In Which I Catch a Cold: 18th century cold remedies

February 17, 2016 in Forgotten Magic, Soap, Scent, Toners and Tonics by M C

The 18th century physician attributed the common cold to the “sucking in” of, essentially “noxious and moist” air, and “nitrous salts” which were inclined to “thicken the blood” and obstructing the “finer secretions.”  18th century cold remedies were designed to soothe the sufferer and cure the cold.. before it developed into something more serious.

In some respects, they weren’t far from wrong.. I spent the last week working in an environment made noxious by a co-worker with a bad cold, who, in the confined space of the shop, managed to spread her woe among many.  And of a certainty my “finer secretions” are well and truly blocked.. I have a stuffy nose, sore throat, and a cough.  Under the right conditions, for example in a small smokey 18th century cottage, my cold might well turn into something more serious… so getting better, preferably sooner rather than later, would have been a good idea.  It’s a good idea now too.

No time off for a coldHappily, I have access to 21st century remedies.. unhappily, most of them contain ingredients which either knock me out cold, or make me very twitchy.  There’s something to be said for being laid out cold while one is suffering from a cold.. but as you will observe, the water bucket is empty, and the ram is peeved.

In some respects we haven’t advanced particularly far in the past 200 years.  True, should this settle in my chest and turn into a nice case of bronchitis, I’ll have access to antibiotics.  But in terms of what one is expected to do while one is suffering from a cold.. not a whole lot has changed.  What is the standard advice offered to those suffering from a cold, in 1750 and 2016?  Rest:

From the nature of the disorder thus described, the remedy is obvious; to whit, lying much a-bed, drinking plentifully of a small warm sack-whey, with a few drops of spirits of hart’s-horn, posset-drink, water-gruel, or any other warm small liquors… living low upon spoon-meats, pudding, and chicken, and drinking everything warm..”  –The Complete Housewife or Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion, E Smith, 1773

18th century cold remedies using herbs, sugar, and lemon juiceWhich I’d be delighted to do, as would any accomplished gentlewoman, but for the necessity of filling water buckets, keeping the hearth tended, and making my own possets.  But annoyingly enough the sheep still need to be fed, the water bucket filled, the fire needs to be tended.. the staffer who passed her cold along still felt obligated to show up for work, though she was clearly ill.  Likely her 18th century counterpart also showed up for work, sneezing into a linen handkerchief instead of a paper tissue.

Which explains the long section in the Complete Housewife detailing various 18th century cold remedies, with recipes and advice.  The advice is good.  Some of the cold remedies sound completely ghastly.  Along the lines of this “most strenuously recommended” remedy from the late Dr. James Malone, which starts with a cupful of linseed.  It does rather redeem itself with the addition of licorice, raisins, brown sugar candy, and rum.. but drinking a full cup of the stuff must have required some effort.  However it does promise to cure a cold in 3 days.. the time in which most colds will have run their course.. so it must be effective.

Most of these recipes have one thing in common: sugar.  They call for sugar candy, loaf sugar, and treacle, in substantial quantities, possibly to make the medicine go down.  In Outlander Claire discards a bottle filled with little bugs.. but the Complete Housewife, published in the early 18th century, has a cough syrup recipe that calls for wood lice.  18th century cold remedies called for peculiar ingredientsYou have to imagine any recipe that calls for spoonfuls of wood lice, bruised, mixed with breast milk, would need a little something to render it palatable… although I’ve some question as to whether or not even a lavish amount of treacle would help make that concoction go down.

It is easy to poke fun at these early attempts to relieve cold symptoms, but the plasters housewives created to wrap around sore throats,  spreading warm lard, beeswax, and balsam rosin, on linen, were likely fairly effective comfort.  They probably smelled about as strong as Vicks Vapor Rub does today, and were just as messy.

Cough hard enough and you’ll find yourself with a prescription for a narcotic cough syrup.. just as you’d have found yourself with one laced with opium in the 18th century.  Although probably not one laced with crushed wood lice..

What I’m not going to attempt, in my current condition, but which fascinates me most is lozenges.  The 18th century housewife created home made lozenges for sore throats.  Elizabeth Jenner’s handwritten recipe “to make Lozenges for Cough my way” is both complicated, and a bit adorable: the lozenges are cut out with a thimble!  But they are essentially a thick paste of sugar, herbal oils, powdered herbs (licorice again), and rose water, another common ingredient.  Once blended the paste was rolled out, punched into small rounds with a thimble, and dried “in your stove or oven” before being stored in glass to keep dry. “And take of them often,” she advises.

Modern lozenge recipes tend to use honey, something I haven’t found in 18th century recipes, but which has been shown to be as effective in treating night time coughs in children as dextromethorphan (abstract of the study).  Modern recipes can be quite simple:

Recipe for Sore Throat Lozenges:
1/2 C honey, 2 T lemon juice, and 1 t grated ginger root.. combine in a saucepan and put over heat, whisking briskly. As the blend starts to foam, remove from heat and continue to whisk until the foam reduces. Put it back over the heat, and repeat, until the recipe reaches 300 degrees, or what a candy maker would call the “hard crack stage,” when a bit dropped in ice water forms a hard ball of candy.  Then drizzle the mixture in modest drops onto parchment paper to form lozenges. Dust with powdered sugar to prevent the pieces from sticking together into an obstinate clump.
If you want something a little more complex, pour 1 C boiling water over about 1/4 C each of helpful herbs.. such as slippery elm, horehound, coltsfoot, camomile, and clover.  After 20 minutes, strain carefully, and add 2/3 C to the honey… proceed as before.

The honey, and ease of assembly, likely make the modern lozenge superior to its 18th century counterpart.  Still, there’s a part of me that is wistful enough to think any recipe that calls for punching out the doses with a thimble is a recipe well worth trying.

cold1Perhaps tomorrow.  Today I’m “lying much abed..” after I tend the sheep.

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