Dogs were said to go mad during the dog days of summer, and New Englanders have certainly done strange things in the hot, humid weeks of July and August.
The ancient Greeks were said to have named dog days after Sirius, the dog star, when it rises ahead of the dawn. The Old Farmer’s Almanac reports they happen from July 3-August 11. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer considers them to run from July 6 to August 17.
Scholar Eleanor Long concluded the term ‘dog days’ arose because people associated hot, sultry days with sickness and madness.
A Rhode Island study showed that early belief had some truth in it. Among the state’s 1 million residents, there are 300 extra emergency department visits and 13 more deaths on days with a heat index of 95 degrees or more.
Here are some strange things New Englanders have done during the long, hot days of summer.
Enemas and Sherry
- On July 26, 1788, Maine midwife Martha Ballard noted in her diary: “Dog Days begin this day.” Ballard linked the dog days with increased illness. She certainly seemed to visit more patients during them. Shortly after they began in 1788, she gave an enema of English mallow and chamomile to a dying child.
- In 1915, a Boston doctor named John Bryant advised a cure for headache during the dog days, but only for thin, meat-eating patients. He wrote to the New England Journal of Medicine, noting that “the [thin] carnivore who perspires little or not at all suffers from headaches and prostration, while the herbivore sits placidly amid steams and puddles of perspiration…the carnivore must be induced to perspire.” He recommended judicious amounts of alcohol, not more than a sherry glass of claret, madeira, or other similar beverage, taken at the oftenest not more than once in every four hours.” If that doesn’t work, he wrote, the patient can take a shower.
Pine Cones and Witch Hazel
- John Quincy Adams, the radical who wore trousers on his inauguration, actually took off his cravat during a hot August in Washington, D.C. In 1822, Adams complained of the dog days in a letter to his wife. “As the weather is subsiding from fever heat I have resumed my cravat; but you know there is always room, summer and winter, for ironical wags to make merry with my dress.”
- Henry David Thoreau wrote that the dog days occurred during September 1859 in Concord, Mass. He spent the time watching pine cones ripen. “It is really a rich and interesting sight. How little observed are the fruits which we do not use! How few attend to the ripening and dispersion of the pine seed!” he wrote in his journal on Sept. 18, 1859.
- Penobscot Indian women refused to gather medicinal herbs, roots and bark during the hot summer. Instead, they gathered witch hazel, sarsaparilla and sweet flag roots immediately before it got hot and pounded them into powder.
- In 1889, the New England Medical Gazette recommended breast-feeding infants to lessen ‘the double peril of teething and dog days.’
- Henry Bowditch, prominent Massachusetts physician, followed the Greek physician Galen’s practice of bleeding patients. But Galen advised against bleeding during the dog days.
This story was updated in 2022.
It is somewhat amusing to read that Thoreau–during the dog days–watched pine cones ripen. Meanwhile, his obedient mother fetched and laundered his clothing and bedding, tidied his cabin, and brought him daily-prepared meals. Of course, her contributions to his passive endeavors are seldom acknowledged. What more does the Historical Society know of Mrs. Thoreau?
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