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The Ladies Medicine Chest
Naval Medicine in 1812 pages 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7

The Ladies Medicine Chest

What would Jane Austen's family have had in their medicine chest? What would they do when traveling?

Savory & Moore of Bond Street, London , made many mahogany medicine chests for people of the TON, outfitting them with silver topped bottles. Some of the other contents might be a mortar and pestle for grinding various roots and seeds, a scale and weights for weighing ingredients, a piece of marble on which to mix a salve, a set of measures, a dosage spoon, and a plaster iron.

Several medicines and medical procedures are mentioned in the novels of Georgette Heyer, and others, which are unfamiliar to modern day writers. Miss Heyer mentions only those medicines and medical practices that she could discover, from diarists, letter writers, and physicians of the day as actually having been used.


Most of these, except for bloodletting and the tincture of laudanum, were draughts, gruels, and medications that a woman could brew up herself in a still room. Though the richer ladies left more and more of such tasks to apothecaries and doctors, many still prided themselves on being able to provide such remedies from the domestic medicine chest. In many ways, the women who knew the old secrets of the still room were better able to protect their families than those who sought out the most popular and prestigious doctor of the day. Culpepper's herbal compendium couldn't have killed as many people as the doctors and their nostrums did.

Those unfortunate enough to need a remedy when away from home and their own supply, had to depend on others to provide it unless they had their medicine chest with them.

A housewife could whip up a bottles of saline draughts, barley-water, lemonade, jars of calves' foot or pork jelly, as well as blisters and plasters. The apothecary or doctor provided the laudanum, the mercury and the calomel.

Medical Botany (google book)

Medical Botany, Or, Illustrations and Descriptions of the Medicinal Plants of the London, Edinburgh, and Dublin Pharmacopœias (google book)

Blackwell's Herbal


For centuries the most popular pain-reliever was a tincture of opium in alcohol. Laudanum was prescribed for all classes of diseases and was regularly used for sleeping draughts.

Laudanum, according to Dr. Thomas Sydenham's formula, consisted of: 2 oz strained opium, 1 oz saffron, 1 dram cinnamon and cloves dissolved in a pint of canary wine.

Though the addictive quality of opium was known, it was the major ingredient in most of the medicines of the day, even that given to teething children. Both de Quincy and S.T. Coleridge were addicted to opium. Despite de Quincy's well known confession and description of his addiction, opium continued to be used. Doctors and apothecaries did, however, start issuing warnings about not taking more than the prescribed dose.

Mercury, even then known to be poisonous, was used as an ingredient in calomel- a laxative mixture- and as a treatment for venereal diseases.

A saline draught, made from a distillation of the bark of the willow tree boiled in white wine, gave patients salicylate, a main ingredient of aspirin.

Bark (Peruvian or Jesuit's ) which contained quinine was also used for fevers and in many other medicines.

Recipe for a Mouthwash
6 oz. tincture of Peruvian bark mixed with
1/2 oz. sal ammoniac. Shake well.

Rub on teeth and gums. Rinse mouth well. This will treat and prevent tooth-ache.

The diet of a sick / injured person is likely to include servings of barley-water and/or barley gruel.

Barley Water
2 qts. water
1/4 lb. pearl barley

Boil together. Strain. Boil half the liquid away. Add 2 spoons of white wine and sweeten to taste.

However, it is likely that the barley-water recommended by the doctor in Fredericka for Felix was made from a second receipt which does not include any wine.

Barley Water 2

Wash and cleanse 2 oz. of whole barley in hot water, then boil in 5 pints water and 1/4 oz of cream of tartar until barley opens. Strain and cool.

Barley Water 3 or Barley Gruel

Boil 1/4 lb. pearl barley with stick cinnamon in 2 quarts of water until the water is reduced to half. Strain. Add 1 pint red wine and sweeteners.

Beef Tea

Pour a half-pint boiling water over a half pound lean juicy beef sliced into thin pieces. Cool and drink with a little salt.

Pig's foot and calves' foot jelly is mentioned in various books.

Animal Jelly

Shin or knuckle of meat, except when a whole chicken was used. Stew the bone or chicken in a pint and a half water or one pint per pound until the juices are drawn from the meat, but no longer. Add a little salt. Skim when cool. The jelly should be warmed a little at the time in a cup set in boiling water.

Calf's foot jelly 1

Stew calf's foot or other animal feet in three quarts of water until the jelly is drawn out. Skim when cool, clear off sediment from the bottom. It may be mixed with egg whites and used in jelly bag. Add orange juice, lemon juice, or wine and sugar.

Calf's feet jelly 2

Cut the calves' feet into pieces and cook in a gallon of water until half the water is gone . Put the liquid through a sieve and cool. Take off fat top and bottom and melt the jelly middle. Add a pint Rhenish wine, the juice of four or five lemons, sugar, whites of eight eggs, beaten. Stir and boil for thirty minutes. Strain through jelly bag with rosemary and lemon peel. Work until clear.

This second recipe makes a food more suited for a dessert than a sickroom concoction.

The New Female Instructor strongly advises against the addition of wine when the jelly is to be used for an ill person. Lemonade was often given to an ill-person along with barley water and tea.


2 Seville oranges and six lemons pared thinly. Steep the parings for four hours in two quarts water. Add the juice of six oranges and twelve lemons with 3/4 lb. fine sugar. A little orange water may be added. Strain through a bag into bottles until needed.

A plaster was put on a wound or a broken bone. A blister was used to draw the bad essence to the surface of the body. A sticking plaster could be wrapped around some part of the body to support a broken bone.

A diachylon or common plaster

Boiling six pints of olive oil with two and a half pounds of lead monoxide (litharge) together with half a gallon water over a low, gentle fire while stirring continuously. Keep the water at the half gallon level by adding more as necessary. After three hours check to see if the plaster is of the proper consistency to be applied to wounds and skin abrasions.

In The Antiques of the Pharmacy, Leslie Matthew describes plasters as being "spread on leather, linen, or paper." (p.45) Once the prescribed concoction was heated to the desired temperature and cooked to the required consistency, it was taken from the fire and spread on to the leather or cloth with the plaster iron. The plaster iron looked somewhat like a corn dog on the end of a barbecue fork.

The main use of the plaster is as a basis for other plasters. A sticking plaster was made by melting 3 oz of diachylon or common plaster with 1/2 oz rosin and spreading the mixture on a clean piece of soft, smooth linen.

A blister could include any harsh substance but mustard was one of the most frequently used.

A blister plaster could be made by mixing turpentine, yellow wax, Spanish flies and powdered mustard. The turpentine is added to the slightly cooled melted wax. After they are blended together the powdered flies and mustard are sprinkled in and the mixture is stirred until it is cold. This is usually placed on chest or back of a sufferer.

Some recipes for medicines include vitriolic acid. According to a modern dictionary vitriolic acid is sulfuric acid with a secondary meaning of any metal sulfate. It is caustic.

Typical recipes for Vitriolic Acid:

1.Boil an ounce of powdered Peruvian bark in a pint and a half water. Boil until water is reduced to one pint and add one tea-spoon of diluted acid of vitriol.

2. Boil 2 oz of bark in a covered pot with one and a half pints of water, some cinnamon, and orange peel for twenty minutes, cool, strain, and put in phials. Dose: 4 tablespoons three times a day.

Another recipe for a tincture of bark in which Peruvian bark was soaked in brandy with cinnamon and orange peel for five days suggests that the resulting liquid be strained and used as medicine with the addition of a few drops of vitriolic acid.

The Ladies Medicine Chest
Naval Medicine in 1812 pages 1 | 2 | 3


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