Folk Medicine

Herbal remedies are certainly part of folk medicine. Tonics were a regular part of the health regimen and reading the ingredients explains why. Willow and poplar bark, spearmint, wormwood and ginseng – all used in various ways now.

But there is a lot more to it. Beech leaves (astringent and used for skin injuries) might be boiled down into a poultice, but other parts might be added to the remedies. For example, regular nose bleeds might be treated by a mixture of alum, red bath root and blood root mixed together into a powder that can be inhaled. The blood root and the red bath root symbolize the blood. Many folk medicine relied on both sympathetic and contagious magic. So a knife might be placed under an expectant mother to cut the pain of childbirth.

Or, in contagious magic, items that were in contact with the body would have special powers. Sailors relied on the caul (the membrane covering a new baby) as protection against drowning. A sore throat would be cured by applying camphor to a sock (that had been work on the right foot) and wearing it around the neck. While we still use the camphor, we no longer expect it to be smeared over a dirty sock.

Incantations or blessings were also said over the cure or affected person.

To us, folk medicine is suspect, partly because of some of the farm ingredients. Cow manure might be used as a poultice of sheep manure strained with cider and drunk. Ugh. Croup might be cured with a spoonful of skunk oil.

There were also people reputed to have special powers. Blood stoppers were credited with the power to stop bleeding (kind of like the dowsers who find water.) Some of them could find lost things. The seventh son was especially powerful.

Modern medicine has moved away from most of these old remedies although faith healing is still practiced in certain sects. However, progress to current medicine has a down side. We have lost touch with nature and the natural remedies found in herbs and tree bark.

Next up: The Shakers and Herbs.

 

Herbal Remedies

Herbal remedies have been used for thousands of years and are still used today – although frequently the active ingredient has been removed and transformed into a pill. The examination of Neanderthal remains, for example, reveals traces of poplar bark and willow bark (bark which contains high levels of salicylic acid – otherwise known as the active ingredient in aspirin – as well as the kind of mold that is used for penicillin.  Lavender is still commonly used as are the culinary herbs. Many of them were used in the past for their medicinal properties. Lavender, for example, was used for flatulence and fainting.

But well into the 1800’s, before the advent of antibiotics, herbal remedies were the only choice. Remedies were passed down orally and usually kept secret.  Many people did not visit a doctor until adulthood if in fact they ever did. It is fortunate that many of these remedies were efficacious. Many of the male doctors of the time accepted women with herbal knowledge but would not share their medical knowledge. Women were the ‘weaker vessels’ and so should be restricted to the garden variety remedies. But the doctors were not above borrowing these remedies; many of the tonics and teas and poultices were effective. In the early 1700’s a Mrs. Feeld (a midwife) had a ‘green’ ointment which contained such herbs as sorrel, bay leaves, sage, lettuce, camomile and violets. (The Shakers sold herbal remedies and sage, used in tonics, was an astringent and sorrel, also in tonics, was an antiseptic.) Early colonists used sage to treat everything from gray hair to yellow teeth to failing memory. It does not do all of that BUT it is found in some treatments for the throat and also for cognitive issues. Lettuce was used as a mild narcotic. Who knew?

As mentioned above, midwives frequently treated many illnesses.

My mother always grew a flower – Calendula – which has pale yellow to orange flowers. It looks like of like marigolds. Well, this was used for topical ointments for burns and cuts. Neither of us knew its medicinal properties. Another plant, which I consider a weed and eradicate whenever I can, is St. Mary’s thistle. It can also be used topically. Other culinary herbs, such as rosemary, was used in a tonic for coughs and colds and the oil was used as a liniment. Thyme was used for stomach aches.

Many of the midwives were Indians or part-Indians. (In Vermont and Maine, they were frequently from the Abenaki tribe.) Their use of herbs was extensive and many Colonists learned from them. More about this in a future post.

Herbal remedies were also part of a larger topic – folk medicine. Some of these treatments, although they sound very odd, actually work. Next week, folk medicine.

Women’s health in the 1700’s

Pregnancy took an enormous toll on women. Besides the tremendous – and physical work – of running a household, women helped in the fields when needed. Childbirth was dangerous and it was not uncommon for a farmer to bury three wives.

We think that midwives handled the lying-in and birth for the mothers. Not exactly. Both Ministers and doctors attended. (I suspect male doctors were already moving into this sphere, although it is usually assumed that did not happen until the mid-1800s. But why the Ministers? A review of some of the early diaries indicates that a significant number of men were both Ministers and Doctors. What about the ones who weren’t?)

But I digress.

In any event, from the writings of these men, it is clear that they treated women for a variety of ailments. From the 1700s the Commonplace Book of Thomas Robie of Salem reveals that as a physician he stepped into to prevent and promote abortion (!) and to speed and ease delivery of the baby. Because many women experienced soreness of the breasts after childbirth (and this is still true), he recommended a concoction of “Millepedes with the heads off, stampt in white wine or beer” to be taken every morning and evening. (Can I say yuck now?)

Another male healer,  parson, also treated complications of pregnancy and menstrual disorders. His cure for cramps? “. . .every night you goe to bed smell your fingers after you have picked the stinking sweat that is between your toes.” Ugh!

Many of these men did consult with female healers when unsure what to do. Although these women, relying on herbal medicines and lore passed down orally from mother to daughter, were frequently illiterate, a survey of diaries show that the men regularly borrowed recipes from the them.

For all that women were legally dependent, unable to inherit without express willed instruction from her husband, she nevertheless was extremely important in the house. Her illness or death devastated the household. She was a major player in the economy of the family besides caring for children and performing the household tasks that were essential for survival. Perhaps because mortality was so high, every life was precious.

Next up: Herbs and remedies.

Dental Health in the late 18th century

First of all, there were no dentists perse. There were surgeon dentists since the people who practiced did both. (Most were men but in 1797 the Columbian Centinel lists an ad from Mrs. Dodge, newly arrived in Boston from New York and claiming expertise in “Art Dental”.) Most of these so-called dentists were itinerants (like my traveling weaver Will Rees.) Not only service people like Rees and the dentists traveled but also ministers, magistrates and other professions. The routes began to settle into regular circuits by about 1800.

But I digress.

Many of these surgeon-dentists were quacks, promising all manner of cures. Some were reputable, however, promoting dentrifice (that’s toothpaste to us) and genuinely possessing some kind of medical training.

So what did these early dentists do?

Well, without novacaine and the drills we take for granted, dentistry was a painful affair. Some reputable surgeon dentists ‘plumbed’ the teeth, scraping out the decay and filling the tooth with gold or lead. (I can only imagine how awful this must have been.) Most decayed teeth were simply extracted with a tool that resembles a corkscrew with a hook on one end. Teeth, by the way, were not pulled but drawn. Interestingly, in light of current knowledge on how dental health affects the entire body, doctors of that time already predicted one’s health would improve with good teeth. No less a personage than Dr. Rush, a Philadelphia doctor who gained fame during the Yellow Fever epidemic in 1793, predicted cures for several diseases once a rotten tooth was pulled. It was a case of overreach, however, since not only rheumatism would be relieved but also such ailments as epilepsy,

What about George Washington’s wooden teeth? First of all they weren’t wooden. They were ivory (carved at various times from elephant and hippo teeth,) Washington’s first set were carved of ivory with human teeth inserted and with a hole for his one remaining molar. Sounds awkward and painful both.

And while we are on teeth, Napoleon’s Josephine learned to smile with one hand shielding her mouth since several of her front teeth were decayed. As a child she had a great fondness for sugar cane.

Better lives for women

I tend to think of the 1700s as static in terms of women’s lives but of course it wasn’t. Although Colonial women spent significant time spinning, weaving (if they had a loom) and making candles, as the century wore on households transitioned from frontier living where everything had to be made in-house to a time where necessities could be purchased. Of course the coastal cities like New York, Philadelphia and Boston enjoyed a higher standard of living even before the Revolution. Clothing or fabric, furniture and other luxuries were imported from England and the daughters of affluent households, well staffed with servants and/or slaves, had no need to use the wheel. They did ‘fancy’ work: embroidery of other decorative needlework.

But I digress.

By the late 1700s even rural communities, even in Maine, had access to items which could be purchased – such as dress goods – that would make a woman’s life easier. (Salem with its fast merchant ships and ties to the Orient, imported cloth of all kinds from cotton muslin to silk, cashmere shawls from India and more. Some of these goods made it away from the coasts. It is no surprise to learn that Salem at this time was the wealthiest city in the United States.) Labor could be hired to help in the fields and in the house. Will Rees, traveling weaver, was not the only (male) weaver who went from house to house plying his trade. (Women weavers were bound to their homes.) Spinners could also be hired, Usually widows or unmarried daughters in a large family, these women would spin for an agreed upon price.

But what about the frontier women. The frontier continued to push west and, by the late 1790’s, was pushing past Pittsburgh. Contemporary observers of Pittsburgh were vastly critical of the dirty streets, through which hogs ran unheeded. Most of the houses were wood or frame, but brick was beginning to take over. Glass for windows was imported at large expense. For women, moving to town no matter how dirty, made their lives less arduous. Tasks could be given over to the candlemakers, the washerwomen, dressmakers and shoemakers. Galatin (an important figure during the Whiskey Rebellion) was a weaver. By 1807 there were six professional bakers. In fact, by the 1800’s, the wealthy began building mansions outside of town and Pittsbugh began offering social and cultural opportunities.

The frontier had moved west to Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois.

Housework – cleaning – 1798

Besides all the other tasks involved in keeping house, wives also kept the house clean. As much as they were able – the standards of cleanliness were lower than ours. (I think women of the the past, both recent and long ago, would be stunned by the clorox infused wipes we use.) But there were no vacumn cleaners then, only brooms and they were mostly twigs or broom grass tied to a pole. The Shakers again invented a machine that tied on the straw for a more modern broom – and their brooms were highly prized.

But I digress.

The brooms had to be used to sweep the dirt and the floors were scrubbed on hands and knees with the harsh soap I mentioned earlier. What about carpets? Yes, they were swept. But every Spring well – run households had an annual and dreaded Spring Cleaning. All carpets were taken and beaten thoroughly to rid them of the accumulated dust, dirt and other unsavory objects.

Floors and windows, if the house had them, were washed and bedding was aired. Anything silver was polished, and not with the handy silver wipes either. Elbow grease was the common technique. Curtains were washed and rehung.

Children were impressed into helping and more affluent women hired help, usually unmarried girls from around the neighborhood. Spring cleaning usually took several days and contemporary accounts, especially from husbands, express frustration and annoyance at the disruption.

But the lot of women, and the work expected of them, was improving. See next week’s blog.

 

More about food – Garden Sass

Women in the cities might not be responsible for smoking and drying game and pork as well as preserving other types of food but women on farms and certainly on the frontier were.

Most homesteads owned pigs and even in cities the pigs ran free. Chickens might be in coops or be truly free range, foraging for themselves. (That must have made hunting for eggs fun).

And, no matter how much acreage was in corn, rye or other grains, housewives always had a small patch of vegetables. (Many of them must of had flowers too since lists of seeds and bulbs that were brought over included seeds for peach, apricot, apple, plum and cherry trees as well as seeds for snapdragons, peonies, morning glories and tulip bulbs.)Wheat bread was expensive although wheat was grown in Pennsylvania. In Maine rye and buckwheat were the common crops. Most people ate a bread called ‘injun loaf’, a combination of rye and corn.

Vegetables grown included spinach, rhubarb, several kinds of peas, beans as well as turnips, carrots, cabbage, beets and cucumbers. In more southerly climates than Maine artichokes were popular. A variety of herbs were also grown and had to be tied to the rafters and dried every fall.

Where are the potatoes? Although a new world crop (the Incas had thousands of varieties), potatoes did not get to the colonies until late in the 1700s. They quickly became a popular crop. And where are the tomatoes? Considered poisonous a hundred or so years earlier, they were still suspect.

All the vegetables were lumped together under the term garden sass.

Sugar and salt were both expensive. Salt especially was valuable and desperately needed for food preservation. Honey was the most common sweetener – ironic since bees are not native to the New World. They were brought over with the first colonists, however, and quickly became wild. The other common sweetener was from the sugar maple – maple sugar and syrup.

One final comment: the immigrants to this country brought their own eating habits with them so there were variations in what the colonists ate, depending on country of origin. The Scottish, for example, had to give up oatmeal porridge and switch to cornmeal mush for a time.