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

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

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

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

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

Snails:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honey:

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

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

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

Asses’ Milk:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(And earlier…)


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

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

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

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

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

[6] Ibid., f. 23 v

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

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

[8] Ibid. 53v.

Not quite the real thing

By Sally Osborn

One interesting aspect of manuscript recipe books is the frequency of recipes for ersatz or substitution products. This was perhaps understandable in an age when access to ingredients might be haphazard or require travelling a considerable distance. However, it also possibly reflects the desire to do what today we would call ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, particularly in offering suitable dishes at table.

One example is a number of ways of preparing a replacement for the German dry-cured and smoked Westphalia ham, which often appears on bills of fare of the period. The title of the recipe is frequently along the lines of ‘To make an artificial Westfalia ham’, as in the one below, although one manuscript is refreshingly honest in naming it ‘To Counterfeit Westfalia Bacon’ (Wellcome Collection, MS 7851). The process was far from quick, as you will see, although the desired smoky flavour would presumably have resulted:

Recipe for artificial Westphalia ham
Image © Wellcome Collection

Rub a leg of Pork with four ounces of salt peter & pint of bay salt & as much white let it lay 3 weekes in salt, adding more salt every week, then dry it with a cloth & rub it over with lam black, hang it up in a chimney for 8 weeks at least, where they burn wood, when you boyle put hay in your pot with it.

Other food replacements were made, including artificial sturgeon (which was a ‘royal fish’ and thus the property of the crown), made from pickled turbot, and artificial venison, as in this example from the Heppington receipts:

Recipe for artificial venison
Image © Wellcome Collection

Artificiall Venison for a Pasty

Bone a Sirloin of beef, and a Loyn of Mutton beat itt with a Rowling Pin, and season itt with Pepper, Salt itt then Lay itt 24 Howers in Sheeps Blood or Clarrett, then dry itt with a Cloath and season itt a Little more and itt is fit to fill your Pasty

What to me is more intriguing, though, are the recipes for artificial asses’ milk. The health benefits of such milk were widely touted, as in this appeal in an undated letter from Eliza Pierce of around 1751:

I wish I could give you a good [account] of my Aunt but she has been excessive ill ever since you left us and has at last been prevailed on to send for Dr Glass who had her blooded to day and advises her to drink Asses Milk and we not knowing who to apply to better then your self have taken the Liberty to send to you for one. It will be a great satisfaction to us all if you can supply us as by that means my Aunt will be able to begin imediately to drink it. My Uncle desires his compliments and he begs you to send one with a foal not above a Month or six weeks old if you have one of that Age if not as young as you can. 

Other sources recommend asses’ milk be drunk for a cough and other disorders. We now know that it contains less fat and more lactose than cows’ milk and is the closest to human breast milk, and of course its cosmetic properties have been lauded since Egyptian times. However, if you found yourself without a convenient donkey to milk, would you really want to replace it with something like this?

A most excellent receipt for Mock Asses Milk sent me by Lady Betty Cicel, when I was ill at Nesden

Take two ounces of pearle barley, wash & scald it, put that water away – then take two quarts of fresh water, boil the barley in it with half an ounce of hartshorn shavings, half an ounce of eringo root, 8 or 10 shell snails rub’d clean & bruis’d, boil those to gether till half is consum’d, then drain it, & have a pint of Milk just boil’d, & when both are cold, mix them together, keep it for now & when you take it sweeten it with brown sugar. (British Library, Hamilton and Greville Papers, Add MS 40715)

A Mrs Hawkins suggested a slightly more palatable alternative, recorded in Penelope Humphreys’ recipe book:

Recipe for artificial asses' milk
Image © Wellcome Collection

take 2 ounces of pearl barly one ounce of Eringer Root one ounce of shavings of hartshorn, one ounce of Conserve of Red roses then put to these things 3 quarts of Water let it boyl tea it is halfe wasted then strain it, and drink a quarter of a pint of this liquor with the sam quantity of new Milk every morning fasting and at 4 a clock in the after noon. (Wellcome Collection, MS 7851)

Perhaps more than anything else, this speaks volumes about the power of suggestion in early modern medical care!