Musing on Illness in the Victorian Era

At the beginning, when I first started this blog, I intended that it would be a place where I would be able to expound on the Victorian era and the world I was creating in my historical mysteries. Instead, for the first year it became primarily a place to describe my journey through self-publishing.  As I began to get back into the historical research necessary for writing the sequel to Maids of Misfortune, I find my desire to write about the past growing. I have addressed this desire primarily through the creation of an facebook author page, where I frequently post tidbits about late nineteenth century San Francisco, along with links to people, places, and events that can be found in my fiction. From time to time I write a longer piece, and I have decided to post these pieces on this site as well. I hope that those of you who subscribe to the blog will enjoy them, even if they don’t address my work as an indie author.

This is today’s post:

Well, I came home from my visit to my Dad with a head cold. I have discovered I don’t write very well when my head is stuffy. But it made me think about what it was like to be a worker in 19th century when no one had paid sick days, in fact, if you didn’t come to work, you might get fired. One diary by a servant that I read when working on my dissertation revealed that once when she got ill, and her mistress didn’t let her cut back on her duties, she eventually had to quit her job because it was the only way to get the needed rest and get better.

Doctors were too expensive to turn to for ordinary illnesses, there was no health insurance, and antibiotics didn’t exist yet to help with infections. Most people turned to home remedies to combat the symptoms of the common cold.

In Burrough’s “Encyclopedia of Astounding Facts and Useful Information” published in 1889, I learned that to cure a cold I should “Take three cents’ worth of liquorice, three of rock candy, three of gum arabic, and put them into a quart of water; simmer them til thoroughly dissolved, then add three cents’ worth paregoric, and a like quantity of antimonial wine.”

I do remember begin given paregoric when I was a child in the 1950s, and when I looked it up just now, discovered that until 1970, in 27 states (including Pennsylvania where I lived) paregoric was available without a prescription. I was rather shocked to discover that paregoric’s main active ingredient was powdered opium!

This put the recipe for cough mixture I found in Burrough’s Encyclopedia in perspective. “Two ounces ammonia mixture; five ounces camphor mixture; one drachm tincture of digitalis (foxglove); one-half once each of sweet spirits of nitre and syrup of poppies; two drachms solution of sulphate of morphia.” (By the way a drachm was 1/8 fluid ounce.) It was recommended that you take a tablespoon of this mixture 4 times a day.

An alternative to this recipe (which I would imagine would not only be expensive, but also make it unsafe to work with factory machinery or over a hot stove) was to “Roast a large lemon very carefully without burning; when it is thoroughly hot, cut and squeeze into a cup upon three ounces of sugar candy, finely powdered; take a spoonful whenever your cough troubles you. It is as good as it is pleasant.” It sounds a lot like the lemon flavored Halls cough drops I have been sucking on this week!

I also learned that In the 1890s Echinacea, which had been used by Native Americans, became a popular ingredient in patent medicines, and was supposed to cure a whole list if ailments, including colds. Interestingly, my accupuncturist has me sucking on “Tasty Echinacea” tablets as well (laced with zinc), and it does seem to help.

Ok, I have now gotten completely grossed out, right under the cough medicine recipe, is a recipe to cure deafness that consists of mixing ant eggs with something called union juice, and putting it in your ear.

So what I have I learned? Well, first, since we still have not found the cure for the common cold, I suppose it isn’t surprising that some of the same remedies are being used. Second, if I was a domestic servant or factory worker who worked the kind of long days doing hard physical labor they did in the 19th century, I would probably be willing to pay good money for a cough medicine with a drachm of morphia in it to help me sleep at night.

Time to go and drink some ginger tea and take a nap.

3 Replies to “Musing on Illness in the Victorian Era”

  1. Ant eggs!? What if they hatched? Then you’d have ant larvae in your ears! And paregoric? Still widely prescribed for teething babies in the late sixties. Bitter, horrible taste, but effective. So many of the good old opiates are, alas, gone. 😉

    Interesting post!

  2. Home remedies still work. I research each symptom in Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, and other more modern herbal books and treat most symptoms without needing a Doctor just like way back when.

    However, I do race to my Doctor if I can’t diagnose a problem. Thankfully, he is happy to list different herbs that have the properties required to solve or ease the illness.

  3. So many great herbal remedies still apply. I find anything with lemon in it is great for a stuffy nose.

    Thanks for the post, Louisa. I love historical tid-bits like this. It’s like journeying into another world without the uncomfortable corsets.

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