Arsenic

Arsenic has been known as a poison for millennia. It was so commonly used during the Victorian Age it was called inheritance powder. (Seriously.) It occurs in nature and contaminates water and foodstuffs. (New Mexico has the dubious distinction of having high levels in their water and rice is particularly susceptible to absorbing arsenic.) A slightly sweet odorless and colorless powder, the symptoms of arsenic poisoning mimic cholera or some kind of intestinal distress. It has been used as a cause of death by many many mystery authors.

Women in the Elizabethan era used it in a paste to whiten their complexions. Of course it was absorbed through the skin and a lifetime of use must have meant serious health complications. (Talk about dying for fashion.)

What interests me, though, are the inadvertent poisonings. Napoleon’s hair was shown to have very high levels of arsenic. Was he poisoned by his nearest and dearest while on Elba? What about King George III, the so-called mad King who reigned during the Colonial period and Revolution? He had porphyria, a blood disease that results in dark urine and extreme sensitivity to the sun. (Some scholars think that porphyria was the original seed of the vampire legends.) Well, when they tested King George’s hair, it too displayed high levels of arsenic. Was he poisoned?

They were both probably poisoned by environmental factors. As that time a beautiful emerald green was all the rage for wallpaper. When George Washington built his house he ordered rooms papered in this fashionable color. The problem is that beautiful color was created by arsenic and in damp or humid weather the arsenic came out of the paper into the air. Instant poisoning.

How sweet it is -Sugar

Sugar has been known for millennia. Botanists suggests sugar was discovered in Papua, New Guinea and has been cultivated for 7000 years. (Wow!) From New Guinea, it traveled west, to India, where the Greeks discovered it. In Sanskrit the word for sugar is karkara. The name changed slightly as it passed through other cultures and ended up with the Arabs who called it sukkur. Not such a leap to sugar.

It was known in Medieval Europe but it was rare and expensive and used as a spice.

What about the Colonies? Well, by 1770 British (including the colonies, ate five times as much sugar as in 1710. That number only increased. At first sugar was used primarily in tea and coffee but was later added to baked goods (especially after the discovery that baking soda and cream of tartar formed a compound that raised quick breads) and candy.

Sugarcane is difficult to harvest (the cutter has to bend over and cut it close to the ground) and change from a sweet sap to granulated sugar. It is a very labor intensive process. The Portuguese have the dubious distinction of being the first to use African slaves but, once the sugar industry really got going in the West Indies, the British and especially the French jumped on the bandwagon. Napoleon’s Jacqueline had brown rotting front teeth from her habit of eating sugarcane.

So, what were the consequences? At the Whitney Plantation outside of New Orleans we saw the pots hung over fires that had to be stirred constantly to keep the juice from burning. This was a job usually reserved for slave children. Of all the jobs the slaves performed, this was probably the worst.

 

More about sugar, sugarcane, and rum next.

Shaker Herbs Part Four – Culinary Herbs

The Shakers served plain food but it was nourishing and, from the recipes I’ve tried, flavorful. There was some overlap of course. Basil, for example, was used as a tea and an aromatic to prevent excessive vomiting. Rosemary was also used as a tea and its oil was made into a liniment.

Some of the other herbs are not so unsurprising. One of my favorites is for a Dandelion salad. (Seriously!) The mixture includes dandelion leaves, simmered until tender and drained, then put into a saucepan with egg yolks, cream, butter and other herbs such as mint, lemon thyme and so on. The mixture is put on slices of stale bread and fried and then seasoned with oil and vinegar and parsley.

Fish was poached with chamomile leaves or covered with chamomile sauce. (Make a roux with butter and flour (2 Tablespoons each), add a Cup of chicken stock, parsley, the chamomile leaves and add salt and pepper to taste,) Marjoram, basil, parsley and basil went into meatloaf, tarragon, summer savory, marjoram, chervil and thyme into chicken fricasee.

Hancock Village served an herb soup made up of chopped sorrel, chopped shallots, chervil, mint and parsley boiled in milk. Butter and salt and pepper are added to taste and the whole mixture poured over squares of toasted bread.

I want to add a note about the Shaker’s recipe for bread which I found in a James Beard bread book. It is so delicious I could eat an entire loaf. But I digress.

Another soup is apple soup, so tasty on a cool fall day. A quartered apple, cored but unpeeled, a quartered onion and a herb mix of marjoram, basil, summer savory and more combined with cinnamon is cooked in the top of a double boiler. The apple is removed when soft and the soup is strained. Cider and cream is added when ready to serve.

Some of these herbs and herb mixes can be purchased in the gift shops of the various museum communities and at Sabbathday Lake. Hancock Village had a mix that includes basil, parsley, marjoram, oregano, tarragon, thyme and more. It has been several years since I purchased my supply so I am not sure it is still available.

Shakers and Herbs Part 3 -Marketing and Sales

Although Waterlviet (just outside of Albany) was the Shakers’ first home, the herb business there began after the business in New Lebanon, New York – now known as Mount Lebanon.  The community began with a few farms and later expanded to become the largest, most prosperous and most influential. It was considered the most ordered and became the Central Ministry.

Until 1821 only wild herbs were gathered but they were gathered in such enormous quantities that many disappeared and quite a few are on the endangered list. In January of that year they began selling herbs to the World, i.e. to people outside the community. After that they began planting physic gardens.

Waterlviet began selling in 1827 and by 1830 had produced a printed catalog.

The Mount Lebanon catalog soon followed, along with Sabbathday Lake (established in 1794 and the last of the Eastern communities to be established), and the New Hampshire,  the Connecticut and finally the Western communities in Ohio and Kentucky. By 1840 the catalogs were four pages long.

But how did they market? We know they did so (and very successfully too). The market they were entering was sated with exotic elixers and medicines and wild promises to cure every malady.

First, their herbs were marketed as pure and, as their reputation for purity of medicinal herbs grew, the business expanded. (Competitors began advertising their herbs as ‘Shaker’ seeds and herbs.

The catalogs, as mentioned above, became larger and with more material and information in each new edition. Like marketers today, they began offering discounts. An account book from the late 1830s offers a discount of 25% for 25 dollars purchased.

They direct marketed to physicians and included samples.

Their ‘territory’, if you will, was world-wide. They imported coriander to sell and by the mid-1800’s were shipping to London, England and San Francisco. They had a busy river trade up and down the major rivers, the Red River, the Ohio River and the Mississippi peddling brooms, straw hats, socks and jeans as well as seeds and herbs.

After the Civil War, and especially toward the early 1900s, the Shaker membership declined. The herb business also began slipping and many of the business were closed. The Sabbathday Lake herb industry was closed in 1911. Some of the others hung on a little longer. The Sabbathday Lake community is unique in that the herb industry was reestablished in 1960 and I was able to purchase a packet of lavender, packed in Sabbathday Lake, in a gift shop attached to the ruins of the community in Albany.

And most people know the Shakers only for their furniture!

Goodreads Giveaway

I am excited to announce I am giving away 10 copies of Cradle to Grave. Of all the books I’ve written, this is my favorite. I began working on it just when my first grandson was born and my research into the poor laws and the plight of orphans made me acutely conscious of the vulnerability of children. Go on Goodreads to try for a copy.

Shakers and Herbs, Part One

The Shakers arrived in the New World in 1774. Like most of the new colonists, they brought some herbal knowledge with them. Yarrow, boneset, dandelion (which is not native to North America) are some of the plants brought over from Britain. Although there were doctors, most of a family’s medical needs were served by a wife or mother, midwife – not the doctor. But I digress.

Again like many of the new colonists, the Shakers drew upon the knowledge of the local tribes to learn about the herbs in the woods. At first, the Shakers wanted the herbs to treat the illnesses in their own community. Later, they planted physic gardens to meet their needs. As farmers everywhere do, if they grew a surplus, they sold it. This was the beginning of a thriving  and very profitable business.

Although Watervliet was the first Shaker community, (just outside of Albany several of the old fields now lie under the Albany airport), the Central Ministry was located at New Lebanon in New York (west of Albany.) The herbal trade began here and soon spread to several other communities, Canterbury, NH and Union Village near Lebanon, Ohio among them. AS we all know, the health business is rife with quackery, The snake oil salesman is a caricature of reality for our early history. The Shakers, despite the fact they were considered religious oddities (almost cultists) brought herbal medicines to respectability.

It was also incredibly lucrative. At its height, the business grossed $150,000 annually. This in a time when an experienced carpenter might make four shillings a week. In today’s money, that $150,000 a year would be worth upwards of 2 million.

The Shakers, by the way, kept meticulous records. Besides commercial transactions , they carefully documented what herb was shipped where and what it cost, they kept records of every aspect of Shaker life. The health of every individual was of prime importance. In fact, the Millennial Laws decreed that “As the natural body is prone to sickness and disease, it is proper that there should be suitable persons appointed to attend to necessary duties in administering aid to those in need.” In health care, as in so many other practices, the Shakers were well in advance of the society that surrounded them.

A quick review of the records pertaining to the deaths of these community members and in an age when the life span was between 40 and fifty, it is not surprising to find Shakers passing away at 87, 88 and even 101.

I based my primary Shaker community Zion on Sabbathday Lake which is located in Alfred, Maine. It is still home to the last remaining Shakers. (Three at last count. When I first began my research several years ago there were ten.) A visit to any of the gift shops in what were once thriving Shaker communities reveals packets of herbs for purchase, all packed at Sabbathday Lake. The remaining Shakers continue to labor exactly as they always have done.

Next: a review of some of the less common herbs used and sold by the Shakers.