Friday, October 31, 2014

Colonial American Medicine Chest

By Susan F. Craft
Author of The Chamomile, an award-winning Revolutionary War romantic suspense.

picture of a medicine chest
 courtesy of
      Sometimes doing research for my colonial era novels can be amusing.
      A couple of weeks ago, I saw my family doctor for a problem I’d been having. The night before, I’d been reading a resource book, “Indian Doctor – Nature’s method of curing and preventing disease according to the Indians.” I took the book with me to show the doctor the Indian cure for my problem.
     What a hoot! We had such fun looking through the book. Seems as if every cure involved mixing something with wine, ale, beer, or liquor. We came to the conclusion that with enough of the “cure,” even if you still had the problem, you wouldn’t care anymore.
      Here’s what the book says for my problem, “Take some pounded panic (panic is the name for powdered corn), and give it to the patient to drink with wine, and he will recover. The same panic, being boiled with goat’s milk, and eaten twice a day, morning and evening, will operate the same.”
      Seriously, knowing the right herbs and natural cures was extremely important in an era where there were very few, if any, doctors available. And, most of the time, those doctors weren’t classically trained.
      Most colonial women maintained a medicine kit that might have included: (Some of the items in this list that may seem misspelled come directly from Nicholas Culpepper's The English Physician, Enlarged in 1653.)
  • Valerian root, combined with hops and lemon balm; a sedative for sleep
    valerian root
    disorders, insomnia.
  • Sweet gum bark, boiled; for sore eyes, wash eyes three times a day Rum or brandy; for a burn apply a wet rag doused
  • Two or three swallows of cold water before breakfast; for heartburn
  • Feverfew; for headaches/migraines, body aches, and fever
  • Southern Wood; for upset stomach (also used as an insect or moth repellent)
    southern wood
  • Calendula, dried, ground and mixed with animal fat; for cuts 
  • Tansy; for indigestion, cramps, sunburn, and to remove freckles
  • Basil; draw poison out of animal bites
  • Black Cohosh; for menopause
  • Boswellia; for arthritis
  • Chamomile tea; for digestive problems
  • Flaxseed; for menopausal discomfort and osteoporosis
  • White Willow Bark; for back pain
  • Ginger; for nausea and vomiting
  • Lavender flowers; for anxiety
  • Fleabane; for venomous bites, smoke from it kills gnats and fleas; dangerous for women and children
  • Hellebore root snuffed up the nose; for sneezing and melancholy and to kill rats and mice
  • Penyroyal; for vomiting, gas, and vertigo
  • Fox’s tongue softened in vinegar; applied topically, draws out a thorn or splinter
  • Rose petals steeped in vinegar; applied topically for headache
  • Chalk; for heartburn
  • Calamine; for skin irritations
  • Cinchona Bark (contains quinine); for fevers
  • Garden celedine, pile wort, or fig wort; for boils
  • Cottonweed, boyled in lye; it keeps the head from Nits and Lice; being laid among Cloaths, it Keeps them safe from Moths; taken in a Tobacco-pipe it helps Coughs of the Lunges, and vehement headaches.
  • Take howse leeke Catts blod and Creame mixed together & oynt the place warme or take the moss that groweth in a well & Catts blod mixed & so aply it warme to the plase whare the shingles be; for the shingles
      Oh, two weeks after I saw my doctor, who prescribed medicine that cured my original problem, I had to see him again for a terrible earache. We looked at the Indian cure that involved lily onions, marsh mallows, oil of violet and, of course, taken with wine. And then, bleeding.

      I’ll stick with the antibiotics.


  1. What an interesting list. Some of the items are eyebrow raisers, such as hellebore root. I'd be concerned about snorting something that is supposed to kill rodents. I could get into the lavender cure for anxiety, though. Even if it didn't work, it would smell nice. :-)

    1. Hi, Keli. I found lots of "medicines" that were also used to kill insects and rodents. Ee-w-w!

  2. I love this article! It's always interesting how people in earlier times dealt with illness. Thanks for the post!

    1. Thank you, Connie. I love to research things like this. I used some of it in my latest novel.

  3. These ones are still common enough:
    Chamomile tea; for digestive problems
    Ginger; for nausea and vomiting
    Lavender flowers; for anxiety
    But some of the others definitely make me raise a brow. Like this one: Hellebore root snuffed up the nose; for sneezing and melancholy and to kill rats and mice...Though if it kills your rats...

    1. I agree, Angela. Some of the "cures" are just weird. :-)

  4. Truly an interesting post, Susan. My dad - though certainly not colonial! - swore by horehound for sore throats.

    1. Hi, Davalyn. I'm sure lots of the cures/medicines that proved to work have been passed down through the years.

  5. Fascinating ... and wow I'm thankful I live in 2014 instead of Colonial Days. I do, however, have a tea that includes lavender for stress. Interesting that some things are still used.

    1. Thanks, Stephanie. It is interesting how some of the medicines have survived time.

  6. It's interesting to see how some of these things are still used today, like ginger, chamomile, and flaxseed. I wonder if they used birch bark back then. That's where aspirin originally came from.

    1. Yes, Naomi, I've seen birch bark in some of my research.

  7. Fascinating, and entertaining, post, Susan.

  8. I can't even imagine having to depend on some of that stuff and the very idea of "bleeding"! Modern medicine is pretty high on my list of things I am thankful for!

    1. I agree, Rebecca. I tend to romanticize the past and wish I had been born in the 1800s, but, then, I learn about the nitty-gritty of daily life and I change my mind.