Rosewater, Bezoar Stone and Unicorn Horn: Seven Colonial Remedies

There was no shortage of illness in colonial New England and no shortage of colonial remedies. Our forebears left records of suffering with diseases we still recognize, such as small pox and gout, as well as “pin and web in the eye” (cataracts) and “persistent melancholy” and “stomach dross.”

Then, as now, there was no shortage of medicines to treat these ailments. And while some were formulated and administered by doctors, many could be homemade following recipe books available from England.

Cotton Mather tried his hand at writing a medical book. And one popular medical book from the 1600s that made its way to America with the earliest colonists was 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:

colonial remedies

The Doctor’s Visit (Jan Steen, artist)

Plague – Angelica Root and wine vinegar were a simple remedy used to treat the plague.

Insomnia – To cure insomnia, crush some aniseed and steep it in rosewater. Wrap it in two small pieces of cloth and place them under or in each nostril.

Colds (or general health problems, such as persistent melancholy) – Brew some Water of Life. There were a number of recipes for this type of treatment. Here is one of the more complex:

Take Balm leaves and stalks, Betony leaves and flowers, Rosemary, red sage, Taragon, Tormentil leaves, Rossolis and Roses, Carnation, Hyssop, Thyme, red strings that grow upon Savory, red Fennel leaves and root, red Mints, of each a handful; 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; then put to it Cinnamon, Ginger, Angelica-seeds, Cloves, and Nuttmegs, of each an ounce, a little Saffron, Sugar one pound, Raysins solis stoned one pound, the loyns and legs of an old Coney, a fleshy running Capon, the red flesh of the sinews of a leg of Mutton, four young Chickens, twelve larks, the yolks of twelve Eggs, a loaf of White-bread cut in sops, and two or three ounces of Mithridate or Treacle, & as much Muscadine as will cover them all. Distil al with a moderate fire, and keep the first and second waters by themselves; and when there comes no more by Distilling put more Wine into the pot upon the same stuffe and distil it again, and you shal have another good water. 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.

General Health – Antimony and potassium nitrate was popular with John Winthrop and his family. Winthrop also wrote of having purchased and shipped powdered unicorn horn from England for use in treating any aches and pains that came along. He also relied upon the powers of bezoar stones. These are stones made of indigestible matter that form in an animal’s intestines. They were thought to have magical power to neutralize poison. As for the unicorn horn, its unclear what that actually was.

Cataracts – Cataracts were treated by applying a balm to the eyes. Medicine makers held that 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.

Deafness – Deafness was treated by grinding up the roots of a daisy into a liquid and putting drops of the liquid in the ears. Several drops each day for three or four days was the recommended dosage.

Fever – In addition to bloodletting and purging, another approach to treating a dangerous fever was to take a salted fish, split it in half and tie one half to each of a patient’s feet.

Thanks to Customs and Fashions in Old New England by Alice Morse Earle.

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