These recipes have been long overlooked by historians as insignificant as a result. Yet, they deserve to be reconsidered. Though they vanished quickly from the pages of China’s urban periodicals, they were historically significant. They were indicative of a period before science and manufacturing had been formalized in China and when efforts to learn and do industrial production was “vernacular,” occurring in ad hoc, informal and curious places (Lean 2020).


 

[i] Articles in the Ladies’ Journal include Ling Ruizhu, “A brief explanation of the methods to make cosmetics,” Funü zazhi 1.1 (Jan 1915): 15-18; Hui Xia, “Method for Making Rouge,” Funü zazhi 1.3 (March 1915): 15-16; Shen Ruiqing, “Method for Manufacturing Cosmetics,” Funü zazhi 1.5 (May 1915): 18-25. In 1915, Women’s World featured a new column from January to May, “The Warehouse for Cosmetic Production” that ran recipes and instruction on manufacturing cosmetics every month.

[ii] These ingredients are better known as sulfuric acid, oil of lemon, the essence of roses (i.e., the scent of roses), borax or hydrated sodium borate, orange flower water, alcohol, oil of cloves, oil of cinnamon, oil of orange peel, and sugar alcohol, rice starch and oil of sandal wood. A couple of ingredients are not listed in Latin. Glycerin is English and Nelkeuöl, which is misspelled in the article, and should be spelled Nelkenöl, is the German word for oil of cloves. The first ingredient, sulfuric acid, is also glossed and spelled incorrectly as “Acidum Sulphruicum.” The foreign-language rendering of several of the ingredients helped establish that sense of cosmopolitanism. Yet, mistakes were present and speak to the complex nature of the translation process and the diverse linguistic circuits these recipes traversed.

References

Lean, Eugenia. Vernacular Industrialism in China: Local Innovation and Translated Technologies in the Making of a Cosmetics Empire, 1900-1940. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020.

Tianxuwosheng. “Huazhuangpin zhizao ku.” Nüzi shijie 2 (February 1915): 3.

Brewing up some history: recreating historical beer recipes

By Tiah Edmunson-Morton

At the expense of sounding cliché, historic recipe recreations are a way to taste the past. Figuring out proper ingredients, considering environmental conditions, and using appropriate equipment all bring you closer to what people ate and drank in “days of yore.”

Barclay and Perkins brewery, Southwark: visitors watching beer fermenting in a large brewhouse, 1847. Image Credit: Wellcome Images, London.

Home brewer forums are full of threads on authenticity, and a Google search for “home brewing ancient recipes” nets millions of pages with ideas and results. Commercial breweries are also in on this, researching and experimenting for single brews or regular releases. In 1989, Anchor Brewing made a Sumerian beer for the Institute of Brewing Studies’ Micro Brewery Conference based on the “Hymn to Ninkasi,” an 1800 BCE song that praises the Sumerian goddess of beer and an ancient beer recipe. Even grander in terms of production and promotion is Dogfish Head Brewery’s series of beers “Ancient Ales,” which they’ve recreated with molecular archeologist Dr. Patrick McGovern. The company reports that Midas Touch, Theobroma, and Chateau Jiahu are “truly liquid time capsules.” Brewing scientists from Oregon State University collaborated with the Heurich House museum to recreate a batch of Christian Heurich Brewing Company’s “Senate Lager” after a researcher discovered the recipe in the National Archives. A final example comes from Dupont Brewery in Belgium. The recipe for “Cervesia Archeosite” came from a beer made a thousand years ago in their region; they drew on traditional styles and ingredients as a point of pride.

I knew about projects like these when I started the Oregon Hops and Brewing Archives in 2013 and could see the outreach potential immediately. Oregon became a state in 1859, and much of its nineteenth-century beer history lore details a brewery on every corner. The story goes that wherever a community formed around an industry (farming, mining, logging), businesses to make and serve alcohol were among the first essential services. While I don’t doubt that plenty of alcohol was consumed, and probably made at home, the census records show that a brewery on every corner is an exaggeration at best and a myth at worst.

When I started to look for nineteenth-century brewery records, I was surprised to find so little. While the majority of Oregon’s earliest breweries were small and short-lived, if local breweries were omnipresent in the nineteenth century, I assumed there would be a treasure trove of information in libraries or archives.

Initially, I reached for the sources in my library, which included state history books with information on “prominent people,” laboratory publications that focused on the technical aspects of the brewing process, manuals on facilities management, and books on beer gardens. For historic recipes, I had the most luck in household management books; not only were there recipes for brewing beer, but also instructions for making bread and keeping bees. The Sanborn Fire Insurance maps were quite helpful in determining the size, layout, and location of breweries. Once I looked outside my building, I found probate records in county and state records, census records with biographical information about individual brewers, and mortgages and lawsuits that listed brewery assets.

The Roadshow, 2015

While these physical print sources are lovely for browsing, locating recipes from specific breweries or that used specific ingredients was really difficult. Both Google Books and the Hathi Trust are invaluable because they are both keyword searchable. In 2015, I worked with a brewery to make a beer for a public archaeology event; they wanted to make a lager with rice, and I found a short recipe in an 1883 brewing book published in England.

Roadshow 2015: The Recipe.

For the same event the following year I worked with a home brewer. I sent her links to several books and she chose one she found in a home management published in New York in 1872; the recipe was 10 pages long and the product was delightfully hoppy. Some of my favorite books are:

Choosing a recipe for the 2016 event.

In six years, I still haven’t found a recipe for an Oregon pre-Prohibition beer; however, I have gathered clues about nineteenth-century Oregon beer styles. Probably the most valuable source are the advertisements found in digitized newspapers. Breweries of all sizes made a range of styles, though they all regularly advertised a traditional German-style lager or steam beer, which uses a lager yeast but is fermented at ale temperatures to compensate for the lack of refrigeration. Oregon brewers also sold less familiar styles such as Philadelphia XXX Ale, XX Cream, and Flat. Those county probate records I mentioned sometimes included receipts, which meant I knew details about hops or barley orders, as well as bottling equipment and supplies. Those census records give clues about a brewer’s country of origin and the brewery income.

My most recent research has focused on the women involved in Oregon’s pre-Prohibition breweries, with an eye towards redirecting the need we have for women to be brewers. Since the records don’t indicate that they were, I am working with three female brewers to design a recipe based on the biographies of wives of brewers. Our goal will be to share the brewers’ creations, but also to engage consumers with the stories of nineteenth-century women in Oregon.

I still have hope that I’ll uncover a recipe gem, but I am also a realist. In the meantime, I know that my work in the twenty-first century to collect records will help the next generation recreate our present.

Waste Not, Want Not: Feeding the British Home Front: Women’s Interconnectivity in the Second World War

By Kelly A. Spring

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the start of food rationing in Britain during the Second World War. On 8th of January 1940, the British government instituted a system of food controls, which was all-encompassing for the home front population. Items such as meat, cheese, tea and butter were put on the basic ration, while other foods such as tinned goods, rice and cereal could be purchased through a points system, whereby individuals received 16 and later 20 points per month to spend on these foods. Goods were assigned so many points by officials in the Ministry of Food, depending on availability of supplies, offering consumers a measure of flexibility in their diets beyond the basic ration.[1] Ration amounts fluctuated throughout the war as supply levels rose and fell according to shipping losses from U-boat action, domestic agricultural outputs and the needs of the military.

Queue for food rations, London, 1945. Image credit: Wikimedia commons.

The nature of the restrictions and their pervasiveness in society required everyone to use food resources wisely to feed the home front. But it was primarily to housewives that the nation and the government turned to make the ration programme a success. Through food rationing propaganda, officials called on married women to use their cookery skills to sustain their family’s consumption needs under the food controls. Such propaganda suggested that women, who could effectively provide nutritious meals to their loved ones by stretching limited consumables, were fulfilling the idealised domestic role in wartime.[2] However, in reality, not all housewives took up domestic roles with gusto, nor did they act alone in the battle on the kitchen front. Other women within the home and in the community often assisted housewives in their task of providing meals in the domestic environment. As a result, women’s responses to the food situation were much more diverse in scope and complexity than the image of the ideal housewife would lead us to believe.

The weekly ration for two people, UK, 1943. Image credit: Wikimedia commons.

My paper, ‘Feeding the British Home Front: Women’s Interconnectivity in the Second World War’, presented at the conference, ‘Waste Not Want Not: Food and Thrift from Antiquity to the Present’, explored the links between sustainability and women’s roles in wartime Britain. Using oral interviews, my research demonstrated that through associations both within and in connection to the home, women utilised their interconnectivity with other women to successfully sustain the consumption needs of home front families in a time of conflict and food insecurity. My paper illuminated the multifaceted work of grandmothers and single women in conjunction with housewives to facilitate and maintain the food levels in the home during the Second World. Overall, this paper provided a more nuanced understanding of the intricate structure of women’s food interactions. It showed that the British food rationing programme relied not simply on housewives’ individual efforts, but it depended on the cookery interactions of a community of women, who creatively pooled their culinary knowledge and resources to successfully maintain the food security, health and nutrition of a nation at war.  

[1] For a discussion of the points system and the foods included in it, see: Norman Longmate, How We Lived Then: A History of Everyday Life During the Second World War (London: Pimlico, 1971), pp. 141-142. 

[2] Kelly A. Spring, ‘“Today We Have All Got to be Fighting Fit”: The Interconnectivity of Gender Roles in British Food Rationing Propaganda during the Second World War’, Gender & History, 32/1, March 2020, pp. 1-27 (early view online February).