Mid-Month Memo 01: Home Remedies

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Here’s the first of a new series of mid-month posts about… well, stuff that might be of interest to our readers, and to writers who want to add a note of authenticity to their stories. These posts will cover a whole range of topics on the history of the old West. We hope they’ll be interesting, useful and fun. Enjoy reading this post, and be grateful for modern medicine!

For many Victorian families, seeking treatment from a doctor or drugs from a pharmacist was prohibitively expensive, a situation made worse in the American west where medical professionals may have been few and far between. Many families relied upon recipes for home remedies that have been passed down from generation to generation, using ingredients commonly available from a local apothecary or pharmacist – or, in some cases, the local butcher! This page gives you the recipes from the collections of two ladies: one an English Victorian (using her spelling, which was variable at times) and an American.

Measurements are usually given in drams or drachms (same thing, different spelling), which is shown as ‘dr’ and a number. The Britannica encyclopaedia defines as this “An apothecaries’ dram contains 3 scruples (3.888 grams) of 20 grains each and is equal to one-eighth apothecaries’ ounce of 480 grains.” Clear as mud.

Other measures used are ordinary ounce (oz) and pound (lb). Liquid measures used are pints and gills (a gill is ¼ of a pint).

Methods are often patchy, at best, and don’t give the sort of precise instructions we are used to – no oven temperatures, for example. But remember that the Victorian housewife used a stove (in the US) or a kitchen grate (UK) where the fire was always on, winter and summer, to ensure they could cook. They were used to controlling recipes by the position they’d put things in the oven.

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Victorian kitchen grate, with oven to the right

The recipes often contain ingredients that are now controlled drugs (opiate derivatives such as laudanum, or poppy syrup) or poisonous (such as syrup of squills, or belladonna), which were all then readily available and bought over the counter. Dosage instructions are sometimes missing – if they aren’t mentioned with the recipe below, then they aren’t given. That alone must have made taking these remedies a bit of an adventure.

So our advice is, don’t try these at home!

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(i) From the Receipts (Recipe) book of Julia Robson Winter

Julia Robson Winter (1872-1962) was Starry Diadem‘s great-grandmother (Starry’s first name is Julia, after her), born in the Co. Durham area of the UK. Her ‘receipt book’ was started just after her marriage in 1894, and she and her daughter Caroline kept it going for decades. It was handed on to Starry when Caroline died in 1978.

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Choleria Drops

1 oz tincture of cayenne
1 oz tincture of rhubarb
3 dr laudanum
1 oz essence of peppermint
1 oz spirits of camphor
2 dr oil of pennyroyal

Dose: 1/2 teaspoon to 1 teaspoon in well-sweetened hot water.

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Cough medicines

Recipe One
2 dr laudanum
2 dr oil of aniseeds
2 dr syrup of squills
2 dr paregoric
1 dr oil of mint
2 ozs of Spanish (liquorice)
1 lb of treacle.

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Recipe Two
2 dr syrup of squills
2 dr syrup of poppies
2 dr Friar’s Balsam
2 dr paregoric

Shake well before taking 1 teaspoonful, 2 times a day.

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Recipe Three
1 dr peppermint
1 dr paregoric
1 dr spirits of nitre
1 dr ether
1 dr laudanum
1 dr aniseed

Put ½lb treacle into a jug, pour ½ pint of boiling water over it and let it stand until cold. Then shake ingredients well and add to treacle and water.

½ a wine glass-ful for an adult, a little less for a child.

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Recipe Four
½ oz of ipecuana wine (that is: ipecacuanha or ipecac)
¼ oz essence of ginger
4 oz syrup of squills

Add to 8 oz bottle and fill up with water.

Dose: 1 teaspoonful every 4 hours.

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There are actually several more recipes in the book, but you get the general idea.

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Diarrhoea

Recipe One
2 drams (drachms) each of:
– tincture of rhubarb
– laudanum
– essence of peppermint
– spirits of champher (camphor)
– cayenne tincture

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Recipe Two
2 dr peppermint
2 dr red pepper
2 dr camphor
2 dr rhubarb
4 dr opium or laudanum

Adults 12 to 18 drops on sugar (cube).

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Recipe Three
1 dr tincture of capsicum
1 dr oil of cassia
1 dr oil of aniseed

10 drops on sugar.

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Liver Complaint

1 oz best Turkey rhubarb
1 oz of B Carbon Potass
? syrup of sugar

Put into a jug and pour over 2½ pints Boiling water keep in the steam until cold, then add 1 oz of spirits of wine and 1/10th oz of (?) peppermint.

1 tablespoon-ful before breakfast every morning.

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Pneumonia

6 dr of laudanum
2 dr of hearts-horn oil (harts-horn)
1 dr of soap liniment
1 dr of belladonna liniment

Mix it and shake well together.

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Rheumatism

Recipe One
¼ lb Epsom Salts
20 grains Pot sulphate of iron (potassium?)
20 grains quinine
5 drops sulphuric acid

Dissolve in 1 pint hot water.

Dose: 1 wineglassful in the morning.

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Recipe Two
1 packet of Lions Blood herbs
1 packet of Lions Constipation herbs
½ oz of liquorice juice

Boil 1 pkt blood herbs and ¼ pkt constipation herbs for 20 minutes together, then add juice and two tablespoons of treacle.

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Rubbing Bottle

½ gill of turpentine
½ gill of white wine vinegar
whites of 2 eggs

Shake well together in a bottle and let stand for 24 hours, then use.

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Salves and Ointments

Recipe One
3 oz lard
1 dr beeswax
1 dr camphor
1 dr spermaceti
1 red precipitate powder

Grate wax, camphor and spermaceti and put into a jar, then add the other ingredients. Place in the oven top until it is melted, then stand the jar in a dish of cold water, stirring until it stiffens.

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Recipe Two
1 lb mutton suet
¼ lb lard
2 oz olive oil
2 oz beeswax
2 oz burgundy pitch (?)

Cut suet up into small pieces and render down over a slow fire, then strain it into the other ingredients which must have been previously melted. Simmer the whole for about ¼ of an hour, then pour into a suitable receptacle to cool.

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Recipe Three
get 2½ oz resin
1 oz yellow wax
4 oz lard

Melt them together over a slow fire, strain the mixture through muslin and stir constantly until cold. This is good for scalds or burns.

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Recipe Four
1 oz beeswax
1 oz white pitch
1 oz white resin
2 oz frankincense
2 oz Venice turpentine
½ mutton suet

Render suet in the oven. Bruise beeswax, white pitch, white resin and frankincense. Add suet after it has been strained, and let stand in the oven until is is all properly dissolved, then add the Venice turpentine. Set it to cool.

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Sprains

Recipe
½ pint of best vinegar
½ oz camphor
½ oz spirits of wine
1 oz best turpentine
1 new laid egg

Break up camphor and put in with spirit of wine in a bottle. Beat up egg into the vinegar and when the camphor is melted, add the egg and vinegar to the spirit of wine. Then add turpentine, and shake it all up so it gets thoroughly mixed. Rub this mixture on sprained joint. It should be kept in a well-corked bottle. It is also good for rheumatism.

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(ii) From the recipe book of Zelma Irene (Heaney) Larson

Zelma was Buckskin‘s maternal grandmother, whose handwritten recipe book has been printed out for her descendants to treasure.

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Mustard Plaster

To help with congestion or croup:

3 beaten eggs
Add 3 heaping tablespoons flour
1 heaping teaspoon mustard powder
Mix well
Add 1 teaspoon turpentine and 1 tablespoon melted lard

Beat all together and spread on a cloth. Place cloth, mixture side down on chest. Leave on all night. It will not blister skin.
Makes three applications for a child

For boils and ulcers

Place a piece of bread (white bread) over the affected area. Drip HOT milk (whole milk) on to bread until saturated and let sit for 10 or so minutes. Will draw poison to a head to be drained.

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Do you have old family remedy recipes like this that you’d like to pass along? Post them into the comments here (or email them to starrydiadem@gmail.com) along with the name of your ancestress who is credited with the recipe, and we’ll add them to the Home Remedies page in the Resources section.

13 thoughts on “Mid-Month Memo 01: Home Remedies

  1. This is all so fascinating!! And wouldn’t I love to have that beautiful Victorian kitchen grate in my home. Thanks for sharing this information,

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    1. My great-granny, whose recipes I used for this, had a range exactly like this when I was a child. I can remember her and her daughter, my great-aunt, heating the irons in the fire on laundry day, using the hobs for boiling a kettle and they used the oven for normal cooking until I was about seven or eight, when they finally had the range removed and installed a modern kitchen in the room. I missed that range! Although I can’t say I’d miss having to polish the brass fender every week!

      Anna

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  2. Thank you for this sort of information. I must also thank you your spirit and Lancer lover and how you keep alive our beloved Western. Thanks Sandy

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  3. Drugs were obviously easy to acquire and frankincense! I had an Aunt who lived in a lovely old house in South Wales and I remember the original kitchen range in her kitchen. My own Mum grew a plant she called knit bone which was boiled up and used on sprains and strains.

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    1. They’d just pop down to the local chemist and buy this stuff over the counter. I believe if they bought arsenic for treating bedbugs, they had to sign the poison register, but almost everything else was freely available.

      My great-gran, whose recipes these were, had just such a range, that I can remember her using – it was taken out when I was about 7 or 8

      Do you have your mum’s recipes for knit bone and how it was used? I’d love to add stuff like that in, although of course it may not be a plant available to our US friends.

      Anna

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  4. This truly is fascinating reading! Thanks to all for sharing. It inspires the imagination and brings back a memory. Eons ago, when I was little and suffering from chest congestion, my mother used a remedy she said her grandmother used (so this would have dated to the mid-1800s). She found cotton batting, covered my chest with it, and poured camphor on it. I was to sleep on my back all night, and in the morning, if the congestion was gone, she’d remove it. That meant, of course, that it had worked! If it hadn’t worked, new camphor was applied and I was to keep still for another eight hours. Unadulterated olfactory torture, but here I am after all these years, so it must have worked! Although “modern medicine” was available, I lived in a very rural community in Wisconsin and invariably got sick when Doc Mueller was away on his annual vacation. More than likely, this, as well as the other remedies listed, worked due to basic scientific principles. Fascinating!

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    1. It sounds like a variant on the mustard plaster, with the same idea, I suspect, that the pungent qualities would open up the airways and help clear the mucuses that were causing you problems. Many of these old remedies were developed from (literally!) centuries of observation of illness and that sturdy ‘make do, can do’ attitude of self-reliance and pragmatism that was the hallmark of our ancestors – after all, they often had no other recourse!

      Anna

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