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.
Many of the plants we despise as weeds actually have qualities that render them useful as medicines, dye plants or more. Take the humble dandelion, for example. First of all, it is not native to North America but was brought over by the first colonists. The leaves are edible and I’m sure most people have heard of dandelion wine. Using it as a dye produces a reddish color. I’ve also read, although never tried it, that if a woman who believes she might be pregnant urinates on the leaves and they change color, she will know she is expecting.
Medicinally, the dandelion is recommended for diseases of the liver, constipation and uterine obstructions. It should be collected when the plant is young. A freshly dried root can be used as a tonic for stomach troubles.
Broadleaf dock root, a common visitor in my yard, can be used as a purge and a tonic. The Shakers shipped great quantities of this root. In 1889, some forty four thousand pounds was shipped to one firm in Lowell Mass from Enfield, New Hampshire. Since at that time the root was selling for about 50 cents a pound, the community must have made quite a bit.
Skunk cabbage was another plant used successively as a treatment. A stimulant, the root was used for nervous irritability (not sure what this means) and whooping cough, asthma, chronic rheumatism and spasms.
Burdock leaves were used as a cooling poultice.
I’m sure you get the idea. Some of the other weeds they harvested and sold are: Butternut bark (the hulls of the nuts make a yellowish gray dye), elder flowers (tasty as well as medicinal), Yarrow, hoarhown, bugle, crosswort (or boneset) and many more.
They also made combinations as lozenges and syrups. Their cough medicine included wild cherry bark, seneca snakeroot with rhubarb and a tiny amount of morphine. (The Shakers also grew the opium poppy and sold the raw opium at tremendous prices.) Another popular offering was Tamar laxative. Among other ingredients it included Tamarind, prunes, fruit of cassia and sugar. The resulting paste was dried and cut into lozenges.
Interestingly, they also sold concentrated sarsaparilla syrup. Sarsaparilla is also known as wild licorice.
Although the Shakers were a religious community, they were also canny – but honest – businessmen and women. Next up, the marketing and selling of the herbs.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.