Colonial New England had no shortage of illness and no shortage of colonial remedies.
Our forebears left records of suffering with diseases we still recognize, such as smallpox and gout, as well as “pin and web in the eye” (cataracts), “persistent melancholy” and “stomach dross.” They also left records of the remedies for those ill.
Sometimes doctors formulated and administered medicines to treat ailments. And sometimes people made them at home, following recipe books from England.
Cotton Mather tried his hand at writing a medical book. Another popular volume from the 1600s made its way to America with the earliest colonists. Called The Queens Closet Opened, or The Pearl of Practise: Accurate, Physical, and Chirurgical Receipts, it purported to be a compilation of cures originally created for the British royal family.
Here are some of its secrets:
1. Bizarre Colonial Remedies for Fever
Several colonial remedies treated fever. In addition to the ever-popular bloodletting and purging, people would take a salted fish, split it in half and tie one half to each of a patient’s feet. One wonders if the members of the British royal family got special fish.
2. A Simple Remedy for Plague
Angelica root and wine vinegar together were a simple remedy used to treat the plague. However, people stopped using angelica root for the plague during the reign of Charles II in the mid-1600s. Maybe they found out it didn’t work.
3. Cure for Insomnia
Colonial doctors used aromatherapy to cure insomnia. They advised crushing some aniseed and steeping it in rosewater. Then the insomniac should wrap it in two small pieces of cloth and place them under or in each nostril.
Ben Franklin, a well-known insomniac, may have tried that remedy. He did comfort himself with the now-famous expression, “There will be sleeping enough in the grave.”
4. Colds and Persistent Melancholy
The colonists had a magic bullet for colds and depression: water of life, or aqua vitae. They had a number of recipes for it. One of the more complex required quite an herb garden, chickens, larks, white bread and treacle — along with sugar and raisins. Yummy!
The recipe called for handfuls of balm leaves and stalks, betony leaves and flowers, rosemary, red sage, tarragon, tormentil leaves, rossolis and roses, carnation, hyssop, thyme, “red strings that grow upon savory, red fennel leaves and root, red mints.
Then, “bruise these hearbs and put them in a great earthern pot, & pour on them enough White Wine as will cover them, stop them close, and let them steep for eight or nine days.”
It didn’t end there. The recipe further called for adding an ounce each of cinnamon, ginger, angelica seeds, cloves and nutmeg, plus a little saffron, a pound of sugar and a pound of seedless raisins. Then came the protein: the loins and legs of “an old Coney, a fleshy running Capon.” Plus the red flesh of the sinews of a leg of mutton, four young chickens, 12 larks and the yolks of 12 eggs. Plus a loaf of cut-up white bread, and two or three ounces of mithridate, an antidote for poison that had as many as 65 ingredients. Treacle could be used instead of mithridate.
Finally, the last ingredient: “as much muscadine as will cover them all.”
The concoction was distilled over a moderate fire, and then distilled again with more wine.
The instructions then read, “This water strengtheneth the Spirit, Brain, Heart, Liver, and Stomack. Take when need is by itself, or with Ale, Beer, or Wine mingled with Sugar.”
5. Pricey Colonial Remedies for Cataracts
Cataracts were treated by applying a balm to the eyes. Medicine makers thought valuable and rare materials were useful in balms or tonics. So gold, rubies and pearls were common ingredients to be ground and mixed with herbs and applied to the eyes.
No word on the price tag.
Colonial doctors treated deafness by grinding up the roots of a daisy into a liquid and then putting drops in the ears. Several drops each day for three or four days was the recommended dosage.
Even today, some people drink wild daisy tea for coughs, bronchitis and inflammation. No one seems to know quite how it works, but people aren’t using it for deafness any more.
7. Colonial Remedies for General Health
John Winthrop the Younger doctored many people in Connecticut, where he also served as governor. He often treated people with powdered antimony, a metalloid, and potassium nitrate, or salt. Antimony, also known as kohl, has properties that fall between metals and solid nonmetals. Today people use it in flame retardants, bullets, batteries and microelectronics.
Winthrop also wrote he had purchased and shipped powdered unicorn horn from England to treat a variety of aches and pains. He also relied upon the powers of bezoar stones, made of indigestible matter that form in an animal’s intestines. People thought they had magical power to neutralize poison.
As for the unicorn horn, it’s unclear what that actually was.
Thanks to Customs and Fashions in Old New England by Alice Morse Earle. This story last updated in 2022.
Images: Bloodletting photo from The Burns Archive – Burns Archive via Newsweek, 2.4.2011., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90618978. Daisy By Norbert Nagel, Mörfelden-Walldorf, Germany – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14991704. Precious metal chart By Tomihahndorf, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1740953.