Bulk Medicine and Waged Labor in Eighteenth-Century London

By Zachary Dorner

In the eighteenth century, druggists, chemists, and apothecaries began producing medicines in larger quantities for sale in a variety of markets, resulting in a more coherent manufacturing sector in Britain. Making medicines at such scale typically involved labor-intensive chemical processes occurring in laboratories that resembled other early industrial spaces as sites of work. We can catch a glimpse of these spaces in images like the frontispiece of the chemist Francis Spilsbury’s Friendly Physician (1773) where two figures toil with mortars, stills, and other instruments in the background, separated from the well-organized shop in the image’s foreground. A variety of business records from period pharmacies, including wage books, inventories, and recipes, enable us to uncover a little more about those indistinct figures bent over their work.

Figure 1: Interior of a pharmacy. From Spilsbury, The Friendly Physician (1773). Image credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

The increasing concentration of labor and capital in London’s medical marketplace encouraged men and women to set up laboratories, big and small, around the city, as seen in contemporary fire insurance policies. These laboratories were no longer artisanal workshops, though also not yet the steam-powered production lines of the nineteenth century. Alchemical techniques formerly applied to the transmutation of metals found use in the production of medicines in these spaces, such as the chemical laboratory depicted in William Lewis’s Philosophical Commerce of Arts (1763). They could contain machinery for grinding, pounding, and sifting drugs (the raw materials for compound medicines), as well as high-pressure boilers and furnaces for distillation and drying. Open fires were common beneath hundred-gallon stills, evaporating pans, condensers, copper boilers, and stoves. If temperatures went unmanaged, ingredients could burn, ruining a preparation; even worse, stills could boil over or even explode. Manufacturing medicines with this equipment required significant inputs of energy, increasingly supplied by waged labor forces during the eighteenth century.

Figure 2: A view of William Lewis’s chemical laboratory. From Lewis, Commercium Philosophico-Technicum (1763). Image credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

Some traces of their daily routines can be found in recipe books from Corbyn & Company, one of the highest volume producers and distributors of medicine in London at the time. A recipe for flower of benzoin (benzoic acid, a topical antiseptic also used for a variety of internal matters) from the 1760s, for example, evokes the work of pharmacy. To start the process, several hundredweight of gum benzoin, a fragrant resin from the benjamin tree of Sumatra and Java, had to be purchased at auction and carted to the partnership’s laboratory at Cold Bath Fields where it would be pressed and milled, requiring several days, multiple men, and lots of charcoal. These manipulations were followed by 50 days purifying the resin through distillation (called rectifying). All in all, Thomas Corbyn estimated that the production of benzoin took 63 days and cost about 2 shillings per day for the work, which also included cleaning the distillation equipment, wear and tear of the machinery, and extra expenses (such as 8 weeks of beer for the workers costing 18 pence per week). These costs, nevertheless, remained relatively minor compared to the sometimes quite significant costs of raw materials, thus incentivizing production at scale.

Figure 3: Flower of benzoin costing from Thomas Corbyn’s miscellaneous papers, c. 1760, MS.5448/2, Wellcome Collection.

Corbyn & Co. shipped much of the medicine they produced, such as the hard-pressed flower of benzoin, to the overseas markets provided by imperial institutions, such as the Royal Navy, East India Company, transatlantic slave trade, and Caribbean plantations. With increasing demand at home and aboard, political support, and capitalization, London’s pharmacies kept growing in the early nineteenth century, with some of them providing the seeds of several of today’s major pharma firms.

Figure 4: Glass medicine bottles for export used in the eighteenth century. Image credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

It can be surprisingly easy to miss the labor in London’s laboratories that underwrote the expanding production of medicines in eighteenth-century London. A chemist’s or druggist’s work area has received far less attention in histories of capitalism or industry than the cotton mill, for example. Recipes and other business records from London’s pharmacies, however, offer an opportunity to begin reconstructing the rhythms of work in these spaces and reintegrate them into studies of economy, labor, and health.

Figure 5: Plan of the laboratory at Apothecaries’ Hall, 1823. From The Origin, Progress and Present State… (1823). Image credit: Wellcome Collection, London.

Tales from the Archives: To Make a Fine Apple Pye

It’s cold, wet and rather miserable in the UK at the moment. Fortunately, the Christmas lights bring some good cheer, as does lovely late-autumn food. My favourite autumnal dish is the apple-crumble, with its perfect balance of sweetness and tartness. Our wonderful Recipes Project archives include some lovely apple-based posts, and today I bring you these musings by our Sarah Peters Kernan. Enjoy!


By Sarah Peters Kernan

Forget cold weather and the first frosts of winter; I am already thinking about my spring garden! For years I have been yearning for space to plant a large vegetable garden and fruit trees. Now I can finally begin seriously planning such an endeavor since I recently moved into a new home with a large yard. Despite the approaching winter, I am constantly daydreaming about apples, beets, carrots, and tomatoes. The apple trees, in particular, have piqued my curiosity. There are hundreds of heirloom varietals, many of which will flourish in my planting zone. More than the standard fruits available at local markets, these heirloom ones attract me. I thought that I would use this opportunity to try growing some varietals that may have been available in late medieval or early modern England so that I can not only cook my many favorite modern apple dishes and preserves, but also prepare apple recipes from my research with period-appropriate fruit.

The art of grafting and cultivating fruit trees was acknowledged and recorded in Antiquity. Many treatises on the topic exist from the Middle Ages, such as those by Nicholas Bollard and Godfrey’s translation of a fourth-century work by Palladius. Similarly, early modern cookbooks and books of household management, like Charles Estienne’s L’agriculture et maison rustique (1564) and its English translation Maison Rustique, or the countrie farme (1600), devote sections to the topic. In late medieval and early modern England, apples were an accessible fruit for peasants and commoners. Each autumn apples ripened on trees that flourished across the English countryside. And despite the popularity of the apple, recipes rarely distinguished specific types of apples to use; in most instances, the selection of fruit was left to local availability and personal preference.

Elizabeth Blackwell, "The apple tree or pearmain," 1739, Science, Industry and Business Library: General Collection , The New York Public Library. Source: The New York Public Library
Elizabeth Blackwell, “The apple tree or pearmain,” 1739, Science, Industry and Business Library: General Collection , The New York Public Library. Source: The New York Public Library

Recipes sometimes distinguish between apples, pippins, pearmains, codlings, and others, but none of these terms refer to specific varietals. These terms do, however, tend to highlight certain flavor, texture, or keeping characteristics. Pippins, for example, are typically sweeter apples. Codlings refer to harder apples not intended to be eaten raw. Sometimes this hardness is a feature of the varietal, while other times this term refers to unripe apples. This lack of specificity in recipes is not to say that we have no record of medieval or early modern varietals. Medieval legal, religious, and household records, for example, describe specific apples.[1] It is the recipes that remain vague.

Nicolaes Maes, “Young Woman Peeling Apples,” ca. 1655, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436934. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Nicolaes Maes, “Young Woman Peeling Apples,” ca. 1655, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436934.
Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Most early modern recipes similarly exclude mention of apple varieties. However, a very rare instance of a recipe identifying a specific varietal occurs in a recipe book in the New York Public Library, Whitney Cookery Collection MS 2. This recipe book belonging to Lady Anne Percy in the mid-seventeenth century contains instructions for a perfume which requires the “skinn of an apple called Camveza.”[2] It is notable that this recipe is for a non-edible luxury item containing expensive ingredients such as ambergris and civet. Camuesa was a Spanish apple varietal, and while it eventually came to refer more generally to pippins, the recipe seems to refer to the more luxurious and specific fruit. The majority of recipes do not specify a variety, though details are sometimes noted. In Mrs. Murrey’s Jelly of Pippins recipe in Lady Percy’s book, the reader is instructed to “take the best white pippins.”[3] Another recipe designates the best time of year to preserve green, or unripened, pippins is “about bartholme tide,” or late August. [4] Since pippins, like apples in general, ripen at varying points throughout the late summer and fall, the date in this recipe is probably specific to Mrs. Murrey’s source of pippins. Earlier recipes for apple fritters, tarts, and sauce (applemoys) appearing in manuscripts prior to 1500 exclude any mention of varietals, or even the adjectives which color early modern apple recipes.

Limited, if any, descriptions of apple varieties appear in other texts concerned with details of fruit like gardening treatises or herbals prior to the seventeenth century. Even the aforementioned Maison Rustique, a detailed manual for growing and grafting all sorts of fruits, mentions only a few varieties, like the globe apple, apple of paradise, and choke apple. However, a concern with growing consistent, identifiable, and enhanced fruit developed throughout Europe during the sixteenth century, so that by the early 1600s, elite gardens likely contained multiple varietals of fruits. This is reflected in contemporary texts: herbalists and botanists listed and described a wealth of varietals (like the sixty apple varieties in John Parkinson’s Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris) and the occasional recipe from an elite household with access to many varietals, like the Percys, actually specified types to incorporate in recipes.[5] Named varietals at this time seem to point toward social status, though the many other recipes which indicate descriptions of texture, firmness, or size, reflect a more general concern with taste.

This apple ambiguity is ultimately a good thing, both for a cook trying to replicate a historic recipe and me, in planning a small, historically-oriented home orchard. For one, the lack of specificity does encourage the modern cook, like the original cooks, to use the apples we have on hand and are pleasing to our taste. Second, while many apple varietals are available today, only a handful available in the United States can be traced back several centuries. One American heirloom fruit tree vendor boasts twelve varietals dated before 1700; this includes fruits originally cultivated in England, France, Switzerland, Denmark, two American colonies, and one more vaguely attributed to “Europe.” It is difficult, if not impossible, to recreate any kind of “authentic” apple experience. While I may not be able to recapture any specific ingredients from historic recipes, I am excited to cultivate some new-to-me varietals in my own garden and experience some flavors from many centuries ago.

In case anyone still has apples in storage from a fall orchard picking, or you just want to plan ahead for next year’s crop, I leave you with a recipe from Lady Morton’s 1693 recipe book. [6]

To Make a Fine Apple Pye

Take 19 or 20 large codlings or pippings. Coddle them very soft over a slow fire. When enough squeeze them through a cullender. Put to it six eggs, half the whites beaten and strain’d, 6 ounces of butter melted, half a pound of fine sugar, the juice & rind but small of 2 lemons, one ounce and half of banded orange peele, half an ounce of banded lemon peel. Cut small, mix all these together, & put in a little orange flower water to your tast. Bake it in puft paste in a dish.


[1] Christopher M. Woolgar, The Culture of Food in England 1200–1500 (Yale University Press, 2016), 106–7.

[2] New York, New York Public Library, Whitney MS 2, 85.

[3] Whitney MS 2, 23.

[4] Whitney MS 2, 39.

[5] John Parkinson, Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris (London: Humfrey Lownes and Robert Young, 1629), 587–8.

[6] New York, New York Public Library, Whitney MS 4, 150.

Fertility in the Early Modern Household

Leah Astbury

Domestic recipe books in early modern England abound with remedies to promote conception and prevent miscarriage. Frances Springatt’s recipe book, for example, contained a remedy ‘To help conception and strengthen Nature’, taken morning and night.[i] Notably, the vast majority of these receipts were explicitly for women, and in particular, intended to cleanse the womb. The Boyle family book contained a remedy for ‘Barrenness’ that opened up the womb when ‘shutt up, cleanseth the Same, Cherisheth the Seminal Vessels, Comforteth and Enliveneth the Womb & maketh it fit for Conception.’[ii]

Fig. 2. A woman seated on a obstetrical chair giving birth aided by a midwife who works beneath her skirts. Woodcut. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection CC BY.
Fig. 1. A woman seated on a obstetrical chair giving birth aided by a midwife who works beneath her skirts. Woodcut. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection CC BY.

The historical consensus has been, in Olwen Hufton’s words, that ‘under most conditions’ childlessness was attributed to female incapacity in early modern England. Aside from ‘brewer’s droop’ and impotence from bewitching, early modern people would have failed to consider the possibility of male impediment.[iii] Jennifer Evans’ work on fertility and aphrodisiacs has shown, however, that printed medical guides and advertisements understood problems with husbands, wives, or the couple together as causes of childlessness.[iv] So why then in domestic receipt books are remedies that target the causes of male sterility – weak seed, frail erection and lacklustre desire – so hard to find? This tension between the possibility of male infertility in printed material and absence in personal collections points to a complex system in which women were positioned as the caretakers of fertility, even if their bodies were not at ‘fault’. To revise Hufton’s claim, early modern people did know that men were responsible for childlessness but worked to minimise evidence of this. In this post I’m going to offer a few hints in domestic recipe books of the ways in which wives might labour to improve their own, and their husband’s, fertility without making male impediment or failure known. This is part of a larger book project examining the experience of pregnancy, childbirth, and afterbirth care in early modern England.

Fig. 1. Frances Springatt (& others), Collection of cookery and medical receipts: with later additions by several hands, Wellcome Library, MS 4683. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection CC BY.
Fig. 2. Frances Springatt (& others), Collection of cookery and medical receipts: with later additions by several hands, Wellcome Library, MS 4683. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection CC BY.

The first clue is in the prevalence of recipes that promised to reveal which party was responsible for childlessness. Such tests normally involved husband and wife each urinating on a seed or grain and observing their growth; the seed that failed to thrive indicated sterility. The inclusion of these diagnostic tests in domestic collections indicates at least a willingness to consider male impediment, even if evidence of their use is lacking.[v]

Second, the gender of the intended recipient of fertility recipes was often left unspecified or vague. Two remedies in the Jerningham family recipe book, one to ‘stir up’ lust and another to ‘causeth conception’, did not specify whether they were for a man or woman.[vi] Others were explicit that they could be useful for men and women. Frances Springatt’s remedy to help conception (Fig. 2) included the instructions that ‘man should take of it as well as the woman.’

More evidence can be found in recipes that were designed to be administered before or through the act of sex. Jane Jackson’s book instructed the user to anoint the man’s ‘yard’ with a concoction before sex in order to further chances of conceiving.[vii] Another suggested that both the ‘yard’ and the ‘womans private alsoe’ should be anointed. Then, the husband should simply ‘deale with her; and shee shall conceaue.’[viii] Such remedies configured men as the agent of cure, even if they were actually the intended recipients.

Recipe books did contain remedies to strengthen the yard, but importantly never mentioned sexual function. James Shrowl’s recipe book contained a remedy ‘To heale any Lame Member’ in which the ‘member’ was bathed for half an hour, ‘chaft’ with an ointment and then wrapped in lambskin before bed.[ix] Generation or even the ability to have sex was not mentioned. Many of these remedies were concerned with curing venereal disease and one might imagine rich fodder for the historian of fertility. And yet genital problems in men, in this context, were rarely linked to sexual performance or generative ability, further evidence to suggest that male sexual impediment was more embarrassing than childlessness understood to come from problems with the womb.

A final example from the almanac of Sarah Jinner suggests the ways in which male fertility was expected to be discretely managed by wives. The recipe section in Jinner’s almanac, which she advertised, ‘might be kept in good case and serve to the mutual comfort of man and woman’, included ‘A Confection to cause fruitfulness in Man or Woman.’ This powder, she noted, could be surreptitiously sprinkled ‘upon the parties meat’.[x]

The remedies found in domestic books skirt around the topics of weak male seed and impotence, but reading against the grain reveals the ways in which domestic practice, and in particular wives, might be able to manage male impediment without naming and shaming.

 

[i] Frances Springatt (& others) 1686-1824, Wellcome Library, MS 4683, fol. 92r.

[ii] Boyle Family, ‘Receipt Book’, Wellcome Library, MS 1340, recipe 312 fol. 86r.

[iii] Olwen Hufton, The Prospect Before Her. A History of Women in Western Europe, vol. 1 (London: Fontana Press, 1997), p. 174. Randolph Trumbach makes a similar argument in The Rise of the Egalitarian Family: Aristocratic Kinship and Domestic Relations in Eighteenth-Century England(London: Academic Press Inc., 1978), p. 167.

[iv] Jennifer Evans, Aphrodisiacs, Fertility and Medicine in Early Modern England (Boydell & Brewer, 2014).

[v] As Catherine Rider has shown on this blog, these tests were not new to the early modern period and can be found as early as the twelfth century. https://recipes.hypotheses.org/2017

[vi] Jerningham family recipe book, Staffordshire Record Office D641/3/H/1, p. 63 and p. 67.

[vii] Jane Jackson, ‘Her Booke’, 1642, Wellcome Library, MS 373, fol. 82v.

[viii] Jane Jackson, ‘Her Booke’, 1642, Wellcome Library, MS 373, fol. 83r.

[ix] James Shrowl, 1625-c.1750, Wellcome Library, MS749, unfoliated.

[x] Sarah Jinner, An Almanack and Prognostication for the Year of Our Lord 1659 (London: 1659), sig.B8r.

Heat and Women’s Fertility in Medieval Recipes

It seems rather ironic to be writing about ‘heat’ in the middle of a heatwave. I’m not sure anyone in Britain at the moment is keen to increase their level of heat any further! However, according to humoral theory, which underpinned many medical recipes throughout the medieval and early modern periods, heat could be a very good thing when men and women wanted to reproduce.  Heat, in the humoral sense, was believed to aid both sexual performance and fertility, and ‘hot’ foods and medicines were recommended as aphrodisiacs and fertility aids in many ancient, medieval and early modern medical texts.  Jennifer Evans has set this out very nicely for the early modern period – see her book and her post on the Recipes blog from 2013.  But heat wasn’t always a good thing: in some circumstances too much heat could also be a problem for fertility, and in that situation ‘cold’ foods and medicines might be suggested.

In my own work on the medical recipe books of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, then, I would expect to find a range of recipes to aid conception which include ingredients designed to raise or reduce a person’s heat. Although recipes were written in less complex language than Latin medical texts, and focused on treatment rather than theory, the recipes in these collections were often drawn from longer Latin medical works and so were often based on humoral theory even when this was not made explicit.  Nevertheless, my initial survey of recipe manuscripts in the Wellcome Library, British Library and Cambridge University Library suggests that the picture was more diverse than this.  I haven’t made a comprehensive search – and, given the number of unpublished medieval recipe manuscripts, I probably won’t be able to – but the recipes to aid conception that I’ve found so far work on a variety of principles.

Some do seek to adjust a person’s heat in order to correct a perceived humoral imbalance. For example, a series of recipes in Latin in Wellcome Library MS 541, a fifteenth-century medical miscellany of unknown provenance, is explicit about this.

A page from Wellcome Library MS 541. Credit: Wellcome Library.

In a chapter on ‘Impediment of Conception’ it includes recipes for:

If the sterility is because of cold humours… (Si sterilitas fuerit propter humores frigidos…)

If conception is impeded because of too much moisture… (Quod si propter nimiam humiditatem conceptio impediatur…)

If there is a distemper of heat or dryness in the woman which impedes conception… (Quod si caliditate aut siccitate fuerit distemperancia in muliere impediens conceptionem…)

In each case the first stage is to purge the excess humours, and then a selection of baths, plant remedies and suppositories is recommended. (Wellcome Library MS 541, ff. 137r-v)

The whole manuscript is digitized on the Wellcome Library website here.

Similarly British Library MS Harley 2378, quoted by Henslow in an edition of fourteenth-century medical recipes, also mentioned lack of heat as a cause of women’s infertility and suggested a cure to raise her heat:

‘For a womman þat may not bere no chyld for colde blode: Take and let hire blode, and take trisandali and diapendion, and take and ley þem to-gedere with hony, and ete iche day þer-of, and haue blode bothe hote and gode.’ (G. Henslow, Medical Works of the Fourteenth Century (London, 1899). p. 104.)

However, in many other cases the recipes found in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts are not obviously heat-related. Instead many of them require the man, woman or both to ingest animal parts, particularly genitalia.  These recipes work on another theoretical framework with a long history going back to the ancient world: the idea that certain substances were able to stimulate the reproductive organs because of a certain sympathy with them.  For example several fourteenth- and fifteenth-century manuscripts of the Liber de Diversis Medicinis, a collection of recipes in English, include a series of recipes involving animal genitalia. To help a woman conceive a male child, ingredients such as the womb and vagina of a hare; the testicles of a hare; and the liver and eyes of a pig (see Catherine Rider, ‘Men’s Responses to Infertility in Late Medieval England’, in The Palgrave Handbook of Infertility in History, ed. Gayle Davis and Tracey Loughran (Basingstoke, 2017), p. 281).

All of these recipes derive – directly or indirectly – from the Trotula, the twelfth-century Latin compendium of women’s medicine edited by Monica Green, although there were some changes in the process of transmission: the Trotula recommends the liver and testicles of the pig, rather than liver and eyes (see p. 77 in Green).  These recipes from the Trotula appear frequently in recipe collections from medieval England: the pig’s testicles appear again in Wellcome Library MS 407 (f. 61r), ‘Against sterility’.

As Green has shown, numerous manuscripts of the Trotula circulated in England, and the treatise had several Middle English translations, so perhaps it is not surprising that its remedies turn up frequently in recipe collections. Recipes based on animal parts have also featured on the recipes blog before: to take just one example, Laurence Totelin mentioned the use of a deer’s penis as an aphrodisiac in ancient Greece back in 2015.  The Trotula did also discuss the ways in which too much or too little heat might make men or women infertile (see Green’s translation, pp. 85-7). Nevertheless, its influence and the popularity of its genitalia-related remedies means that treatments based on heat and humoral theory were not the only fertility aids available to readers of medieval English recipe collections.  In the future I’m hoping to look in more detail at which aids to conception were particularly popular in English medical texts, and what that might tell us about the transmission of information from earlier Latin medical works.  But at the moment the picture – as regards heat – is looking rather diverse.