Chinese American Herbal Medicine: A History of Importation and Improvisation

By Tamara Venit Shelton

“Chinese herbalists imported everything from China.” This is what I consistently heard from herbalists I interviewed when writing Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace. As far as anyone knew, when the first generation of Chinese herbalists began to immigrate to the United States in the 1850s, they imported all their medicinal ingredients from China through the port of San Francisco. By 1878, there were eighteen wholesale companies in San Francisco that serviced Chinese herb shops across the United States. In later years, herbalists could find what they needed through wholesalers in Portland, Seattle, St. Louis, and Chicago.[i]

Fig 1: Frontispiece of The Science of Oriental Medicine, 1902. Los Angeles Herbalists Tom Leung and Li Wing advertised their remedies to English-speaking patients through long and short-form print advertisements. Public Domain.

Historians of China are aware of the importance of improvisation and substitution in traditional Chinese medicine, and yet the prevalent assumption that all Chinese medicines were imported to the United States made some sense. After all, according to thousands of years of Chinese herbal lore, therapeutic efficacy relied on a highly specific process of procuring medicinal plants, animals, and minerals. The collection or cultivation of traditional medicinal ingredients in China happened only in well-defined areas, under certain seasonal, climatic, and astrological conditions.

Yet as I dug into archives, historical newspapers, memoirs, and oral histories, it became apparent that historically, practitioners of traditional Chinese herbalism in America sourced most, but not all of their supplies in China. There is ample evidence – both anecdotal and archaeological – that the Chinese in America grew and foraged for local sources of medicinal ingredients. These findings speak to the ways in which diasporic Chinese medicine responded to new conditions as well as to the resourcefulness and adaptability of its practitioners.

Fig 2: A.P. Russell, a West Virginia merchant, shows off a 1700 pound shipment of ginseng destined for China in 1928. Wild ginseng, foraged in Appalachia, was a major American export to China from the late eighteenth century until its overharvesting led to near extinction in the mid-twentieth century. Public Domain.

Looking back to the end of the nineteenth century, we see examples of Chinese and non-Chinese farmers growing medicinal herbs and roots for Chinese herb businesses. In 1898, a newspaper in Washington D.C. reported that Lee Poit, recently transplanted from California, had given up trying to compete in the crowded field of laundry and retail and was instead growing “many queer vegetables and herbs” on four acres of land that he rented near Terra Cotta Station, on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Line.[ii] Across the country, J. B. McCloskey, an American farmer who studied commercial ginseng production in Korea, opened his own farm on two acres in Oxnard and became the major supplier for Los Angeles-area Chinese physicians in 1904.[iii]

Zoological-based medicines also seem to have been locally sourced. The Chinese collected all manner of reptiles and amphibians – snakes, lizards, frogs, and toads – to supplement dried, imported varieties in America. Sometimes, doctors substituted local species that seemed similar to what would have been available in China. In Boise, Idaho, C.K. Ah Fong famously used rattlesnake (a North American reptile) in traditional Chinese tinctures to treat arthritis, and amidst other Chinese health-related artifacts from Lovelock, Nevada, archaeologist Sarah Heffner has found bobcat bones that may have been used in place of expensive, imported tiger bones.[iv]

Fig 3: Canton Harbor and Factories with Foreign Flags, 1805. European and American traders exchanged medicinal goods through this port city. Public Domain.

Substitution was just one form of improvisational thinking among Chinese herbalists in the United States. Studies of hand-written prescriptions from Chinese American apothecaries reflect a tendency to include an unusually long list of ingredients. This divergence may have been an artifact of herbalists’ swift business in mail-orders for patients unable to meet face-to-face. Patients wrote letters describing their ailment or filled out a pre-printed “symptom sheet,” and the doctor sent back a package of medicine along with a detailed instruction sheet. With an extra-long list of ingredients, Chinese American herbalists could cover a lot of bases when confronted with ambiguous descriptions of symptoms.[v]

Fig 4: Cover image of Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace. Yale University Press.

 

Chinese doctors in the United States were not so bound by tradition that they resisted adapting their formularies to their new environment. We should remember them as the innovative immigrant entrepreneurs that they were. As herbalist Li Wing Fawn explained to the Los Angeles Times in 1897: “We shall not confine ourselves exclusively to the importations from the Orient, but shall seek out also the very many valuable medicinal herbs growing in our own country [the United States].”[vi]

 

 

 

[i] Haiming Liu, “Chinese Herbalists in the United States,” in Sucheng Chan, ed. Chinese American Transnationalism: the Flow of People, Resources, and Ideas between China and America during the Exclusion Era (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), 138.

[ii] “Lee Has a Chinese Farm,” New York Times, 31 October 1898, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Times.

[iii] “Local Ginseng Culture Promises Rich Returns,” Oxnard Courier, 27 May 1904; “Queer Chinese Medicines, Los Angeles Times, 11 August 1907, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times.

[iv] Sarah Heffner, “Exploring Health-Care Practices of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America,” Historical Archaeology 49 (2015): 141.

[v] Susie Lan Cassel et al, The Chinese in America: a History from Gold Mountain to the New Millennium (Lanham MD: AltaMira Press, 2002), 178.

[vi] Li Wing Fawn and B.C. Platt, “A Step in Advance,” Los Angeles Times, 26 May 1896, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times.

 

About

Tamara Venit Shelton is a professor of history at Claremont McKenna College and author of the award-winning book, Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace

Meals on Wheels: The “Kitchen Cars” and American Recipes for the Postwar Japanese Diet

By Nathan Hopson

From 1956 to 1960, the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) sponsored a fleet of food demonstration buses in Japan (“kitchen cars”) to improve national nutrition and fuel the nation’s economic recovery with more “modern” and “rational” cooking methods and, most importantly, ingredients (i.e. American agricultural surpluses: wheat, corn, soy, and to a lesser extent meat, dairy, etc.) The concept was first floated to the US by Dr. Ōiso Toshio, chief of the health ministry’s nutrition section, 1953-1963. Along with the school lunch program instituted under the US occupation, the kitchen cars became one of the most important tools for marketing American farm products in Japan. The school lunch program, centered on bread and (reconstituted skim) milk until the 1970s, taught young Japanese new tastes. The kitchen cars taught their mothers to reproduce those flavors at home.

The initial fleet of a dozen buses, operated by the Japan Nutrition Association (a semiprivate organ of the health ministry), reached over two million people in towns, villages, and apartment blocks across Japan. The nutritionists staffing the buses put their professional imprimatur on the many novel foods they demonstrated, and distributed samples, nutritional pamphlets, and the day’s recipes to their audiences of mostly housewives. The kitchen cars were wildly popular. When US funding expired, local Japanese governments built their own to meet public demand; the number exceeded 100 by the end of the 1960s. Though it is difficult (impossible?) to quantify, the kitchen cars contributed in subtle but profound ways to transforming the postwar Japanese diet.

Despite their popularity at the time, today the kitchen cars are mostly forgotten. When they are remembered, it is mostly for destroying “traditional” Japanese dietary patterns and contributing to the “Westernization” of the diet during the period of high economic growth. This backlash stems in part from the fact that American financing was hidden not just from the public, but also from all those who staffed or assisted with the kitchen cars. Still, in the short run, these buses were a win-win for the US and Japan. America’s Cold War “Food for Peace” campaign put agricultural surplus to work supporting a critical ally, and Japan received enormous amounts of free or cheap food and generous development loans.

Figure 1: Kitchen car demonstration in rural Aomori, year unknown (probably 1950s). Courtesy of the Aomori Prefectural Museum.

The photo above shows a typical scene from a day in the life of the kitchen car. The audience crowds around the back of bus, which opens up like a thrust stage for the nutritionists to perform upon. The gathered women listen intently, some taking notes. The kitchen installed in the rear of the bus is the state-of-the-art chrome and gadgetry emblematic of the new postwar “bright life” of happy consumerism. The nutritionists in their white lab coats bring the authority of science. The foods they are preparing may not seem like the stuff of American farm surplus propaganda, but as Ōiso himself observed, “Propaganda is truly effective when people don’t notice it.”[1] To wit, the noodles are most likely soba: buckwheat mixed with (American) wheat. Even subtler is the use of sautéing, undoubtedly in (American) corn or soy oil. This kind of gradualist approach, expressed in slogans such as “Flour-based food once a day,” helps explain both why nobody suspected American involvement and why the kitchen cars were so popular and effective.

Few detailed records of 1950s’ kitchen car menus remain, but those that do are consistent with accounts from the 1960s. A list of favorites from mid-decade Okayama prefecture includes milk donuts, udon stew, sautéed amaranth leaves with liver, fried meat and vegetables with ketchup, vegetable cream soup, fried soybean fritters, chicken and peanuts in tomato sauce, bok choy with peanuts and mushrooms, and cheese sponge cake. Roughly simultaneously, the prefecture’s public health center sponsored competitions for original, tasty, nutritious, economical foods (about ¥20 each) using ingredients like soy, skim milk, and flour. Winners included vegetable omelets, fried tofu-wrapped sardines, fried sardine balls, and mysterious entries such as “nutritional bread” and “nutritional fried dumplings.”

These lists lend credence to the remarks of Richard Baum, Ōiso’s initial American collaborator. In a 1978 documentary, Baum expressed immense satisfaction at the kitchen cars’ success. As he explained, “the housewives would come out and gather around and learn how to make different wheat foods. And then they would get to sample the wheat foods. And they found these very delicious and so they would say ‘Oishii desu. Mō sukoshi’ [This is delicious. A little more, please].”[2]


[1] Quoted in Takashima Teruyuki, Amerika komugi senryaku: Nihon shinkō (Ie no Hikari Kyōkai, 1979), 106.

[2] Quoted in Takashima Teruyuki, Shokutaku no kage no seijōki: kome to mugi no sengoshi (NHK, 1978).


This post is part four in an ongoing series by Hopson on the history of nutrition in modern Japan. You can read his previous post here. This entry is based on his article “Ingrained Habits: The ‘Kitchen Cars’ and the Transformation of Postwar Japanese Diet and Identity.” Food, Culture & Society, November 2020.

Dyeing to Impress: Hair Products and Beauty Culture in Nineteenth-Century America

By Sean Trainor

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“Philadelphia Fashions,” 1831. Image courtesy of NYPL Digital Gallery ID: 802063.

Readers of a certain age will surely recall their first gray hair. Perhaps they can even relate to the panic that absorbed the nameless protagonist of an April 1831 story in The Ladies’ Magazine. Not yet twenty-eight, the tale’s heroine “was shocked at the visible approach of Time, and resolved, if possible, not to submit to his encroachment.” Rushing to a fancy goods dealer, “Miss Raven,” purchased a bottle of Imperial Hair Restorer, “warranted to give the hair a beautiful glossy appearance, and restore it to its pristine color, without failure or danger.”

Days after applying the restorative, however, Miss Raven awoke to a shocking transformation; her beautiful locks were “changed to an equivocal hue, bearing a near resemblance to the dark changeable green of the peacock’s feathers.” And where she had previously enjoyed charming curls, she now found stiff, straight bristles.

Such, according to The Ladies’ Magazine, were the fruits of vanity. “Artifice,” argued editor Sarah Josepha Hale, rarely enhanced women’s beauty or character, and European fashion foretold doom for Americans’ morals and health (note the word ‘Imperial’ in the restorer’s name). “Coloring the Hair,” in other words, was a didactic tale warning against female conceit.

But it also highlighted the very real dangers associated with nineteenth-century hair products – dangers made all too apparent in the pages of N. Belcher’s Barbers’ and Hair-Dressers’ Private Recipe Book (1868). Ostensibly intended to provide hair-care professionals with the know-how to make men and women’s hair products for themselves, Belcher’s Recipe Book now serves as a veritable paean to human endurance: evidence of our surprising ability to survive prolonged exposure to mercury, arsenic, lead, and other horrifying toxins.

Alas, full descriptions of the nostrums contained in Belcher’s manual would consume more space than this post affords. An overview of choice recipes therefore must suffice. Consider, for instance, one of Belcher’s favorite hair dyes, made from cream of tartar, lard, sal ammoniac, and silver nitrate. While sal ammoniac, menacing name notwithstanding, is perfectly safe, silver nitrate is not. The latter will stain one’s hair. But it will also burn one’s skin, and, if absorbed in sufficient quantities, permanently dye one’s internal organs. Still another recipe calls for “proto-nitrate of mercury.” And perhaps the worst of Belcher’s dyes unites soft water and alcohol with spirits of turpentine, sulfur, and sugar of lead. One can only imagine its effects on the body.

Indeed, throughout the Recipe Book one finds an astonishing array of toxins: from cantharides – an abortifacient made from the crushed carcasses of Spanish Flies – to calomel (mercury chloride), concentrated ammonia, and arsenic – which Belcher used to remove unwanted hair (though he admits its effects could occasionally prove fatal).

The ill-effects of Belcher’s products, however, were not limited to their toxicity. One of his choice depilatories, for instance – made of lime, water, and “sulphureted [sic] hydrogen gas” – was famous not just for its hair-removing properties, but for its “disgusting smell.” Other concoctions were made with considerable quantities of animal fats, including lard, veal and bear fat, beef and mutton suet, and spermaceti. On sweltering summer days, these compounds likely attracted insects. And despite a number of fragrant additives – from vanilla, lavender, and rose water to mace, cloves, and camphor – they almost certainly reeked like sin.

Trainor_Archive Org_Bogles Hair Dye
“Bogles Hair Dye” in Walton’s Vermont Register and Farmers’ Almanac for 1862 (Montpelier: S. M. Walton, 1862). Image courtesy of Archive.org: https://ia902508.us.archive.org/28/items/vermontyearbooky186269ches/vermontyearbooky186269ches.pdf

Nor were these the misbegotten inventions of some obscure crank. Belcher assured his readers, not unconvincingly, that the recipes he offered were in fact the formulas for some of the nineteenth-century’s most famous hair products, including the well-known wares of Joseph Christadoro, Edward Phalon, William Bogle, and “Professor” O.J. Wood (prolific advertisers, all).

Belcher leaves unstated how he got his hands on these recipes. Perhaps they were well-known secrets in hairdressing circles. Or perhaps the book was simply the result of the period’s lax intellectual property laws.

Whatever its origins, Belcher’s Barbers’ and Hair-Dressers’ Private Recipe Book sheds invaluable light on the lengths that nineteenth-century Americans were willing to go in the service of beauty. From green hair and tinted scalps to mercury poisoning and death, men and women took extraordinary risks to look good. It’s time that scholars took the period’s beauty culture as seriously as Americans themselves did.

 


Sean Trainor is a Ph.D. Candidate in History & Women’s Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. He is currently completing a dissertation entitled “Hair: A History of Men’s Grooming in the Urban United States, 1800-1865.” He tweets @ess_trainor.

Ironclad Apple Duff: Exploring Recipes from the American Civil War

By Jessica Eichlin and Amanda E. Herbert

USS Monitor crewmembers cooking on deck, in the James River, Virginia, 9 July 1862. Photographed by James F. Gibson, courtesy of Wikipedia.
USS Monitor crewmembers cooking on deck, in the James River, Virginia, 9 July 1862. Photographed by James F. Gibson, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Food rations during wartime do not have the reputation for being delicious, fresh, or even edible, and this was especially true during the American Civil War.  Fought from 1861-1865, the war disrupted supply lines across the United States, making food difficult to acquire for soldiers and citizens alike.  When Union (northern) and Confederate (southern) troops were receiving rations, these usually included hardtack, salt pork, flour, and cornmeal; when soldiers were lucky, this rather grim diet was supplemented by small amounts of condiments such as molasses, salt and pepper, and sugar; beverages such as milk, coffee, or tea; and vegetables such as rice or hominy, dried beans or peas, and “fresh” (although frequently desiccated) vegetables.  And whenever they were able, soldiers and sailors foraged for food, or traded with locals – both free and enslaved – in order to survive.

Finding and issuing nutritious, reliable rations was made even more difficult by the new military equipment that was developed during the Civil War.  Although European countries had begun developing ironclad ships in the late 1850s, American shipbuilders were not prompted to create this innovative type of ship until the American Civil War.  The South was the first to construct their ironclad (the CSS Virginia), followed quickly by the North.  The Union’s USS Monitor, designed by John Ericsson, was ironclad as well as semi-submersible: it was the first ship with its living quarters and engines entirely below the waterline.  The ship was nicknamed “Ericsson’s Folly” and “cheesebox on a raft” as no one thought it could float, let alone sail into battle.  Because the sailors lived almost entirely underwater, provisioning them and keeping them healthy proved to be a difficult undertaking.

Primary source documents written by the sailors on board these ships help to reveal important details about the history of Civil War food.  George Geer, a First-Class Fireman from Troy, New York who was stationed aboard the Monitor, corresponded with his wife Martha throughout the war, describing skirmishes, interactions with other sailors and officers, and especially the food on board ship.  Prior to enlisting, Geer had been unemployed and in debt: as he and his wife had two children, it is perhaps unsurprising that many of his letters focused on food.  But if Geer thought that joining the Union navy would keep him well-fed, his hopes were soon dashed.  His letters are full of funny, sarcastic comments about sailor’s rations.  In regards to the rock-like hardtack crackers, which were a staple of their diet, Geer said that the sailors could “eat as many crackers as [they] may wish which for me is usuly one.”  When the men were given pork, Geer was dismayed that “it is of the Lardy kind and no body pretends to eat it…the balance [is] given to the Fishes.”  Discussing bean soup, which the sailors consumed three times every week, Geer noted wryly that he was “tempted to strip off my shirt and make a dive and see if there realy is Beens in the Bottom.”

George S. Geer, First-Class Fireman, USS Monitor.  Image courtesy of the Mariner's Museum, Newport News, Virginia.
George S. Geer, First-Class Fireman, USS Monitor. Image courtesy of the Mariner’s Museum, Newport News, Virginia.

Geer’s colorful discussion of the food on board the USS Monitor did not stop with mere description.  In his letters, he sometimes provided his wife with recipes for the foods that made up the sailors’ rations.  In order to make navy-style tea, he told his wife to take “abut three times as much of black Tea or Grass as you would take to make a cup of Tea for you and me and about a tea cup full of that muscovada shugar that has such a bad taste.”  The most detailed recipe inscribed by Geer was for a dessert called Apple Duff.  Duff was a steamed or boiled pudding which was consumed frequently in the nineteenth century.  It was simple to make and contained cheap ingredients, usually just flour, water, and a handful of fruit.  Geer told his wife that he would “give you the recpt and you can try it.”  He told her to “take ½ lb Flour to each person and wet it until it is a thick paste then put in one ounce [o]f Dride Apples to each person.”  The apples, he noted, included “cores and dirt” and his wife should add them to the dough “without cutting them up or Washing them.”  This mixture was to be put “in a Bag over night and boil then in the morning until it is about half done through then cut it up with a knife so as to make it as heavy as poseable.”  The resulting lump of half-cooked dough was hard to digest, but it was filling – for although most puddings “will be apt to work out of your stomac in the course of time,” Geer joked, “this Duff is wanted to stay.”

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Interested in the sources used in this post?  You can find them here:

  1. “What Did Civil War Soldiers Eat?” Civil War Preservation Trust, accessed 13 April 2014. http://www.civilwar.org/education/pdfs/civil-war-curriculum-food.pdf
  2. “Duff,” in The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 259.
  3. “Letter No 2,” George S. Geer Family Papers, 1862-1995, MS010, The Mariners’ Museum Library, Christopher Newport University, Newport News, Virginia.
  4. A.A. Hoehling, Thunder at Hampton Roads (New York: Prentice Hall, 1976).

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Jessica Eichlin is a senior History Major at Christopher Newport University.  She found these documents while working as an intern at the Mariner’s Museum and Mariner’s Museum Library, both in Newport News, Virginia.  Jessica is on Twitter @jesseich