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.


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.

Norway number two

One of my favorite parts of this trips was seeing an Iron Age farm. Man, times were hard. The people lived in longhouses with sod roofs.

Peopel lived in the south, animals in the north, so the heat from the animals came down, Also the smells and other less nice things. I’ve read about the custom of keeping the animals in the house. Diseases that began in animals then jumped to humans.

But I digress.

I was very interested in the loom. The weaving was done top to bottom. The warp threads at the bottom were hung with weights. Weaving, which for me is a fairly quiet operation, must have been noisy.

loom weights

One of the things I found interesting was the green tape and the interpreter’s green shirt. I knew from my research for “Death of a Dyer” that there was no green dye in Europe. In Peru they used some plant but that had not been discovered in Europe. But they did have yellow, blue (indigo) and red (madder).


So, where did they get green? Here is a better shot of the green tape.

green tape

I asked the interpreter and he referred me to the Archaelogy Department. Answer: they over dyed, beginning with yellow and then blue.

For pictures of the dress and shoes I refer you to the blog by ArchaeoFox.


Spring Gardening – and insects

I spent a lot of time this past weekend working in the garden: putting in string beans as well as taking out a lot of the winter-killed plants.  (Yes, out of 12 roses, I have only 4 left.) The vegetable garden in enclosed by a fence, and most of the larger yard is fenced to keep out the deer. I coated my gardening pants with off (Deet variety) but I still got bitten by mosquitoes and black flies. Welts all over my ears and neck. But my husband, who was mowing in the front, and unfenced yard, got a tick. And the dog and my grandson (who spends hours running around the yard ‘with the doggy’) both got ticks.

It is the season. Be careful out there.

Midwives – and witchcraft?

As Lydia, one of the principle characters (married to my detective Will Rees) prepares to deliver their first baby, my thoughts turned to births. In that time both maternal and infant mortality was high. It was not uncommon for a man to be buried in a church yard with several wives.

Most women, especially those in the country, had their babies delivered by a midwife. For one thing, it was considered indecent for a man to witness the birth. Male physicians were just beginning to make inroads in delivering babies in the cities. Thousands of women who were burned in Europe as witches were midwives and healers . Why? Well. everyone knew women, who were ill-educated to begin with,  were too stupid to learn something like this so the knowledge had to have a supernatural origin, i.e. the Devil. This in spite of the fact that midwives have been part of human history for millennia and there were less deaths when midwives delivered the babies. They washed their hands. Male doctors, according to the history I’ve read, did not and they passed bacteria from one woman to another, with maternal death following.

What did midwives do? Think about this: there were no pain killers other than alcohol and opium and anyway it was thought women should suffer. After all, they were guilty of listening to the serpent in the Garden of Eden and persuading Adam to eat the forbidden apple. Queen Victoria popularized pain killers during birth. (Smart woman).

There were no stethoscopes. They were not invented until 1816 and then looked like a long tube. Forceps were invented centuries earlier but were risky. Obstetric tools discovered in 1813 included forceps used by a male physician so they were known and used by then.

But midwives helped with the breathing, cut the cord, and some experienced midwives could turn a baby who was in a breech position. After the birth, they cleaned the baby, removing the mucous from nose and mouth, and made sure the cry was robust. Usually the midwife had an apprentice or two.

Now, with an interest in ‘natural birth’, we have come full circle back to midwives.

Superstition and health

Folk beliefs (superstitions has a pejorative connotation) cover all kinds of things, from seeing the face of one’s future husband to scaring away witches. However, not all of these beliefs are silly. Some, especially the ones relating to health, have arisen from trial and error or simple observation.
For example, the Navahos have a prohibition about sweeping their hogans at a certain time of the year. Come to find out the hanta virus is spread in mouse excrement which, at that time of the year, dries up and goes into the air. So what seemed like a superstition actually had a scientific basis. Another such example is willow bark tea for aches and pains. Since willow bark contains the active ingredient found in aspirin, another true belief. And drinking rose hip tea is good for what ails you. Rose hips are a great source of Vitamin C.
Other beliefs, not so much. You can remove warts by rubbing it with a live toad until they are drawn into a toad’s skin. (really!) You will never have arthritis if you wear a ring of dried raw potato on the middle finger of your right hand. You can cure a simple headache by wearing a necklace of corn kernels. You can cure respiratory illnesses by placing the skin of a black cat on the afflicted person’s chest for three days. If you place an ear of corn between a mother and her baby, he will have a long and prosperous life.
Other beliefs I think need some investigation. Wounds will heal much faster if you place cabbage or plantain leaves on the affected area. This one sounds to me like it might actually work. Another is curing sunburn by placing a mash of wet tea leaves on the area. Since tea leaves are full of antioxidants this one may work as well. You can cure diarrhea or colic by drinking a tea made of blackberry leaves. This treatment at least would do no harm. Diarrhea was a killer of babies back then and one of the other treatments of choice was giving them opium.

Superstition and disease

The current furor over the Ebola outbreak prompted me to consider the role of disease in the past. During the Middle ages there was no conception of the role bacteria and viruses play in the transmission of disease so everything was ascribed to God, the Devil, or witchcraft. The birth of a deformed calf, destruction of crops, soured milk or ale or an outbreak of some disease could mean a witch had set a curse. As I mentioned in a previous post, witch hunts continued in the United States until the middle of the 1800s. (And belief in the supernatural did not end then. There was tremendous interest in spiritualism, attracting no lesser a personage than Arthur Conan Doyle, and belief in fairies encouraged by faked photographs. But I digress.) Paradoxically, it is believed that some of the worst incidents of witch hunts and trials were magnified by poor harvest (so people were hungry and scared) and by the growth of ergot on the grains (so people were also tripping). Talk about a perfect storm.

I suspect Granny medicine – the old wise women who knew treatments from trial and error – like that certain kinds of mold could cure infection also played a part in tarring these women with the taint of witchcraft.

A host of measures to counter spells were in use. Some of the measures employed to keep a witch out of a house: storing apples (really!), a bag of salt under the master bed, a horseshoe or a clove of garlic hung over each entrance. Of course, if a spell was cast upon you, you had to employ certain methods to counteract that spell. To counteract a spell one would put seven drops of vegetable oil in a dish of water with some iron and rub the outside of the dish clockwise for three minutes. Doing so seven days would completely break the spell.

Of course such treatments had no effect on diseases. Diptheria, cholera, smallpox, the list of diseases is long. Smallpox, although us moderns have never seen a case, has been around so long scientists are not sure when it began. The theory is, though, that this disease also came out of Africa (like Ebola) and spread via trade routes.. Mummies with smallpox scars have been found in Egyptian tombs so it has been around for millennia. By my character, Will Rees’s time, advances in treating disease were beginning. At the beginning of the 1700s, vaccination as a treatment for smallpox was spreading. ( Live smallpox virus from an infected person was used – Yipes!!) The death rate for vaccination was 2%, unvaccinated and infected naturally = 14%. Edward Jenner, an orphan, was vaccinated as a boy. He had heard tales that dairymaids infected with cowpox never got smallpox. A few experiments later and in 1796 vaccination with cowpox as a treatment for smallpox was born. Rees would have seen many people with the characteristic round scars left by smallpox.

Except for some vials that are in storage, smallpox has been eradicated. I suspect Ebola will be also, eventually.