Medicine chest or kitchen cabinet?

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Medicine chest or kitchen cabinet?

Over the past weeks, some nasty and exotic substances from nineteenth-century medicine chests have been presented. Today however, I am going to focus on some substances that are commonly found in nineteenth-century medicine chests, but that are also still in most kitchens today.

“Spirit of Hartshorn” for example, sounds very mysterious, but is in fact nothing more than an ammonia solution. The Romans called the ammonium chloride deposits they collected in ancient Libya ‘sal ammoniacus’ (salt of Amun) because of proximity to the nearby temple of Amun or Ammon. Before the mid-nineteenth century, this compound of nitrogen and hydrogen (NH3) was usually made from horn shavings, hence the name ‘spirit of hartshorn.’ We now keep its chemically manufactured equivalent in our cleaning cupboards. In medicine chests the substance can be found under various names, such as Liq. Ammon Fort., and it was used to treat stings and insect bites, as it reduces pain an irritation of the skin.

You’d be surprised what you can do with spices…

Other substances that are very common in nineteenth-century medicine chests are all kinds of spices and plant extracts, such as ground ginger, rhubarb powder, and clove oil. Most of these were introduced in Europe in the sixteenth century, when explorers and traders brought them back from newly discovered regions. Rhubarb however was indigenous, although in the nineteenth century medical handbooks sometimes distinguished between various geographical origins, i.e. Turkish and European rhubarb. Savory, a chemist, stated that rhubarb was “…an excellent remedy in case of flatulent affection of the bowels attended with griping pains, and in diarrhoea free from inflammation; but it should not be indiscriminately administered in every case of pain in the bowels, on account of the stimulating nature of the spirit with which it is prepared.” [1]

Ginger, either dried and powdered or in the form of an essence, was advised in all kinds of ailments, but particularly in cholic and gout. It was thought to be warming, and with a more lasting effect than other spices.[2] Rhubarb and ginger were also often combined, most famously in Gregory’s Powder. This mixture of rhubarb, ginger and magnesium carbonate was one of the most common self-prescription medicines for over a hundred and fifty years after it had been developed by James Gregory (1752-1821), a professor of physic in Edinburgh.[3]

In the Dublin Literary Gazette in 1830, we find an advertisement for  “DR. GREGORY’S STOMACHIC POWDER of Rhubarb, Ginger, and Calcined Magnesia, for Indigestion, Flatulence, Acidity, &e.”

Clove oil may not be in your spice rack, but cloves, whole or powdered, probably are – and even today sucking on a clove may alleviate a toothache, albeit temporarily. Clove oil can also still be purchased in pharmacies without a prescription. This is because the active ingredient, eugenol, is a natural analgaesic and antiseptic. For that reason, clove oil is found in so many medicine chests from the nineteenth century, especially in chests that were assembled for travellers. They could easily find themselves many days away from a dentist, and then clove oil was their first resort. All this shows that while many nineteenth-century drugs were ineffective or even harmful, some were innocent and even quite useful.


[1] Savory, A companion to the medicine chest, 1836, p. 92

[2] Bond’s Companion to the Medicine Chest, ca. 1862 p. 25

[3] http://www.chem.ed.ac.uk/about/professors/gregory.html

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