The Ladies Medicine Chest

The children are home from school, and everything is crazy in my household.  Because my blog has the lowest priority, the poor thing hasn’t been updated in weeks. So, I asked my friend Nancy Mayer if I could excerpt pages from her Regency Researcher website and she graciously agreed. 

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.

Susanna’s Note: See images of a physician’s medicine chest

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.

German portable medicine cabinet

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.

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.

Original medicine chest (portable medicine cabinet, traveling cabinet) at Tranby House, Australia

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.

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.

>>This post is continued at the Regency Researcher website 

6 Replies to “The Ladies Medicine Chest”

  1. Hi! I’m an italian illustrator trying to create a graphic novel based upon Jane Austen’s novel “Northanger Abbey”. I found your useful blog! Thanks for sharing these pictures and informations! 🙂
    I love english historical literature and I’m a happy mother as you! I have four little children.
    I wish you all the best
    Gaia from Italy

  2. @Gaia.The art on your website is fantastic. I love the Northhanger Abbey image! Please let me know when you finish the graphic novel. I would love to read it!

  3. Thank you very much, Susanna! This work will take me very long time, and I hope to see the end! 😀
    I saw “Rakes and Radishes” on amazon and I’m going to put it in my wishlist for the next Christmas! I’m really curious about it!

  4. @Gaia. No worries. If you want a copy of rakes and radishes, just email me. I’ll send it. Please post samples of your Jane Austen work on your blog as you create it.

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