Just over 2 years since it was first brought to the public’s attention and for most people focus is still very much on COVID 19. In the past two years we have learnt a lot about social distancing, mask wearing, and testing. Science has also brought in vaccines and new treatments. In the days of all of this advancement in medical practices it is interesting to look back at aliments and cures of the past.
In the seventeenth century people were concerned about plague. The Great Plague occurred in London in 1665-6 and spread across the country. But this wasn’t the first epidemic of plague in this century. Previous epidemics had taken place in 1603, 1625 and again in 1636- though in smaller numbers. In Norwich the outbreak of the 1666 plague could be seen in the burials of the parish register of St John Timberhill, among other Norwich parishes (NRO, PD 74/1).
Over 100 years before Edward Jenner took his steps to creating the first vaccine for small pox, families turned to their own plague remedies. This is true of the Smallpeece family. In a notebook thought to belong to Dorothy Smallpeece of Hockering, Norfolk, you can find many recipes and cures. Some are from printed sources, others are written by George Breinton (possibly Dorothy’s husband) and some written by Dorothy herself (NRO, MC 74/1, 521X7). The book contains the following cure for plague, which was written by a Dr Burges:
‘Take 3 pintes of Muskadine and boyle in it one handfull of sage, as much Rue till a pinte be wasted, then strayne it and sett it agayne on the fyer, then putt thereto a penniworth of long pepper, half an ownce of ginger, a quarter of an ownce of nutmeggs all beaten together, lett it boyle a little, and put therto 2 penniworth of Treacle, 4 penniworth of Mithridate, and a quarter of a pint of the best Angelica water [you] can gett’.
Muskadine is a type of grape juice, and most of the other ingredients, such as pepper, ginger and nutmeg are still readily available today.
The recipe includes 2 classical plague cures:
Mithridate – classical mixture of between 41-55 ingredients named after a king who wanted a universal antidote for poison
Angelica water-infusion of angelica in water
Half a spoonful of Dr Burges’s plague remedy was to be taken each morning and evening to ward off plague, and one warm spoonful was to be taken each morning and evening if already infected. The writer explains that the remedy was also good for treating smallpox, measles and other diseases.
This remedy seems to have been incredibly popular; also appearing in a book held by the Bulwer family of Heydon in Norfolk and attributed to Sir Walter Rayleigh (NRO, NRS 26354). The Rayleigh version specifies that the ingredients include Venice Treakle, a third classic plague cure containing 64 ingredients also called theriac. The word treacle is used here to mean balm.
It is interesting to note that many of these recipes pose as a cure-all to a number of different aliments and illnesses. With the advent of patent medicines this trend continued. A Farm account book of John Copsie of Wacton, c. 1790 (NRO, BR 187/1) contains a recipe for Daffey’s exlixer at the back. The recipe states:
4oz Best Raisins stoned
1 Do Carraway Seeds Bruised
3 Do Senna
Steep these ingredients in a Quart of best French Brandy for a month. Then strain it off for use —and keep The Bottle close stopped.
On first reading it can be assumed that this was a family or local remedy however Daffy’s Elixir was a name used by several patent medicines, in UK and USA in 18th and 19th centuries often marketed as an universal cure for everything from scurvy to convulsions.
An early recipe for ‘True Daffy’ from 1700 lists aniseed, brandy, cochineal, elecampane, fennel seed, manna, parsley seed, raisin, rhubarb, saffron, Senna and Spanish liquorice.
As patent medicines became popular increasing numbers of advertisements making wild claims could be found. Professor Holloway’s pills and ointments were advertised as a cure for diarrhoea, yellow fever, headaches, coughs, colds, and skin diseases amongst others (NRO, MC 561/118). They were sold at a cost of 1s 11/2d for four dozen at his establishment on Oxford Street and ‘by nearly every respectable Vendor of Medicine throughout the civilised world’. Holloway claims that to treat skin diseases such as scurvy, and bakers’ itch it was necessary to ‘carry effectually out of the blood all the morbific matter that is thrown out on the skin, as pocks, pimples, blotches, scabs, sores, [etc]’. To do this the patient needed to take six to eight pills morning and night and rub the ointment on affected areas. For sailors approaching ‘unhealthy climes’ the advertisement recommended taking pills nightly for eight or ten days to ‘purify the blood and correct the action of the liver and stomach’.
These medicines were popular with the upper classes: a bill from J Sanger’s Genuine Patent Medicine Warehouse, 1818, reveals that General Meade of Earsham Hall bought two boxes of Ching’s Warm Lozenges, six boxes of Salt of Lemons and two bottles of Bleaching Liquid for a total of 17s 6d. (NRO, MEA 11/18).
Like today it was not just medicine that was advised and preventative measures were also taken into account. We may be familiar with the advice to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ when we wash our hand, to not touch our eyes and to use hand sanitizer often but in the 1870s there was other advice to prevent children from catching a cold. In the catchy titled book ‘Caution and hints to mothers, nurses, etc [for the] treatment of the diseases incidental to children with valuable medical hints for the household’, by C Quevillart, the recommendation is that the reader should wash their head at least once a week using only mild soap, or egg white. The scalp should be lightly greased with pomade (NRO, MC 24/19, 450×5). It is explained that the pomade would prevent evaporation, therefore alleviating the fear of catching cold.
Hopefully in time the current pandemic will soon become a distant memory. But once it does it will be interesting to see if future generations think the idea of coating our hands in a gel containing alcohol or singing happy birthday when we wash them equally as strange as some of these remedies mentioned here.