The Shakers and Herbs – Part 2 Medicinal qualities in common weeds

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.

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.

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.

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.

 

 

 

Housekeeping – Laundry

Housekeeping  – 1790s – Laundry

Another really labor intensive and, to my mind, awful job was laundry. Water was heated in one of those large heavy kettles and the wet laundry was stirred in it. Water had to be carried from the well and if no well had been dug, from the nearest spring. Clothing was scrubbed clean on a washboard.

washboard

This is an antique. I am probably the third or fourth generation to own it. This is a small washboard, probably used for lingerie. The washboards used for heavier clothing would have been much larger.

Of course the laundry detergents we use now did not exist. Usually soap was made from wood ashes and fat. The wood ashes were soaked in a barrel. Why, you may ask. Because wood ashes contain lye. Mixed with fat, lye makes a hard and very harsh soap. Getting one’s mouth washed out with soap must have been incredibly unpleasant!

On the frontier, this lye soap was also used to wash bodies. Lydia, since Rees travels regularly to cities like Salem and Philadelphia, and also because Maine was not the frontier in the 1790’s, would have access to other soaps. Castile soap was made with olive oil and was first created in Spain -thus the name. One of the first manufactured soaps for skin was Pears soap and it was made with glycerine. (Ivory, the so pure it floats soap, was not produced until the 1840s. But I digress.)

Since clotheslines had not been invented yet,  laundry was usually draped over bushes or shrubs to dry –  that must have been fun in the winter. The Shakers invented a variety of methods to dry clothing indoors. If you visit Hancock Village you can see one method with a kind of folding screen like contraption. We can also thank them for inventing clothespins – the kind whittled from one piece of wood with two prongs.

Wealthier women hired a laundress who washed the linen – and later the cotton – sheets and clothing. (For those literary people, Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle was a laundress as was Emmett Otter’s mother). Until calico came in vogue, (since it was cotton it could be washed) only the body linens were laundered. The silks and velvets were not. (Can I say yuck?) After a few wearings they were passed down to a favored servant. Contemporary accounts describe how these pieces of clothing, gowns mostly, were cut up and the still wearable pieces added to other dresses or made over into other clothing.

Monday was wash day, Tuesday was ironing day. (Wednesday was sewing or mending day for those interested.) Flatirons were heated by the fire and when it reached the proper temperature was used. When it cooled it was put back into the fire and another iron was taken from the hearth. The Shakers also invented a chemical to put into the clothing before ironing to reduce the wrinkling: this was many decades before it was used in the World.

When I think of how much laundry my small family generates and imagine trying to keep up with a large family I shudder. And on laundry day, cooking meals still had to be done. Any free time was spent on spinning or, if a loom was owned, on weaving. Since looms were very expensive not every household had the money to purchase one – that is why itinerant weavers like Rees had jobs. Looms of course were passed down – and that is the genesis of the word heirloom.

Many women – I read one statistic that put the number as high as 50% – could not read or write. Girls did not always go to school. They were too busy working in the home.

I think it bears repeating also that women worked usually with a heavy infant in their arms or a toddler at their heels and were probably pregnant besides.

 

Housekeeping circa 1798 – food preparation

Without refrigeration or canned goods, food was prepared from scratch, usually three times a day. Breakfast might consist of mush, pancakes, eggs – familiar food. Supper was a usually a light meal of leftovers from the noon dinner or mush and milk.

 

So cooking was all day, every day. Churning butter and making cheese, smoking meat (men did the butchering but women took care of the meat afterward) and all the food preservation had to be fitted in around the basic cooking. Churning butter, for example, was a time consuming process. It was usually handed off to a child but since it took skill to pat the butter into crocks this was a task reserved for Mother.

 

Cheese making was another skill. Everything had to be spotless and the temperatures just so.

 

Women prepared meals over an open fire or on the hearth of a fireplace.  (The average household used between 30 and 40 cords of wood a year – equal to about one acre of timber). Stoves had been invented by then. Immigrants who came from countries with wood shortages brought tile stoves. Ben Franklin invented a stove in 1741 – but that were not designed for cooking. The 1800s saw the development of stoves – heavy cast iron devices that h led eventually to the large ranges – but they did not take off until after 1815 or so, until then women cooked over an open fire. If the fire went out during the night, a child might be dispatched to a neighbor for a coal. Otherwise a tinderbox might be used. I’ve seen people demonstrate cooking over an open fire. One woman, who is very experienced at these demonstrations, took three hours to get the fire started.

 

As we all know an even temperature is not possible with an open fire. Some of the early fireplaces had ovens for bread and other baked goods built into the brick surround. It must have been quite an art to determine the right temperature for bread or other food. It also explains the boiled desserts and breads: i.e. Boston brown bread or the boiled puddings. So much easier to boil something in a mold without worrying about the temperature. Think about A Christmas Carol by Dickens and the Christmas dinner at the Cratchit house. The turkey had to be roasted elsewhere and the Christmas pudding was boiled.

 

Baked goods, while I’m on the subject, were stored in crocks but without plastic wrap, went stale pretty quickly. Baking therefore had to be undertaken several times every week.

 

Most women used the hearth as a cook surface and a variety of pans to cook on it near the fire. The spider, a three-legged pan, was one such piece of equipment used to bake food. The Dutch over was another. Placed on the hearth, they baked the food slowly in the heat from the fire. Women could then turn their attention to other chores.

 

Fireplaces had look swinging handles that could be pushed over the fire to heat water or cook stew. Some of the big pots that women were lifting from floor level, however, weighed 60 pounds. Yes, sixty, and that’s empty. Now add water and meat.  Add that to the likelihood of burning, not only the food, but you as well and cooking was certainly a challenge. So much for the weaker sex.

 

A final note: The stoves and ranges, although an advance over cooking over an open fire, were known to be temperamental. Contemporary accounts from that period talk about the necessary training a girl had to have before she could really use one of the stoves.

Housekeeping – 1797 Food Preservation

I was buying cans of beans and diced tomatoes to make chili (a winter staple in my house) when I paused and really looked at the can. We take canned food so much for granted I doubt we ever really think about how wonderful it is. Oh, I know canned spinach is limp and I don’t care for canned green beans BUT before the 1800s there was no such thing as canned food or refrigeration either for that matter.

Food has to be preserved to last over the winter – unless you follow the birds south or plan to starve. Methods for preserving food prior to canned food and refrigeration amounted to pickling, think sauerkraut, drying, salting or smoking. Sugar can also be used but sugar was very expensive then.

People knew keeping the air away from food kept it from spoiling but not why.  Louis Pasteur would not be born for another almost twenty-five years so no one even guessed there were microscopic microbes everywhere. So when was this modern marvel invented?

Well, in 1795 Napoleon Bonaparte offered a reward for anyone who find a reliable method for preserving food for troops on the move. (I imagine he was already dreaming of military glory and world domination). It took fifteen years but one Nicholas Appert figured out a way to seal food in glass jars. Ten years later an Englishman named Peter Durand invented a method using unbreakable tin cans. At first these tinned foods were luxury items for the wealthy but by the end of the nineteenth century they were available for everyone.

Ironically, while the invention was spurred by Napoleon and his wars, the use of canned foods exploded during our own Civil War.